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Micah Johnson: Wheels…and What Else?

Entering the 2013 season, it was seemingly a foregone conclusion that Billy Hamilton would lead the minors in steals for a third straight season, assuming he was healthy and was not promoted to the big leagues. After all, Hamilton swiped 27 more bags than any other minor leaguer in 2011 and 64 (!) more than the second-place finisher (Delino Deshields Jr., who himself had 101) last year.

Hamilton has indeed stayed healthy and played the entire year in the minors, but his stolen base throne has surprisingly been usurped; his still-whopping 42 steals in 67 games ranks third in the minors (fourth if you count the Mexican League), a full dozen behind White Sox second base prospect Micah Johnson, who has blazed his way to 54 thefts in 66 contests.

Anybody who produces that sort of stolen base volume will pique the interest of deep keeper fantasy owners, especially when the player in question is a middle infielder with a robust .339/.422/.525 triple-slash. But how much of Johnson’s production is true substance?

I have seen Johnson and the Low-A Kannapolis team extensively this season–15 times in total–and thus, I have seen the full gamut of his abilities and his weaknesses.

Let’s start with Johnson’s most obvious ability–his speed. As you might expect from somebody with such robust steal totals, Johnson is not lacking in this department. Here, he gets down the line in a whopping 3.6 seconds on a bunt:

And here’s another one at 3.7 seconds, where you can get a better sense of how he flies:

Johnson regularly clocks in at 3.95-4.05 seconds to first on non-bunts, which is still excellent, even if it isn’t quite Hamiltonian. At 22 and with a fairly compact, medium frame, he doesn’t project to add a lot of weight and slow down much, and he should retain well-above-average speed for the next decade-plus. He will need to work on picking his spots as he moves up, as he has been caught sixteen times (giving him a good-not-great 75% success rate), and occasionally makes reckless outs on the bases–last weekend against Rome, he was thrown out after rounding first too far, was caught stealing home, and was picked off at first, all in a two-game stretch. As he advances and faces pitchers, catchers and outfielders with more arm strength, savvy, and instincts, he’ll need to reduce his risktaking in order to optimize the actual run production his speed can create.

The question that dogged Hamilton throughout his low-minors career is one that most are still asking about Johnson: What else can he do?

Of course, a .339/.422/.525 line answers that question a bit more satisfactorily than Hamilton’s .278/.340/.360 mark in Low-A in 2011 did. However, Hamilton was just 20 back then, whereas Johnson is 22–in fact, he’s just three months younger than Hamilton despite being three levels below him. It’s great that he’s succeeding in his first full year in pro ball, but being a college draftee, his success is less a major breakout than a mere fulfillment of reasonably high expectations.

That said, it’s not as if Johnson is without some ability at the plate. Watch him jump on a Patrick Scoggin first-pitch fastball for a fairly long home run:

CMC-Northeast Stadium is very pitcher-friendly, and that area in particular takes significant pop to reach. Actually, the park’s tough environment makes one appreciate Johnson’s impressive stats even more–indeed, he’s hitting a truly dominant .359/.447/.586 on the road. There’s little doubt he’s ready for High-A (where he’ll move to Winston-Salem, the most hitter-friendly non-California League park at the level).

While Johnson does have the ability to drive the ball, it doesn’t manifest itself all that often–he usually adopts a slashing swing aimed at ripping the ball back up the middle or lining it toward the gaps, and he uses his speed to take extra bases and inflate his power numbers. To that end, he has already racked up nine triples this year. His emphasis on the small-ball approach works well, as he doesn’t overswing and abandon his greatest strength.

As evidenced by his walk (11.7%) and strikeout (19.1%) rates, Johnson has a solid approach at the plate, though not an exceptional one. He keeps his hitting zone fairly small and doesn’t chase a lot of balls, though he does have a tendency to pull off of pitches, especially those on the outer half of the plate. He also will get caught looking at third strikes–his 22 looking strikeouts tie him for fifth in the SAL–and the ability to better avoid strikeouts will obviously assist Johnson in his quest to provide significant offense to a major league lineup down the line.

More problematic is Johnson’s defense. He’s made seventeen errors already this year and is fielding .942, which is unacceptable for a second baseman even in the lower minors. The error total is easily the highest among SAL second sackers, and the fielding percentage is tied for the lowest among the league’s regulars at the position. Part of the blame can be assigned to an infield that produces absurdly bad hops on a routine basis, but nine of the seventeen miscues have come in road contests. Johnson doesn’t show a great feel for the position, particularly in terms of his reads and positioning. He gets caught on his heels too often and lets the ball play him, and he needs a lot of work with turning double plays.

That said, Johnson will occasionally make some highlight-reel plays. His speed gives him excellent range on the occasions he does get a good read on the ball, and he also has an impressive vertical leap that allows him to make some showstopping catches of liners that seem destined to go over his head. He has enough arm strength to make plays up the middle, though it’s likely not enough for the left side of the infield (where his weaknesses would likely further be exposed anyway).

So what does that leave us with? Johnson isn’t a mere one-tool, one-trick pony destined to fall into Esix Snead-dom, but he doesn’t have a non-speed ability that really stands out as well above average, either. Further, there is significant rawness to his game, especially on defense. Overall, Johnson’s skillset evokes that of Jemile Weeks–a ton of speed, enough power to keep pitchers honest, a reasonably sound approach, and frustrating second base defense that alternates highlights with headscratchers. Johnson’s great closing speed may end up suiting him better in center field than second, but the middle pasture is the White Sox organization’s deepest position, with Trayce Thompson, Keenyn Walker, and Courtney Hawkins all occupying the spot at higher levels, and Johnson’s mediocre punch likely wouldn’t be all that interesting in a corner outfield spot.

As with Weeks, Johnson will go as far as his approach and BABIP take him, and a lot will hinge on how well both facets translate to the upper minors. He currently sports a .413 BABIP that a) continues to emphasize how great his speed is and b) will most certainly take a significant drop at some point–almost nobody has a true talent BABIP over about .340 in the majors (consider Ichiro, long thought to be a master of the BABIP craft, who boasts a career .346 mark).

While Johnson’s stolen base totals and flashes of potential in other areas make him worthy of following in keeper leagues, he probably merits a watch more than an add in all but the most expansive of fantasy formats. Expect continued excellence in the hitter’s haven in Winston-Salem whenever he makes it to that squad; it will be Double-A Birmingham that will begin to solidify the direction Johnson’s career will take. In a best-case scenario, he could be one of baseball’s most prolific speedsters while also hitting something like .285/.345/.400. However, it’s also possible that his rawness gets exposed in the upper minors, causing his strikeouts, walks, and ability to make hard contact to move in the wrong direction. Unlike a lot of speed demons, Johnson is going to have to hit well in order to stay in a major league lineup, because his defense is not likely to be at or above average; an offensive stalling would be far more decimating to his playing time than that of a Nick Punto type.

Being just a ninth-round pick last year, Johnson probably is still underrated, but his skillset is such that he can easily slide into overrated territory (and back) quite quickly. While it may still be premature to push him toward the front of prospect lists in either the real or fantasy realm, he could be somebody that everyone’s talking about a year from now if he makes some adjustments and handles the transition to Double-A with aplomb (as with Hamilton last year). Given the upside he has in the stolen base department, anyone playing in a format that values steals highly should keep an eye on Johnson so they can be the first to strike in the event such a breakout happens.