June 1, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Elliot Johnson (9) against the Baltimore Orioles at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE
There are better hitters on the team. There are better defenders on the team. There are better runners on the team. There are...well, you get the picture. But there isn't a current member of the Rays more interesting to me than Elliot Johnson.
The 28-year-old shortstop is a good success story. He was undrafted out of high school, eventually signing with the Rays in 2002 and spending six seasons in the minors before making his debut in 2008. He's the prototypical "gritty" player, i.e. he's a white infielder that looks like he tries really hard. That stereotype extends him more leniency than others. This season he's been pressed into action due to the injuries of Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings. The constant shuffling of infielders has given him more playing time and exposure than ever before. That's...not turning out so well. Take a look at the first month of his season.
4/6/12-5/4/12: 29 AB, .138/.265/.172/.437 OPS
The next day he began his hot streak, recording a hit in 13 of the next 15 games, increasing his line to .292/.378/.403/.781 over the course of 43 at bats. He was riding high. Newspapers were writing stories about how he was a savior in the Rays' time of need. The little engine that could had a full head of steam. Then he ran out of track, going 7-41 with two extra base hits in the following 14 games, dropping his line to .248/.325/.354/.679 which is slightly better than his career line of .212/.278/.332/.610. Each stretch of games I've mentioned is a small sample, and we know how much volatility is involved in small samples. The outlier, though, looks to be that 43 at bat sample in May.
He had a similar type streak last season. In a nine game stretch he went 8-22, with three extra base hits, then face planted the rest of the year, finishing with an OPS of. 595. He's the epitome of a replacement player and it's beginning to show. As friend of the site Tommy Rancel pointed out last night on Twitter, this is what happens when a replacement player is forced to play for an extended period. You see the flaws inherent in his game both offensively, and as we've seen lately, defensively. Having a light hitting switch hitter capable of playing multiple positions is good when he's your 25th man. It's not as good when he's in your starting lineup.
People may look at his numbers compared with Sean Rodriguez and wonder why I'm not talking about him. Rodriguez has a better track record of success and is a better defender. The extra base hits haven't come yet against left handed pitching like they have in the past but they will, and he has a .377 on base percentage against southpaws. He's more likely to be a league average hitter at shortstop than Johnson.
If it sounds like I'm out to disparage Johnson, I'm not. I'm just pointing out facts. The facts are he's a below average player that happens to be able to play shortstop, which is a huge reason why he's still a member of this team. If his bat starts to dip even more how much longer can the Rays give him every day at bats before exploring alternatives?