Kelly Johnson was a second baseman. There was no disputing that. From 2007 to 2012, he appeared defensively in 793 games and each of those games came at second base. With that in mind, it was a shock through the system of baseball when it was reported after the Rays signed Johnson that they intended to use him in the outfield with Ben Zobrist primarily playing second base. It was true that Johnson had debuted in the major leagues as a left field back in 2005, but he was a second baseman and Zobrist was a player best known throughout baseball for his versatility. Fine, Johnson was going to play some left field, but he would have to play primarily second base on the season right? That was his position! Early on this year, Zobrist has in fact returned to a super-utility role, appearing 30 times in right field, 28 times at second base, and 6 times at shortstop. But instead of Johnson playing second base when Zobrist has been in right field, it has been Ryan Roberts taking the keystone, appearing there in 33 games, with Johnson staying in left for 29 games versus just 6 at second base. Why? Because the Rays knew something everyone else missed and were determined to take advantage.
Sure, Kelly Johnson’s only position was second base from 2007 for 2012 was second base. But at the end of the day, he didn’t play very well there. UZR rated him at 9.0 runs below average while FRAA was even more negative at -13.4. His UZR/150 was -1.9 as he basically was an average to slightly below-average defender all the way through. It’s not that Johnson was bad–but Zobrist and Roberts were better. In left field, though, Johnson had the ability to be more. In his one season in left field in 2005, his UZR was 10.8, and while that was far from enough to conclude that he was really a plus defender at the position, there was optimism that he could be above-average. So far this season, Johnson has done exactly that, leading major league left fielders with six outfield assists and is second in assists among outfielders. That’s despite the fact that he has played just 29 times at left field among the Rays’ 55 games, much less than quite a few of the other league leaders. How good of a fielder Johnson will be over the course of the season has yet to be determined, but it’s unlikely that Johnson was ever going to stand out like that at second base. Johnson may have played second base the most by a wide margin entering 2013. But the Rays didn’t care about his primary position but his best position. They were willing to think outside the box and put him at left field, and Johnson’s outstanding defense to begin this year has been their reward.