James Loney has recently received a lot of ink as Andrew Friedman's latest rags-to-riches signing for the Tampa Bay Rays. Following a terrible season in 2012, the 29-year-old has the fifth-highest batting average in the majors thus far, at .350 -- he's also second on the Rays in on-base and slugging percentage. But while Kelly Johnson's name is not near the top of any leaderboards, he's enjoying an equally impressive career revival under St. Pete's Big Top.
Coming off two disappointing seasons Johnson found a home with the Rays this winter. At the time of the signing his offensive profile seemed like a fit, even if his primary position in the field did not. An infielder by trade, Johnson joined a crowded group of up-the-middle players in Tampa Bay -- including his former double-play partner in Atlanta and Toronto, Yunel Escobar.
With limited resources, the Rays cannot operate in a positional box. If talent is available at a reasonable price, they will acquire it and worry about where to house it later. Both Sean Rodriguez and Ben Zobrist have seasons in which they have appeared in more than 100 games while splitting time at seven different positions. Changing roles is not limited to internal players, either. In 2012, free-agent signee Jeff Keppinger appeared in 90 games at first base, third base and designated hitter, this after spending the bulk of his career at second base and shortstop. So far, Johnson has primarily played left field for the Rays. He is not necessarily new to the outfield, but went seven full seasons between appearances at the position.
Johnson has just five starts at his customary second base, and he made his first professional start at first base this season. Although his speed is lacking and his route running needing some fine tuning, he has proved to be playable in left, especially his arm, as he ranks sixth in the American League in outfield assists.
Offensively, the 31-year old arrived to Tampa Bay with a reputation as a bat-first player with good power and higher-than-average strikeout rates. Johnson has showed a bit of both in his first 40 games with the team. Currently, he is second on the team in home runs with eight. His current .227 isolated power would be a career-high.
Johnson is still punching out in a quarter of his plate appearances. This despite the fact that he is working with a tighter strike zone. He has lessened the amount of swings he takes on pitches out of the strike zone, which coincides with a drop in swing-and-misses. He is currently eighth in the league in pitches per plate appearance. Meanwhile, the more cautious approach has led to an increased amount of called strike threes.
Not uncommon of most hitters, Johnson enjoys more success against fastballs than any other pitch. However, he has tweaked his process on other pitches, leading to improved results. Johnson is still a bit aggressive on non-fastballs -- especially with two strikes -- but has lowered his chase and whiff rates by nearly 10 percent on these pitches. (He is not the only Rays' hitter taking more targeted swings this season: At the Process Report we have noted changes in approach by free swingers Sean Rodriguez and Ryan Roberts as well.) Johnnson is hitting .302 on breaking balls (curveballs and sliders) and offspeed pitches (changeups and splitters) in 2013. In 2011 and 2012, that average was just .174.
In addition to the philosophical shift, there appears to be a slight physical adjustment as well. Take a look to the right at the side-by-side images at roughly the same point in the pitcher's delivery.
The one on the left is from late 2012. The one on the right is from this month. Note at the end of last season, Johnson had a more closed stance with his hands near his chin as the pitcher's hands break. This year, he has opened his stance and dropped his hands. The open stance is something that he has used in the past. This should allow him to get in the hitting position and provide a better look at incoming pitches.
Both Johnson and Loney will hit the open market once again this winter. Because of his age, glove— -- and to this point of the season -- better overall production, Loney seems likelier to benefit from his renaissance with Tampa Bay. That said, if Johnson continues to play well on both sides of the ball, he might also net a decent contract thanks in part to added defensive flexibility and a narrower approach at the plate.
Tommy Rancel writes regularly about the Rays at The Process Report.