2014 Season Review: The Perfect Fit Who Didn’t Fit

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

On paper, signing Kelly Johnson to a one-year contract worth $3M last offseason made perfect sense for the Yankees. They had questions at both second and third bases, plus he’s a dead pull left-handed hitter who figured to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch. When Robinson Cano signed with the Mariners a week later and Alex Rodriguez was eventually suspended for the entire 2014 season, Johnson went from shrewd signing to essential piece.

Johnson, who turned 32 in Spring Training, hit an unsexy yet effective .235/.305/.410 (101 wRC+) with 16 homers and seven steals in 118 games for the Rays last year. He also saw time at the three non-shortstop infield positions as well as left field. That kind of production and versatility would be at an absolutely bargain at $3M. Given his 2012-13 spray chart …


Source: FanGraphs

… there was every reason to believe Johnson would hit a few cheap homers in the Bronx and see his offensive numbers tick up a bit. His struggles against left-handers were a concern but there were ways to minimize his exposure to southpaws. Add in the fact that he was very familiar with the AL East after spending part of 2011 and all of 2012 with the Blue Jays before joining the Rays 2013, and Johnson was a damn near perfect fit. The Yankees were wise to jump on him so relatively early in free agency.

Of course, as so many people are eager to point out, baseball is not played on paper or spreadsheets and things don’t always go according to plan. It would be really boring if they did. Despite his versatility and left-handed pull power, Johnson did not work out as planned for the Yankees. It took all of three games for him to lose the starting third base job — that had more to do with Yangervis Solarte‘s early-season performance than Johnson’s — and by midseason he had been relegated to full-time bench duty.

The first two weeks of the season actually went quite well for Johnson. He was able to stay in the lineup despite Solarte’s dominance because Mark Teixeira‘s injury created an opening at first base, and he went 10-for-35 (.286) with two doubles, a triple, and three home runs in the team’s first 12 games of the season. The three homers came in a five-game span against the Orioles and Red Sox. Johnson played as expected (better, really) for the first two weeks of the season. It was wonderful.

And then it all went south. Johnson went 3-for-26 (.115) in the team’s next 12 games and it took a set of back-to-back 2-for-4 games at the end of May to get his season batting line to .217/.286/.409 (93 wRC+) on June 1st. That’s not all that far off from his 2013 production, but he cooled off big time following the hot start and the move into Yankee Stadium hadn’t help his production as hoped. By the time June rolled around, Johnson was playing sparingly at first and third bases with the occasional start at DH.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

A strong two weeks in mid-July — 8-for-27 (.296) with a homer, four walks and zero strikeouts from July 6th through the 21st — wasn’t enough to save Johnson’s job with the Yankees, so, a few hours before the July 31st trade deadline, he was traded to the rival Red Sox for close friend Stephen Drew. Johnson finished his time in pinstripes with a .219/.304/.373 (91 wRC+) batting line and six homers in 77 games. That includes a .224/.300/.402 (94 wRC+) line with five homers at home and a .213/.308/.340 (86 wRC+) line with one homer on the road.

Johnson spent most of his time with the Yankees at first and third bases, though he see spot duty in both outfield corners and at second base. His defense on the infield corners was pretty terrible and that probably has a lot to do with inexperience. Coming into the season, Johnson had playing only 18 career innings at first base and 118 career innings at third base. All of them came with the Rays last season. The inexperience doesn’t absolve him of blame, he misplayed some balls any big leaguer should make, but it’s not something we can ignore either.

I do wonder if Johnson would have had more success with the Yankees if they had kept him at his natural second base position. That’s where he has spent most of his career and is presumably the most comfortable. Maybe keeping him there would have helped his offense somehow. These guys are only human. Learning a new-ish position is demanding and his game could have suffered elsewhere. This stuff happens all the time all around the league. Oh well. I’m just thinking out loud.

Johnson playing sparingly for the Red Sox (-12 wRC+ in ten games) before being shipped to the Orioles (111 wRC+ in 19 games) in a late-August waiver trade. Baltimore was looking for some extra third base depth following Manny Machado’s season-ending knee surgery. He did end up making their postseason roster but only got two at-bats in October. Johnson made a ton of sense for the Yankees coming into the season thanks to his versatility and left-handed pop, but it didn’t work out for several reasons and the team moved on at the trade deadline. That’s baseball.

Cafardo: Korean shortstop Jung-Ho Kang to be posted this offseason

According to Nick Cafardo, the Nexen Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization will make star shortstop Jung-Ho Kang available to MLB teams via the posting process this offseason. The posting agreement with KBO is different than the posting agreement with Nippon Pro Baseball in Japan. The posting system for Korean players is the same as the old posting system for Japanese players, meaning MLB teams will make blind bids for the right to negotiate with the player for 30 days.

Kang, 27, had a monster season this year, hitting .360/.463/.756 with 33 doubles, 38 homers, 62 walks, and 98 strikeouts in only 107 games. He’s had other very good years for the Heroes but nothing like this. Here are his stats since becoming a regular:

Year Age AgeDif Tm G PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2008 21 -7.2 Woori 116 408 36 98 18 1 8 47 3 1 31 65 .271 .334 .392 .726
2009 22 -6.3 Woori 133 538 73 136 33 2 23 81 3 2 45 81 .286 .349 .508 .857
2010 23 -5.0 Nexen 133 522 60 135 30 2 12 58 2 2 61 87 .301 .391 .457 .848
2011 24 -4.5 Nexen 123 504 53 125 22 2 9 63 4 6 43 62 .282 .353 .401 .754
2012 25 -3.4 Nexen 124 519 77 137 32 0 25 82 21 5 71 78 .314 .413 .560 .973
2013 26 -2.5 Nexen 126 532 67 131 21 1 22 96 15 8 68 109 .291 .387 .489 .876
2014 27 Nexen 107 458 98 137 33 2 38 107 3 3 62 98 .360 .463 .756 1.219
9 Seasons 892 3517 465 904 190 10 137 535 51 28 381 593 .298 .382 .503 .885
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/19/2014.

