Elliot Johnson’s Bizarre Strikeout Rate

Elliot Johnson topped 100 plate appearances during the Milwaukee series, and I have to admit that I’m more interested in him than I expected, but perhaps not for the best reasons.

Entering the season, my general sketch of Johnson’s assets looked something like this (in order from best to worst attribute):
- Fast
- Versatile defender (second on the list because once you already have three good defensive middle infielders, the marginal benefit of having another is drastically reduced)
- Switch-hitter

In my mind, Johnson profiled like a pinch runner or defensive sub—tasks given to utility infielders. For whatever reasons, people compared him to Ben Zobrist, which reeks of force. Johnson never hit like Zobrist in the upper minors, despite having equal footing in prospect status, at least early in his career. Once Johnson reached Double-A, his career sputtered a bit. He still reached Triple-A at a young enough age, and debuted for the Rays at 24 (he wound up being the designated hitter for that squad in a game, which … let’s just move on).

With a rehab assignment in Triple-A earlier this season, Johnson has now played for Durham in parts of five seasons. Over that time, Johnson has amassed more than 1,700 plate appearances and a .261/.325/.416 line. Triple-A performances aren’t the end-all, be-all of player evaluation, as there are skills that can play up more there than in the majors, however Johnson’s underlying peripherals look like the imperfect translations of his major league performance so far in 2011:

Level SO/PA BB/PA ISO
Triple-A 23.16 7.64 .155
Majors 28.43 7.84 .146

Moving from Triple-A to the majors, you would expect more strikeouts, fewer walks, and less power. Johnson has delivered in two of those phases, but has shown a more walk-aware approach in the majors. Whether it lasts or not is anyone’s guess, and that applies to much of Johnson’s game.

The Rays broke out the shoehorn and inserted Johnson into a shortstop platoon. It’s an odd development, as Johnson only had 101 minor league games at the position, with 64 coming in 2010, but he seems passable at the position, with more range than arm. Johnson’s job is to play against lefties, as Reid Brignac hasn’t a clue how to go about hitting them. Despite the power numbers, almost none of it has come against left-handed pitching—only one of his six extra-base hits. However, seven of his eight walks have come as a righty, and he has struck out 14 times in 44 plate appearances. When the Rays shackle Brignac to the bench and let Johnson play against righties, he has shown more pop, but also has more strikeouts (14) than times on base (10).

Johnson swings and misses more than B.J. Upton, and only less often than Justin Ruggiano, Sean Rodriguez, and Kelly Shoppach. By extension, Shoppach is the only Ray who has ended a higher rate of at-bats via a strikeout than Johnson. If you go on a league-wide basis, Johnson has actually struck out about as often as Carlos Pena and Mark Reynolds, and more often than Russell Branyan and Jonny Gomes. It’s rare to see fast, good-gloved middle infielders fit in with those hulking sluggers when it comes to strikeout rate, but that’s why Johnson is sort of interesting, even if his pop pales in comparison.

As to whether Johnson’s whiff and strikeout rate will sustain, the former tenders to stabilize around 100 plate appearances, and the latter around 150. It’s not a total stabilization or anything, so there is room for further fluctuation, but there is a chance Johnson is going to strike out more often in the majors than his Triple-A totals suggested. That could change what is expected of him, and not necessarily in a good way.

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