CINCINNATI — Squint hard enough and the similarities emerge: the lefthanded swing, the tightly coiled body, the slight uppercut. Then there are the signs that can’t be seen.
In his second stint as the Mets’ veteran utilityman, Kelly Johnson has resolved to change his mindset, to change the way he approaches hitting, to change his identity after eight teams, 11 seasons and more than 1,300 games in the majors.
Daniel Murphy once proved that it is never too late. So a year later — armed with Murphy’s old videos and teamed with the hitting coach that added power to his swing — Johnson is pushing for his own mid-career transformation.
The early returns have been promising.
“Obviously, I’m excited to see some of the balls go out of the yard,” said Johnson, who blasted a solo home run yesterday in the Mets’ 5-0 win over the Reds.
It was Johnson’s 10th homer of the season and sixth since the start of August. That’s roughly around when he first approached hitting coach Kevin Long about replicating some of the adjustments that Murphy has parlayed into a possible NL MVP run with the Nationals.
“He’s very similar in the way he thinks, the way he processes information, the way he goes about it, his work ethic, his desire to be better,” Long said of Johnson. “All those things that make up Murph’s DNA, Kelly has a lot of that as well.”
To believe that Johnson might make as significant a leap might be far too ambitious, but the similarities between the two are striking. Through last season, Murphy’s .288 lifetime average trumped Johnson’s .251, but the two posted the same on-base percentage (.331) and slugging percentage (.424).
Throughout his career, the 34-year-old Johnson has never shied from attempting adjustments, some of them major. But after his trade from the Braves to the Mets, those thoughts came creeping up more and more. “I started asking a lot more questions and tried to get a better idea,” said Johnson, who worked with Long last season and back in 2014, when both were with the Yankees.
Questions turned to conversations. Finally, they became actions. Sensing an opening, Long said he told Johnson: “If anybody can do what Murph did, you can do it.”
The work began promptly, with Murphy’s past work as the template. “We do use him as the blueprint and kind of go off that,” Long said. “Watching some of his video, we’ve made some marks on what he’s done.”
For Johnson, that includes pulling the ball with authority, keeping his elbows closer to his body and another Murphy hallmark: improving plate discipline. Swinging at better pitches increases the likelihood of doing damage and hitting for power. At least it has for Johnson.
Though he has yet to get fully comfortable with the changes, Johnson entered play yesterday with a slash line of .265/.329/.515 since Aug. 1.
“When you get pitches you can drive, it’s put me in a much better position to do that,” Johnson said. “I’ve run into some good swings.”
The underlying numbers behind the power surge have only reinforced his efforts. In August, he pulled the ball at a higher rate when compared to his career average. And though his fly balls actually dipped, his line drives rose past his career norms.
The biggest development came with how many of Johnson’s fly balls turned into homers — a whopping 35.7 percent in August, according to FanGraphs.com, almost three times higher than his lifetime percentage of 12.4. Though he’s unlikely to maintain that pace, the basic idea remains: hit more fly balls in hopes that they turn into homers.
“We used to say it all the time,” Long said. “ ‘Murph, you don’t make your money on the ground, you make it in the air.’ That’s a thought process [Johnson] likes. I hear him say it all the time now.”
Johnson has always been open-minded. Before the 2010 season, he revamped his swing, and it led to the best year of his career. He hit .284 with 26 homers and 71 RBIs for the Diamondbacks.
“I couldn’t repeat it,” he said. “So you try to find something that works and grind it out, whatever you can do.”
Last season, Johnson adopted what he called the “polar opposite” approach. His swing thoughts consisted of “short, middle of the field, line drive.” The result was 14 homers, a .750 OPS, and an 18.7 percent homer-to-fly ball rate, a career high. This did not last, either.
Johnson hopes that his experience will provide a steadier base, one that allows him to make enduring change.
“You can be trying to tinker too much,” he said. “I think if anything, yeah, I probably tinkered too much in my career. But I think I’m definitely smarter, definitely more aware of myself. Now when I tinker, I make sure that it’s the right thing and I’m doing it the right way, for the right reasons, not panicking, or being insecure, or being unconfident.”
So the work continues, rooted in the right intentions, even though Johnson knows that the road can be bumpy. He still has days when his swing feels “weird” and uncomfortable, when old habits creep in.
As Murphy worked on reshaping his swing, he often had trouble remembering to get his lower body involved, which allowed him to access untapped power. With Johnson, the focus remains on the upper body and keeping his arms closer to his body. He finds that thoughts about his legs muddle the process.
And then there’s plate discipline, a critical matter, one that is central to making lasting change. Despite homering on Monday, Johnson came away disappointed with his performance. What lingered in his mind wasn’t the ninth homer he has hit since rejoining the Mets but the seven pitches he chased out of his own strike zone.
“It takes a lot for a guy who has been around as long as he has to be willing to make some changes,” Long said. “In this case, it’s about getting the ball in the air and maybe pulling the ball a little bit more, and seeing if there’s more in there if he does that. He’s been pretty successful thus far.”