Baseball From a Player’s Perspective: My Conversation with Elliot Johnson

Photo Credit: Keith Allison | Flickr

by: Eric Boston @EricBoston3

Elliot Johnson played in parts of five seasons at the big league level. 

Now Johnson focuses on helping players get the most out of their professional experience. One thing that makes him standout is not only his knowledge of the game but the fact that he always speaks his mind when it comes to baseball.

“I enjoy talking baseball with anybody. My ideas may not always be what people want to hear, but either way, I am going to tell the truth. I am going to say what I think and it is not up to me if people like it or not. A lot of people may not like it because they believe they know, but my job is to tell what I believe and hopefully it is interesting.”

“First and foremost I’m a baseball guy. I want what is best for the players. What organizations want you to do is be loyal to the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back. When you get treated like a commodity, the business side grabs you. I don’t care if the Royals win; I don’t care if the Brewers win. I do care about if Alex Gordon plays well because I love that guy and he was a great teammate. I want these guys to get a fair shake.”

Johnson was primarily a middle infielder, although many would label him as a utility player, who could switch-hit. He came up with Tampa Bay, signing as an undrafted free-agent out of high school.
He was traded to Kansas City as the player-to-be-named-later in the deal that brought James Shields and Wade Davis to KC. In many ways, it was the defining moment that pushed the Royals into back-to-back World Series appearances in 2014 & 2015.

Johnson also spent time with the Atlanta and Cleveland organizations. Which team was his favorite to play for?

“It is a pretty easy answer, the Rays were my favorite. The whole culture there with Joe [Maddon] was phenomenal. I would do anything for the Rays. I spent so much time there that I was the organization’s baby. I signed there as a free agent out of high school and got developed, they were patient with me. They truly helped me to become the player that I was. The Braves weren’t super welcoming of me because [Dan] Uggla was struggling and Freddie [Freeman] kind of took charge there. Freddie and Uggs are best friends so the fact that I was playing over Uggs didn’t sit well with him. I loved playing for the Royals. I will always have love for the time and opportunity that Dayton [Moore] and Ned [Yost] gave to me. The Indians were extremely welcoming to me. I love Tito [Francona] and all of the guys in Cleveland. There is just a really good culture there. They do a really good job of treating people with respect which is something you would assume would happen everywhere, but unfortunately, it doesn’t happen that way. So the Rays are number one with Cleveland a close second, Kansas City third and the Braves would be a distant fourth.”

Getting to talk baseball with a guy like Johnson is one of the greatest experiences I have been lucky to be a part of. 

As fans, we have a tendency to believe that we know it all about the game. Talk to a guy who lived it though and you quickly find out how wrong you are.

In messages back and forth leading up to our conversation, I had asked Johnson what he thought about how the MLB season had gone so far in 2018 leading up to the All-Star break.

He gave me a simple answer – David and Goliath.

“Every team is going to fulfill their business plan in 2018 a different way. You can argue there are more teams battling for the number one pick in the draft than they are for a championship. That coming from the team side is extremely telling. I think it is playing out in how the season is going. So many teams, not to say that they are tanking, but I think that they knew that they really didn’t have a shot at winning this year. It goes back to the Tampa Bay Rays days. If you lose for an extended period of time and get to pick at the top of the draft you can develop a winner. The Rays did it, the Cubs did it, and the Astros did it – that’s the model. Fan bases and baseball may not like it, but it is the reality. I know David won in the Bible, but in the real world Goliath wins the majority of the time.”

Our conversation built off of the biblical references into how baseball appears very top-heavy.

There are a handful of teams that you could place into elite status and, especially in the American League, the depth is not as prominent as in years past. I wondered if this was due to change, both organic and that which has come about from baseball’s governing body, and if that change was hurting the game more than helping it.

“What is hurting the game is that everyone throws hard right now. Take George Brett, for example, one of the greatest players we have ever seen. I loved watching George. When he played there were a handful of guys in the big leagues that threw 95+ mph. Now on every single team, and in almost every single at bat that you are going to see, there is a guy on the mound throwing that hard. I would love to see someone overlay Brett’s stats against guys who threw 95+ and what the result was, then put that into a season of 600 plate appearances to see what his season numbers would look like.”

