Kelly Johnson Turning In Career Year For Tampa Bay Rays

By Thom Tsang
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Of course Kelly Johnson is having a career revival with the Tampa Bay Rays — was that really ever in doubt?

After a career-worst 0.5 fWAR season with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2012, the second baseman went from looking at a potential multi-year payday as a free agent to a bargain basement target, eventually signing a make-good one-year, $2.45 million contract to play for Joe Maddon and co.

Make good he certainly has. Including a 2-for-5 performance on Tuesday that followed a two-homer, six-RBI breakout against the the Miami Marlins, Johnson is well on his way to putting up what might end up being his best season ever.

The 1.8 fWAR he’s accumulated thus far through just 44 games is already a three-year high, and if only he qualified, the 31-year-old would be leading the league’s second baseman in with a .931 OPS. Yes, it’s the end of May, and Kelly Johnson has a better triple-slash (.299/.360/.571) over 147 PA than Robinson Cano (.289/.347/.534) over 222 PA … and yes, this is real life.

If you happen to like pace numbers, you’ll like this: the Rays’ second baseman is on pace for a 35-homer, 116-RBI season that would also include 17 steals.

Should the pace hold (spoiler alert: chances are it won’t), not only would Johnson be an easy choice as an All-Star, but he’d more than likely end up the best second baseman in all of baseball in 2013 — that, folks, is how you go about earning a contract year payday … well, if the season were to have ended today, anyway.

Still, whatever magical fairy dust that the Rays sprinkle on their hitters to turn guys like James Loney and Luke Scott from unwanted pieces to legitimate threats, it’s all over Johnson these days.

He’s developed better strike zone discipline, swinging at outside pitches at just 22.1 percent (lowest in PITCHf/x era) compared to 31.3 percent in 2012. That’s led naturally to a dramatic improvement to his swinging strike rate (from 13.3 last season to 9.2), and he’s putting better contact on the ball at 78.7 percent, a three-year high.

In short, he’s hasn’t been the hacker that he was with the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Blue Jays thus far in 2013.

Now, the caveat: Johnson’s numbers have been boosted by a fantastic May (.358/.391/.716, seven HRs) that’s made it easy to overlook his rather inauspicious start to the season. Though he his improved his line drive rate from 10.9 percent in April to 17.2 in May, he is still being generously helped by a .386 BABIP.

That’s almost certainly going to come down and with it, the veteran’s better-than-Cano numbers as well.

But … if Johnson puts together even just a couple more months like this one, he’ll give the New York Yankees superstar a run for his money (literally) when it comes to free agency at the end of the season.

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