In the fall of 2018, on the front end of the Indians efforts to radically decrease payroll during a contention window, they traded Yan Gomes for Daniel Johnson, Jefry Rodriguez, and Andrew Monasterio. It was a savvy move even in the moment as Gomes was an obvious regression candidate and Rodriguez as well as Johnson came with loud tools.
Daniel Johnson has long been included in that vague bucket with the descriptor “toolsy” on the front. Below is a part of report from Baseball Prospectus from 2017:
While his plus tools shine when a bat isn’t in his hands, Johnson flashes plus raw power and should continue to be able to barrel up balls as he moves up. His ability to wait for his pitch and improve his bat control on outside offerings is what will determine if he can be a regular at the major league level.Craig Goldstein
In spring 2019, esteemed Fangraphs scouts/analysts wrote the following:
So prodigious is Johnson’s laser arm that some amateur scouts wanted to see him on the mound in pro ball. He has some of the louder tertiary tools in the minors but limited bat control keeps some of them, especially his sizable raw power, from actualizing in games.Fangraphs
There are a few overarching themes regarding Johnson’s profile. First, the loud tools with both speed and arm strength grading as plus tools, and raw power following not far behind. Second, the major question mark is whether Johnson can develop the pitch identification and contact frequency skills to allow those tools to show in games.
This is where Johnson’s 2019 season offers some mixed returns as to whether Johnson may be able to force through his most significant barrier.
Between 39 games in Akron and 84 games in Columbus, Johnson posted the highest walk rates of his career, as well as 19 homers and 12 steals. However, Johnson had the 13th highest swinging strike percentage in the International League at 14%.
There is an above average amount of swing-and-miss in Johnson’s profile but the increasing walk rate is a positive sign of adjustment. Further, while the strikeout rate is elevated it is not paralyzing in the way in which it is for the 30%+ whiff bunch of Bradley Zimmer and Bobby Bradley. A 20% strikeout rate in AAA at 23/24, in the age of blazing fastballs, and heavy breaking ball usage, is actually adequate.
Another positive sign from Johnson’s 2019 campaign was his ability to harness his power to all fields.
While the majority of the power is to right field, Johnson uses the entire field, and hits a hand full of home runs out to center and left field. This contact dispersion is different than 2018 where he could only hit the ball out to pull field.
Finally, Johnson crushed in the minors against right-handed pitching while not being incompetent against left-handed pitching. In 2019, Johnson had an OPS of .906 against RHP, and .780 against LHP.
This is why Johnson is so well situated to add value to this 2020 Indians roster. Oscar Mercado, Jordan Luplow, and Franmil Reyes are all right-handed hitters, and the Indians entire infield switch-hits, with Roberto Perez rounding out the right-handed hitters club. Johnson being able to be above average against right-handed pitching would be a huge addition of depth to the lineup, and his defense will be adequate or better. Further, Johnson crushes the “fat” side of the platoon, which is to say, right-handed pitchers are far more common, and thus lefties who can hit righties well, can far more easily be close to full time players, especially ones with loud tools like Johnson.
There are real warts for Daniel Johnson but the floor may be exactly what the Indians need. Johnson has made positive progression in his most important weakness area, pitch identification. However, there is a ways to go. Whether Johnson can make that all important contact and identification leap or not, a solid 120 contributor against right-handed pitchers looks to be waiting for his opportunity in Cleveland.
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