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Will Francoeur’s Approach Work for Kelly Johnson?

It was shaping up as a disappointing season for Kelly Johnson in 2008 until a strong September. After three straight months of hitting .250 or less, Johnson posted a 22-game hitting streak in the season’s final month, which led to a .398/.429/.643 line over his final 106 plate appearances. That final surge rescued his overall numbers and his fantasy season and he finished as a top 10 second baseman.

But should a .450 BABIP in September cloud our judgment on what happened the other five months of the season?

The biggest thing about Johnson’s year was the collapse of his walk rate. Seemingly taking a page out of Jeff Francoeur’s book, Johnson swung at 7.6 percent more pitches in 2008 than the previous year and most of those were pitches outside the zone. His O-Swing % jumped from 18.4 percent to 25.6 percent. And that led to his BB% dropping from 13.2 to 8.7 percent.

So, even though Johnson added 11 points to his batting average, his on-base percentage fell 26 points – no easy task. His ISO also dropped 21 points. Interestingly, he saw his K% actually fall despite swinging at more bad pitches. But if we look at Francoeur, we notice the same pattern unfolding during his career in Atlanta.

Also like Francouer, Johnson has seen his HR/FB rates fall. The more aggressive Johnson posted a 7.6 HR/FB% in 2008, a rate which matched his IFFB%.

The saving grace for Johnson was his LD%. He finished tied for fifth in the majors with a 24.7 percent line drive rate. Not surprisingly, that helped Johnson to a .344 BABIP, the 16th-best mark in the majors.

Both Bill James and Marcel predict a rebound year for Johnson in 2009. Both projection systems see him getting his BB% back into double digits with subsequent increases in both his OBP and SLG.

There is certainly reason for optimism surrounding Johnson coming into 2009. The hot September and the season-long line drive rates are two positive markers. But the combination of the falling walk rate combined with the uptick in swinging at pitches outside the zone is just too much to ignore.

There was a big drop-off in production from second basemen after Johnson and Placido Polanco, who each returned over $11 in 2008. After those two the next most valuable at the position was Kaz Matsui, at a little over $5. Given the uncertainty over Johnson’s performance – do you really want to count on another month with a .450 BABIP? – bidding a double-digit salary seems a very risky move.