Most baseball pundits would contend that Edwin Encarnacion has carried the Toronto Blue Jays' offence through the club's first 44 games this season.
And it would be difficult to argue with them, but while the man previously known as E5 for his suspect defensive play has been widely lauded for his efforts, it's second baseman Kelly Johnson that has quietly been the team's best all-around player.
True, Johnson's .252 batting average won't wow you, but his .356 on-base percentage - second amongst American League second baseman through May 22 - should, and he also leads all AL keystone sackers in home runs (eight) and walks (26).
It's also important to note that while others at the top of the Jays' batting order (Yunel Escobar and Jose Bautista) have underperformed for most of the season, Johnson has been on base regularly and served as an offensive catalyst.
All of this from a player that Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos probably didn't think he would be able to retain this past off-season. Acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks last Aug. 23 for Aaron Hill and John McDonald, Johnson was underwhelming in his first 33 games with the Jays in 2011. And though he tallied 21 homers and 16 stolen bases last season, Johnson also registered a career-low .222 average.
But with the market thin on second baseman heading into the off-season, most anticipated that Johnson would still land a lucrative, multi-year deal. But his Type A free agent status - which meant that the team that signed him might have to surrender their first round pick - spooked a lot of clubs and Johnson elected to accept the Jays' arbitration offer and re-up with the club on a one-year, $6.375-million US deal.
Though his big-league resume reads good year, bad year, good year, bad year over the past four seasons, the six-foot-one infielder boasts an enviable combination of power and speed that should make him a threat to belt 20 homers and steal 20 bases every season.
And after swinging at too many bad pitches last season, Johnson has rediscovered the plate discipline that made him one of the top offensive infielders in baseball in 2010. As a member of the Diamondbacks that campaign, he hit .284 with 26 homers and boasted a .370 OBP.
So far this season he has walked in 13.6 per cent of his plate appearances - the highest rate of his career. Sure, he strikes out too much, but baseball stats experts will tell you that his walk rate and high OBP minimize his high whiff rate.
He has also played well defensively. One of the best in baseball at making the double-play pivot, Johnson owns the top range factor per game (5.31) amongst AL second baseman this season.
Range factor per game (RF/G) is a statistic that attempts to illustrate how many more balls Johnson gets to than the average second baseman. This statistic adds the number of putouts and assists a player records and divides them by the number of games they play.
Granted we're just 44 games into the season, but Johnson also possesses the top defensive WAR (1.2) - a statistic that measures how many wins a player adds above what a AAA replacement player at their position would contribute - among AL second baseman. That said, Johnson is also second amongst AL second basemen with six errors.
But if you take into account his offensive and defensive contributions, a good argument could be made that Johnson has been the Jays' MVP so far this season. The underrated infielder is second on the Jays in overall WAR to Brett Lawrie (see chart below) and is second in offensive WAR to Encarnacion.
At his current pace, Johnson will finish the season with a 7.4 WAR. Just how good is this? Well, highly respected baseball stats site FanGraphs indicates a WAR between 4 and 5 means that a player has enjoyed an all-star calibre season, a WAR between 5 and 6 is a superstar campaign and anything above six is MVP-worthy.
An unfortunate byproduct of Johnson's success for the Jays is that he could inspire a free agent bidding war after the season. If Johnson continues at his current pace, he's likely to command a multi-year contract that pays him over $10 million a season. Given that Escobar only makes $5 million a season, it seems unlikely that Anthopoulos would be willing to ante up double that for Johnson.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Through 44 games this season, Johnson's performance has been as impressive as Encarnacion's. With Bautista and Escobar slumping for extended periods, Johnson has been the only consistent threat at the top of the order.
And with Encarnacion contributing little defensively, a strong case could be made that Johnson - a player that wasn't even supposed to be a Blue Jay this season - has been the club's MVP.
Toronto Blue Jays Position Players - 2012 Leaders in WAR (Wins Above Replacement)
*WAR statistics from baseballreference.com
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