After a monster season like that, Kang’s value is unlikely to get any higher. I doubt he’ll improve on that performance at any point in the future. Kang is two years away from international free agency, so it makes sense for Nexen to post him now, when his value is at its absolutely highest. Otherwise they’ll loose him for nothing after the 2016 season or get stuck with a smaller posting fee next winter.

Cafardo says there is “some pushback from scouts who have seen (Kang) play on whether he translates to major league baseball,” mostly because of a very high leg kick that may leave him vulnerable against better than KBO pitching. Here’s more on Kang from one of my recent mailbags:

Kang is said to be a true shortstop with strong defense, and his best offensive tool is his big power from the right side. Supposedly he’s a dead fastball hitter who struggles against good breaking pitches, which would be a major concern if true. Remember, Kang is playing in Korea, where the level of competition is even lower than Japan.

I remember reading something a few years ago that pointed it almost all the successful position players to come over from Asia were outfielders because the game on the infield is simply too fast and too big of an adjustment. Akinori Iwamura is the most notable recent Asian import to make it work on the infield in MLB, and he was nothing more than a league average player for two and a half years. Others like Kaz Matsui and Tsuyoshi Nishioka flopped despite being high-profile pickups and stars in Japan. That doesn’t mean Kang will be a bust, but it’s something to keep in mind.

The only Korean-born position players in MLB history are Hee-Seop Choi and Shin-Soo Choo, both of whom signed as amateurs and came up through the minors like every other player. Kang will be the first position player to come over from KBO via the posting system and second star player overall, joining Dodgers southpaw Hyun-Jin Ryu. Los Angeles bid $25.7M for Ryu and signed him to a six-year deal worth $36M.

The Yankees need both a short and long-term shortstop after Derek Jeter‘s retirement, and with J.J. Hardy recently signing an extension with the Orioles, Stephen Drew is the only true shortstop set to hit free agency this offseason. Hanley Ramirez, Jed Lowrie, and Asdrubal Cabrera are all second or third basemen masquerading as shortstops. I’m not sure how many people are eager to see Drew back in pinstripes, even on a cheap one-year contract.

There have not yet been any reports saying the Yankees or any other team has interest in Kang, though it’s probably a little too early for that. I’m sure it’ll pick up after the World Series. I don’t know enough about Kang to say whether the Yankees should look into signing him. All I know is they need a shortstop and he’ll be available this offseason. This isn’t a Masahiro Tanaka situation though, where every report indicates he will be an impact player right away. Not even close, really.

Fan Confidence Poll: October 20th, 2014

2014 Record: 84-78 (633 RS, 664 RA, 77-85 pythag. record), didn’t qualify for postseason

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Bradford: Red Sox hire Yankees hitting coach candidate Chili Davis

Via Rob Bradford: The Red Sox are hiring Athletics hitting coach Chili Davis to be their new hitting coach. The Yankees interviewed Davis for the same role last week, so this takes him out of the running. New York also interviewed Rangers hitting coach Dave Magadan as well as some other unnamed candidates. They could name a new hitting coach as soon as Tuesday.

Weekend Open Thread

TGIF, am I right? This was a long and busy week for me. I’ll be glad to kick back for a few days this weekend. The Friday chats are coming back soon — probably not next week, but they’ll definitely be back soon. My schedule’s been pretty hectic of late. Here are some random links I have lying around for the weekend. Some of them are a few weeks old. I’m finally getting around to reading all this stuff I have bookmarked now that the season’s over.

  • Some stuff on Andrew Friedman leaving the Rays for the Dodgers: Chad Moriyama wrote about how Friedman moves the Rays forward and R.J. Anderson wondered where the Rays go from here.
  • Erik Malinowski profiled former commissioner Fay Vincent, who led MLB through the 1989 World Series earthquake. The piece is worth reading for the George Steinbrenner quotes alone. The Boss really was something else.
  • Jon Roegele re-examined the strike zone and found that yes, it continued to grow this past season. Down, specifically. There are more called strikes at (and below) the knees than ever before, and it’s dragging offense down.
  • Ben Lindbergh looked at the shift and situational hitting over the years. It turns out that hitters actually hit more balls in the direction of the shift when it’s on than when it’s not, which may result from some kind of psychological effect.
  • I really enjoyed David Laurila’s interview with C.J. Wilson. They discussed things like using the spin on the ball as deception, varying arm angles, and using PitchFX as a scouting tool. It’s pretty interesting.
  • And finally, check out Eno Sarris’ chat with John Jaso about dealing with concussions. Jaso took a foul tip to the face mask in August and been dealing with concussion symptoms since. He didn’t say anything to the team until he literally couldn’t see the ball from behind the plate.

Friday: Here is your open thread for Friday night and the rest of the weekend. There is no baseball until Tuesday, which is both terrible and liberating at the same time. There’s also no football and none of the local hockey or basketball teams are playing. Nothing. Good night to get the hell out of the house and forget about sports. Talk about whatever you like right here.

Saturday: Once again, this is your open thread for the night. Both the Devils and Islanders are playing, plus there’s a bunch of college football on as well. Talk about any of those games or anything else right here.

Sunday: This is your open thread for the night for one last time. The late NFL game is the 49ers and Broncos, plus the (hockey) Rangers and Nets (preseason) are playing. You folks know how this whole thing works by now, so have at it.