Kelly Johnson was a perfectly fine utility player for the 2015 Mets, coming along in a minor midseason trade with the Braves. He got 138 plate appearances down the stretch and put up a .271 True Average, making him a little bit better than a league-average hitter. He played all four infield and both corner outfield spots, most competently—well, the game at shortstop didn’t go so well, but he’s fine everywhere else. He stabilized a struggling lineup, and then didn’t complain when moved into a utility role once all the regulars came back. The Mets were connected several times to reports that they might bring him back in 2016, per Marc Carig of Newsday.
But then, Kelly Johnson went back to the Braves. The Mets looked like they had a lot of depth at the time, and no great need for a veteran infielder or a lefty pinch-hitter. Then Ruben Tejada became a Cardinal, Lucas Duda and David Wright both went down, and Eric Campbell, Ty Kelly, and Matt Reynolds wore out their welcome fast. So, it was no great surprise that the Mets were shopping for a nice utility player once again here in early-June. But in the meantime, Kelly Johnson was bad with the Braves, throwing up a .215/.273/.289 triple-slash in almost as big a sample as he had with the 2015 Mets. So why did the Mets go out and deal Akeel Morris—not a star, but a prospect name you’ve probably heard—to get him back?
Throughout the Sandy Alderson regime, the Mets have valued something that sabermetricians have long derided: familiar faces and overall clubhouse considerations. For a front office rooted in analytics, this is fairly unusual, but also fairly recurrent. Specific to Johnson, assistant general manager John Ricco told Maria Guardado of the Star-Ledger that “though he’s not having a great year this year, he’s a guy we kept our eye on because of the versatility and the fact that we know him and his veteran presence.” Terry Collins said much the same, calling Johnson “a great clubhouse guy.”
Johnson is far from the first player that the Mets have acquired while talking up his veteran presence; you could fill a book with stories about how awesome Juan Uribe is in the clubhouse, for example. Perhaps an even larger book could be filled for Bartolo Colon. Through the Alderson/Collins years, the Mets have filled out their roster with veteran “clubhouse presence” type players in spots down the roster. Sometimes, like Marlon Byrd and LaTroy Hawkins, they’ve contributed and worked into bigger roles. Sometimes, like Bobby Abreu and Willie Harris, they didn’t provide a whole lot more than the clubhouse presence. But three players in particular have hung around the Mets roster for years, even into the contention cycle the Mets are currently in, and the presence of all three is barely explicable in terms of on-field performance: Anthony Recker, Eric Campbell, and Eric Young Jr.
For most of three seasons, the Mets kept Anthony Recker around on the roster as the primary backup catcher. As a sabermetric matter, it’s hard to figure why. Recker hit a lousy .190/.256/.350 over his career as a Met. His defensive reputation was not great, and BP’s advanced catching stats show Recker as nearly 21 runs below average defensively in those three seasons. The Mets had nothing invested in Recker, just a waiver claim, and he was regularly one of the worst backup catchers in the majors. In 2016, Recker couldn’t land a major league job, and has already moved between the Triple-A affiliates of the Indians and Braves. About the only obvious positives he had going were a willingness to pitch when asked, being insanely handsome, and some power off the bench, which would’ve been a better asset for most other clubs. But you start digging on potential behind-the-scenes positives about Recker, and you find a lot of stuff about how much his teammates like him, how hard he worked, and yes, of course, his “veteran presence.” That got him three years of major league salaries.
I’ve discussed Eric Campbell’s continued existence on the Met roster before in this space. Suffice to say, he’s not very good, and with no significant prospectdom or offensive output outside of the Pacific Coast League in his past, there was never much reason to believe he would be good. But it’s worth looking at his pure resilience as a member of the Mets. The Mets purchased Campbell’s contract in May 2014 to replace Josh Satin, a similar kind of player who struggled mightily out of the gate, and never got another shot in the majors. Campbell’s on-field play was indifferent, but he lasted the entire season and got semi-regular playing time. Campbell again defaulted into semi-regular playing time during the summer of 2015, and he was awful. Ironically, the addition of Kelly Johnson made Campbell largely expendable, and he was sent down in August. But he survived the 40-man cuts in the offseason, and at a real cost, because the Mets lost Matt Bowman to the Cardinals in the Rule 5 draft due to lack of 40-man space. The Mets once again created room on the 25-man for Campbell to start the 2016 season; he was once again so bad that the Mets finally sent him down seemingly for good when acquiring James Loney—and then they recalled him one more time to serve as the 26th man in this week’s doubleheader against the Pirates. As with Recker, if you start looking around, you find out out that Campbell is well-liked in the clubhouse, a “quiet leader,” and a good teammate who fits in well with the Mets.
The last player I want to discuss is the one whose reacquisition is most similar to Johnson’s: Eric Young Jr. The Mets acquired Young in mid-2013 from the Rockies for pitcher Collin McHugh, and Young played a lot, starting 149 games in left over the course of 2013 and 2014. The problem, as with Campbell and Recker, is that Young just couldn’t hit: aside from 196 plate appearances in 2012, Young has never even managed a 650 OPS, and he played a lot of his career in Colorado. The Mets non-tendered him after the 2014 season, and he ended up with a 661 OPS for Atlanta’s Triple-A affiliate in 2015, still unable to hit. And yet the Mets traded for him again in August, to join the major league roster. Young would, thankfully, only see nine plate appearances for the 2015 Mets, but still, what on earth were they doing bringing him back? Young can run, and having a pinch-runner in September and October isn’t the worst idea, but guys with 80 speed who can’t do anything else are a dime a dozen (the Mets have one in their system already), and Young probably wasn’t an 80 runner anymore by his second Mets stint. Well, John Ricco had a quote for that one too, and it’s a direct echo of what he would later say about Johnson: “He’s a guy we know pretty well and brings a different dimension to the game, certainly with his speed and versatility … A guy we know well, fit into the clubhouse and provides a different dimension to our bench, however Terry wants to use him.”
Kelly Johnson might not be the best option. Kelly Johnson might not be the most efficient option. Kelly Johnson might not even be good anymore. But the Mets consistently value what they know over what they don’t. And so Kelly Johnson it is, again.
Photo Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports