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Photo Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

I Can’t Believe I’m Saying This But Kelly Johnson Isn’t the Worst Idea I’ve Ever Heard

Cam noted this in his Game Threat on Sunday, but I think it’s worth our time to revisit the fact that, over the weekend, Ken Rosenthal tweeted that the Jays are among the teams who have checked in on Kelly Johnson.

Yes, that Kelly Johnson.

Anybody can check in on anybody and not have it mean a whole lot, so let’s not go too nuts about that. Let’s not go too nuts about the fact that it’s Kelly fucking Johnson either. There’s actually some reason why he could make sense here! Plus the fact that they’d even be looking at a player like him could be rather telling.

If Johnson could hit he’d be something like a lefty version of Steve Pearce. And why might the Jays be interested in another Steve Pearce? Am I totally wishcasting, or is it, perhaps, because Pearce’s versatility stands to be muted considerably by the fact that he’s probably going to have to play whole lot of first base this season?

Hey, and Johnson is a lefty bat, which means that he could potentially platoon with Melvin Upton in left field, even. Or if he was willing to take a minor league deal, he could, at the very least, be a nice, versatile contingency plan in the event that something might happen to ol’ Zeke Carrera, such as — and I’m just totally spitballin’ here — ol’ Zeke Carrera going 0-for-April-May-and-June and having to be exposed to waivers to be sent to Buffalo because he’s out of options. (Ryan Goins is out of options too, and if that layer of depth gets cast off as well somehow, the soothing beige tones of Kelly Johnson might get us through a few rough patches… I don’t fucking know.)

As much as a certain type of fan probably wants to cast Kelly Johnson as an abject failure of an idea coming out of a front office bereft of anything better, it suggests to me that they might just be smart enough to know they need to build in some more contingencies in the places where it’s most obvious they’re likely to see failure. That shouldn’t bother anybody. Especially since we’re talking about a guy who might get desperate enough to take a minor league contract — and a front office that obviously doesn’t like him enough to offer him anything more than that.

Can I fault a fan who remembers Johnson’s dog shit days in Toronto for wanting absolutely fucking nothing to do with this guy? I can’t! But if we look a little closer at what he’s done recently, the answer to that very first and most important caveat of mine — if Johnson could hit — gets maybe a little fuzzier.

Johnson isn’t a prototypical platoon player by any stretch. He doesn’t have the very noticeable reverse splits of Carrera, but his splits have often been pretty even. He’s not a righty-mashing lefty bat, he’s a middling lefty bat who strikes out too much but has enough pop and has done well enough against same-sided pitching to have carved out a career just a notch above “utility player.”

And last year, a funny thing happened on the way to Kelly Johnson being useless and not worth talking about. After years of striking out at an above-average rate for a big leaguer (and from 2011 onward, never at a rate lower than 23.9%), Johnson suddenly showed some better discipline. He struck out in 19.5% of his plate appearances in 2016 — which isn’t so bad once you realize that the league average was 21.1%. Perhaps more intriguing still, he changed his approach somewhat. His FanGraphs player profile explains:

After witnessing first hand how Daniel Murphy transformed into a power hitter, Kelly Johnson asked “why not me?” This became all the more easier when, for the second time in two seasons, he was traded from the Braves to the Mets and could continue playing under the tutelage of Kevin Long, a hitting coach that specializes in teaching left-handed batters to pull for power. Johnson posted 23.4% and 18.4% home run-to-fly ball rates for the Mets in 2015 and 2016 respectively. While neither of these figures are career highs, they represent significant jumps in performance relative to his time with other teams in recent years – and he has spent a lot of time with other teams, having played for six organizations in the past four years.

With the Mets last season, in 200 plate appearances, Johnson slashed .268/.328/.459, which was good for a 112 wRC+, and FanGraphs pegged him for 1.3 WAR. Over his last two seasons and 578 PA against right-handers, Johnson’s wRC+ is 98. In other words: certainly not great, but certainly better than what anyone should be expecting from either Carrera or Upton against right-handers. Shit, Johnson’s platoon splits are such that maybe he could even be a contingency for Upton being completely useless, and could steal away some plate appearances against left-handers.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Kelly Johnson is not a pana-fucking-cea for the Jays’ left field mess. But it’s interesting. His exit velocities, on the whole, took a noticeable jump about a month after joining the Mets in 2015, and they didn’t go back down in 2016.

I’m not going to say that I believe in Kelly Johnson or anything, but a change in approach coupled with a change in results is a much more positive sign than one without the other. Tony Blengino’s quality of contact work at FanGraphs, which I’ve leaned on a whole bunch this winter, even gives Johnson a five point bump in wRC+ (though he’s still thoroughly mediocre, and only goes from 87 to 92 on the season — because yes, his overall mark was just 87, as, despite the nice 200 plate appearances for the Mets, he put up a fugly 49 during his time with Atlanta).

All of which is to say: this isn’t even entirely crazy. But mostly just because the other options are so bloody grim and we’re only talking about a minor league contract. More than that and I’d be concerned for the sanity of the people in the front office. But as a guy who, at worst, could be stashed in Buffalo? Damn right they should have been checking in on that.