It has not always been pretty watching Elliot Johnson play defense at shortstop for the Rays this season. Johnson has made some nice, even excellent plays, but he has also made 8 errors, most among all AL shortstops and third-most among all players in the American League. Can we expect some serious improvement from Johnson moving forward or will his defense continue to be a struggle all season?
Fielding percentage is an archaic stat because we understand now that you can’t blame a fielder for getting to a batted ball that an ordinary fielder would have missed entirely. But what fielding percentage does help measure to some extent is the amount of “careless errors” that a fielder makes- especially when you temper it with range factor, the amount of batted balls that the fielder gets to per 9 innings or per game. What we’re going to look at is how Johnson fielding percentage has varied over time and by range factor and see how Johnson’s current fielding percentage compares to his career marks.
Before we even get to that, let’s make one thing clear: Elliot Johnson is a second baseman playing out of position. In the minors, Johnson played 683 games at second base compared to 101 at shortstop. He didn’t play more than one game at shortstop in a season until he reached Triple-A in 2008. That he has played 96 games at shortstop in the major leagues compared to just 19 at second base simply tells you about the Rays’ needs right now.
Let’s start with career numbers. In the minors, Johnson has a .954 fielding percentage with a 3.68 RF/G (range factor per game) in 101 games. In the majors, Johnson has actually managed a .968 fielding percentage and a 3.28 RF/G in 96 games, 72 starts, and just 59 complete games. The league average is a .975 fielding percentage with a 4.41 RF/G. One thing to note is that RF/G can be skewed based on how many incomplete games (i.e. coming off the bench in the late innings) a player plays over the course of the season.
Here’s a table of Johnson’s number of games at shortstop since 2008 along with fielding percentage, his his RF/G and another measure, his RF/9 (range factor per 9 innings) when available.
Looking at this chart, you could view Johnson’s defensive struggles as a regression to the mean after he made just 1 error in 52 games at shortstop in 2011. Unfortunately, things most of the time don’t work out as beautifully as we wish they would, and this is going to require more interpretation than that. First of all, the 2008 and 2009 data goes out the window because the sample size is too small. So what we have to work with is the sample from 2010 until 2012. We see that there’s a solid difference in RF/G between 2011 and 2012 leading to the opposite and more noticeable effect in fielding percentage. While the true difference in fielding percentage between the two seasons is almost completely improbable to be that large if the sample size had been larger, we do see a pattern that makes sense: if you get to more balls, you’ll make more errors. But what about the 2010 sample with the largest RF/G of any of the samples from 2010 to 2012 yet the middle fielding percentage. Why was that? Presumably because he achieved a certain comfort level at the shortstop position. The Rays have to hope that the same thing happens in 2012.
Elliot Johnson will never be an elite or even a more than passable defender at shortstop. But he has the ability to be halfway-decent enough defensively to make him a slightly above-average overall player thanks to his nice offensive production. Johnson’s .748 OPS is 13% better than the AL average adjusted to ballpark and even better among shortstops. If he can get a little more comfortable and cut down on the errors a little bit, Johnson can be a productive major league player. Elliot Johnson is not really a shortstop. His defensive woes will not suddenly evaporate. But he has the ability to improve just enough to make him the solid big league player that the Rays need at the position right now.