Elliot Johnson was going to be remembered. But not for the way anyone would have wanted. Everyone remembers the Elliot Johnson play. In Spring Training 2008, Johnson collided with Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli, breaking Cervelli’s wrist and setting off a benches-clearing brawl. That collision is regarded as a wake-up call to the rest of the AL East, setting the tone for the 2008 Rays season. In the wake of that, Johnson made the Rays’ 2008 roster but after just 7 games and a 3 for 19 (.158) performance, Johnson was sent back to Triple-A.
Johnson was a rare high school free agent coming out of Thatcher High School in Arizona. He signed with the Rays after not going in the 2002 MLB Draft. Johnson methodically worked his way for the minor leagues, breaking through with back-to-back 43 stolen base seasons in 2004 and 2005 and slamming 15 homers in 2006. After his ill-fated big league debut, Johnson broke out again in 2010 at Triple-A, posting a .319/.375/.475 line with 11 homers and 30 steals, and he managed to make the Rays’ 2011 roster out of spring training. Johnson started briefly for the Rays but missed time with a knee injury and struggled most of the year, posting a .194/.257/.338 line with 7 doubles, 2 triples, 4 homers, 17 RBI, and just 6 stolen bases in 13 attempts in 70 games.
Johnson entered 2012 Spring Training as not a sure bet to make the major league roster. But he limped onto the roster as the 25th man. In the Rays’ first 18 games of the season, Johnson started just 3 and went just 1 for 11, although he did draw 3 walks. But the Rays stuck with him, and especially as the injuries mounted, Johnson’s playing time has increased. In the Rays’ lost 42 games, Johnson has started 32 and appeared in 39 games. And the results have been much better. Johnson has posted a .287/.344/.426 line in 127 plate appearances with 4 doubles, 4 homers, 16 RBI, and 7 stolen bases in 10 tries. In 143 total plate appearances, Johnson has hit 4 homers, stolen 9 bases in 12 tries, and drawn 13 walks after hitting just 4 homers, going 6 for 13 in steals, and drawing 14 walks in 181 plate appearances in 2011. His .270/.343/.397 line amounts to a .740 OPS, a 111 OPS+ (meaning that he has been 11% better than the league average adjusted to ballpark). Johnson has experienced his struggles defensively, but he has made some excellent plays as well and he appears to have the tools to be an average or better defensive shortstop moving forward.
It is very difficult to be a bench player in the major leagues. You have to go up to the plate in the middle of a game or after not playing for a few days and face a major league caliber pitcher, a hard enough task to begin with. Rust becomes apparent and you lose your feel for some of the parts of the game that you get only by repetition, like reading pitchers on the basepaths. Elliot Johnson couldn’t handle it. But finally receiving regular playing time, he has seized his opportunity and brought out all his abilities. At age 28, Elliot Johnson is not the Rays’ shortstop of the future. But he’s their shortstop of the present and a big part of what they’re doing now.