The first in a non-alphabetical and irregularly updated series of review pieces for each of the players we predicted last winter. (All entries are linked in the left-hand sidebar, below the Rotoworld stuff and the interviews.)
LL/USSM Community: 492 AB's, .290/.343/.468 (n=150)
Actual Line: 485 AB's, .287/.322/.433
Closest Projection: batura, .290/.323/.435
A bit of an ambitious forecast, as a lot of people were looking for Kenji to have the same kind of sophomore improvement that we saw with Hideki Matsui after he came over. Of 150 total participants, 104 picked Kenji to finish with an OPS over .800, and only nine thought he's end up at or below where he did. Suffice to say that the members of the Mariner blogosphere expected a little more out of our everyday backstop than we got.
This isn't to say that Kenji was a disappointment, however, because while he didn't improve, he didn't really get any worse, either. In fact, one could argue that in 2007, Kenji Johjima was exactly the same player he was in 2006. Observe (2006 values in parentheses):
GB/FB: 1.33 (1.24)
LD%: 20.1% (19.0%)
BB%: 3.0% (3.5%)
K%: 8.5% (9.1%)
BA: .287 (.291)
OBP - BA: .035 (.041)
SLG - BA: .146 (.160)
Every difference in there is well within the range of statistical fluctuation. All that changed is that three or four rookie home runs turned into doubles. Between 2006 and 2007, Kenji Johjima can make an argument for being the most consistent offensive player in baseball.
So who is this offensive player, exactly? A fairly underrated one, that's who. At least, fairly underrated for a catcher. Despite playing half his games in what might be the worst possible environment for someone with his skillset, Kenji bested the league-average backstop OPS by 6%. Put him in a normal ballpark and that jumps to 8-10%. Other players who are about 8-10% above the offensive average at their positions: Todd Helton, Garrett Atkins, Carlos Lee, Alex Rios, and Nick Swisher. Pretty good company. It's not a group of superstars, but each of these five players would be mighty difficult to pry away from their current organizations, and there's a reason for that.
It's easy to get frustrated at Kenji for his slumps and his double plays, but at the same time, you have to remember that he doesn't play an offense-first position. A lot of teams would kill to get his level of production out of their starting catchers. While his name tends to get forgotten when people talk about the better backstops in baseball, Kenji is better than AJ Pierzynski and light years ahead of what's left of Paul Lo Duca's career. He's better than Jason Varitek. He's better than Ivan Rodriguez. He's better than Bengie Molina. He's better than Johnny Estrada. Kenji is a second-tier offensive catcher, and that gives the Mariners an advantage over much of the rest of the league. Remember how, for the first few weeks of the season, Kenji pretty much carried this lineup on his back? There aren't too many catchers that can do that.
Aside from his offense, there are two other things that make Kenji a pretty special player - he's durable, and he rather substantially improved his work in the field. As far as the former is concerned, Kenji's 279 games over the last two years ranks third in the league among catchers, behind Victor Martinez and Jorge Posada. Somehow he's managed to stay healthy and effective despite seemingly getting hit in the nards at least once a week. He probably could've played even more last season were it not for the spectacular performance of The Best Backup Catcher Of All Time.
As for the latter, while Kenji's still prone to stabbing at pitches rather than get in front of them with his body, he cut his passed balls in half, and he nabbed 40 of 86 (46.5%) would-be basestealers after catching just 29 of 86 the year before. For the sake of comparison, Ivan Rodriguez has killed 47.5% of steal attempts over his career. Kenji's footwork was great and his release time was unthinkably quick, and just for good measure his throws were also more accurate. He's worked hard to eliminate some of his flaws, and the result is a solid all-around catcher - easily the best this team has ever had - whose only glaring weakness is a reluctance to walk.
It's a rather significant weakness, of course, and it's what's keeping Kenji from jumping into the upper tier, but it's not who he is, and considering that he does everything else pretty well, it seems silly to rip him for it. It wouldn't even be that noticeable of an issue if this lineup had one or two guys capable of working the damn count every now and then. Kenji Johjima is not a perfect offensive player, but he is a good one, and we're lucky to have him. More people would know that, too, if he weren't an extreme pull righty in a ballpark that devours extreme pull righties like the league devours John Parrish. Safeco is a curse as often as it's a blessing.
Kenji's job hasn't really changed much since last year - he's still the guy we're leaning on to get us to the Jeff Clement Era. Or, in the event that Jeff Clement gets traded for some suckass veteran rotation arm, Kenji's the guy we're leaning on until someone teaches Rob Johnson how to hit. Either way, the gig's all Kenji's for 2008 just as it was in 2007, and while he'll turn 32 next June, there's no reason to expect a big dropoff here. Between his industrious work ethic and performance stability, Kenji's a pretty safe bet for the short-term going forward, and when it comes time to either negotiate a new contract or bid him goodbye after the year, we're going to reflect on this as being one of the greatest investments the Mariners have ever made.