“When George played, striking out was a disgrace. Now if I ground out, pop out, or fly out it is the exact same thing as if I had struck out. It is literally the same thing. I’m not just trying to dribble a ball somewhere and hope for the best, I’m not. I am trying to control the outcome and the only way you can do that is by hitting the baseball hard. If the exit velo[city] off my bat is 95+ mph then I have a higher probability of getting a hit. If I get three opportunities to hit the ball 95+ then you better believe I’m trying to hit it 95+. I’m not leaving it up to these guys that are paid every day to turn a ground ball into an out. The only way I can do that is by hitting it hard enough to where the reaction time isn’t fast enough to get to that ball.”

“It is not rocket science, your reaction time is nil. If you are facing the equivalent of Dellin Betances every single at-bat you are not going to find a lot of success. If you are facing guys throwing as hard as Aroldis Chapman every at-bat, I don’t care if you are Babe Ruth, you are going to have a tough season. I’m not saying that is what is happening right now, but with more pitchers throwing harder all the time, the game and culture are changing.”

Not only is the culture of the game changing, but the rules of the game are being tinkered with to try and make the sport more appealing to a younger audience.

From the number of innings to time clocks and the way extra innings are handled, nothing appears to be off the table with what the MLB is willing to try. How is this “out-of-the-box” thinking perceived by players?

“It is ridiculous. We are going to implement these rules that are going to save what, five minutes? Maybe? Is that going to capture the millennial generation? It’s not going to matter to anybody. I don’t understand why we would try to implement something that will save us five or ten minutes, it is not that important.”

“The game is what it is. It is meant to be played this way. Here are the rules, why are we doing this? The game is trending to less action and what is action? A ball in play is action; a stolen base is action. So many of these teams are risk averse, if you steal a base and your success rate is not above 80% then it is not advantageous for the team. They are basically saying if you can’t be safe more than 80% of the time then just don’t do it. Front offices are becoming so smart where doing anything that adds an out to the defense is not something that you want to do.”

“If we are inheriting a runner that comes from nowhere, imaginary, who’s ERA does that guy go on? The pitcher that is in there, he didn’t let that guy get to second. The guy before him didn’t let him get to second. How does that run get put on the stat sheet? How is that fair to anyone? Does that guy get a run scored when he should have never been on base in the first place? Now we are playing with the sanctity of a game where stats are so special, we have to be careful with how we do all of this stuff. That is why the Steroid Era was so hurtful to people because of the stats and now we are going to implement these rules that changes the fundamental way that the game has been played for a hundred years. I don’t have time for that.”

The question becomes what if anything can be done to keep baseball’s traditions intact and still appeal to a wider fan base?

“With the way the game is trending there is going to be less and less action and they are going to have to find a way to embrace it. It is just a reality. Moving the mound down would be an option I suppose, but I don’t know how well that would be received. Moving it back could be an option, but I don’t think that is going to happen. I think that may be the only tangible things that I can come up with off of the top of my head that would potentially help.”

While Johnson’s opinions may appear “strong” to some readers, there is one thing that came across very clear while I spoke with him. This is a guy who has his finger on the pulse of the player experience. He truly cares about his fellow players. He also is passionate about a kid’s game that changed his life.

Where will his workings with the MLB take him in the future? I for one believe that he is a breath of fresh air and a true asset to baseball. Ask Johnson where he wants to be though.

“I’m a Players Union guy through and through. Staying on the player’s side is where I want to be. It is where I am supposed to be and where I will always be. That is where I belong."

This conversation changed the way I view several things in regards to the best sport in the world.

What do you, the reader, take away from this discussion? Do you have questions that you would like to ask Johnson? If so then leave them in the comments and we will get them to him. After all, that is what baseball guys like to do…sit around and talk about the game!

You can follow Elliot Johnson on Twitter @ElliotJohnson9

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