24 October 2012

2012 Orioles Retrospective: Jim Johnson

I've spent years arguing that Jim Johnson could be an effective closer. Years. It used to be taken as an article of faith amongst fans (as well as some people with the team), that JJ just didn't have the "stuff" to close. Not his stuff - the hard sinker, curve, and change-up - but his "stuff". He just didn't have that "closer's mentality". Seriously.

Here's from September 2011:

"Johnson once blew a save (or two), which resulted in some people deciding that he didn't have the mentality of a closer, or something like that. His career numbers in saves are sparkling: an 0.79 ERA, a 2.8 strikeout to walk ratio and a .175/.221/.200 batting line against (batters are hitting .162/.205/.201 against Mariano Rivera in saves in his career). That's only 16 games, though. Let's expand out and look at all save situations versus non-save situations:

Save situations: 2.91 ERA, 114 1/3 innings pitched, 5.4 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 0.55 HR/9, Fielding Independent Pitching of 3.59

Non-save situations: 3.28 ERA, 134 1/3 innings pitched, 6.4 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 0.54 HR/9, Fielding Independent Pitching of 3.53

More strikeouts in non-save situations, but also more walks; he's pretty much the same guy overall (check out those FIPs). Batters are hitting .252/.304/.340 against him in save situations and .253/.318/.348 in non-save situations. Johnson can close if the team wants him to - he'd be fine at it."

There's some not dissimilar point here from April 2010.

It was entirely unnecessary to reproduce that passage, but it's a nice reminder of where we were once upon a time. Buck Showalter accepted this argument at the end of last season and into this season (though there was some discussion of moving JJ to the rotation), and so Jim Johnson was installed as the closer. Here are his stats for the last two years in a random order:

Year A: 2.67 ERA, 3.22 FIP, 3.42 xFIP, 5.7 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9, 62% GB
Year B: 2.49 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 3.63 xFIP, 5.4 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 0.4 HR/9, 62% GB

Ah, but what if I add:

Year A: 1.7 fWAR, 2.5 rWAR
Year B: 1.4 fWAR, 2.3 rWAR

Then it might be easier to guess. Year A - the season where Jim Johnson contributed more wins to the team - is 2011, of course. Year B is 2012. That's because as the closer, JJ was only rarely* asked to go more than one inning, so he finished with 68.2 IP (in 71 games). Last season, JJ had 91 IP in 69 games.

* He only pitched more than an inning twice, both times getting 2 IP against the Red Sox, in Boston, a month apart.

You don't often see a huge amount of consistency from year to year for relievers, but JJ was pretty much exactly the same guy this season that he was last season. You know, other than setting a club record by picking up 51 saves in 54 chances. He was consistent all year too, with two outings accounting for more than half of the total runs he allowed. In 32 of his 71 games, Johnson pitched an inning facing the minimum three batters*.

* No idea how that compares to the average closer, but it seems good. One data point; in 2009, Mariano Rivera pitched an inning facing the minimum 22 times in 66 games. Though he did go more than more inning more often, Mo faced the minimum in 39% of his outings that lasted an inning or less and Johnson did it in 46% of his.

It's a bit of a shame that JJ's sometimes devastating sinker isn't more of a swing and miss* offering. Though he can gets whiffs on his curve (and sometimes his change-up), pounding the zone with sinkers does keep things move along quickly and prevents walks and homer, but can leave Johnson vulnerable to the BABIP gods. Not that that's often been a problem - his BABIP against is just .279 for his career, and was .251 in 2012 - but, especially as a groundball pitcher in front of a sometimes poor infield defense, getting the K can often be better.

* His 5.4 K/9 is easily the lowest strike-out rate for a pitcher with 50 saves in a season. Next closest is 7.1 K/9, and that was back when strike-outs were less prevalent in general. 

The lack of strike-outs keeps Johnson from being one of the elite relievers in the Majors - even going by ERA, he was just 36th this year - but he's a good, usually* dependable guy to have at the back of the bullpen. The 51 saves might make his price-tag go up though (and he'll be a free agent soon), which means that it might actually be in the Orioles' best interests to shop him this off-season to a team in need of help in that area. Not that I'd mine terribly seeing him try to break his own record next year.

* Having the outcome of the ALDS essentially in his hands (though not really - an actual offense would have been nice), seeing Jim Johnson blow two games after the success he had this year was brutal. Luckily we seem to have avoided returning to the "he doesn't have a closer's mentality" stuff but, humorously may have tilted too far the other way in Game One ("he's a closer, don't bring him into a tie game").


Philip said...

Why in the world would they shop him now? Wouldn't it be better to signing long-term like they did with Adam Jones?

Lance Rinker said...

Good work on this Daniel. How do you feel about signing Johnson to a long-term deal? I know where I stand on the matter (against long-term deals for any relievers/closer), but was curious about your opinion on it.

Dustin said...

Love this post -- I've felt this way about closers for quite some time now. They're wildly overvalued by most teams in MLB, and you could obtain a lot more value in a trade then you would essentially be getting for them on your team.

This isn't to say that JJ is worthless, because he's not. But I imagine the potential drop-off in value to the team between JJ and a guy like Tommy Hunter or Brian Matusz would be minimal. If I ran a club, I'd treat the closer role sort of how the Denver Broncos treated the RB position for years. Plug an athlete into the system, let them reap the statistical benefits of playing that position, and then flip him for assets and plug the next guy into the void.

Daniel Moroz said...

Signing a non-elite reliever to a long-term contract right after he sets a club saves record seems like an awful idea. I like JJ, and would be glad to keep him on the team if he would sign a much cheaper contract than he's likely to accept (like $5 M a year). Otherwise, if a team is willing to give up a player that's capable of being a decent starter (either in the rotation or as a position player), I think you'd at least have to look really hard at it.

I wouldn't go quite as far as Dustin as far as closers being able to be swapped in and out as will, but I do think Tommy Hunter could do most of what JJ does.

Liam said...

I'd be willing to trade JJ if we got enough in return, but I don't think we would. What could the Orioles realistically expect in return for, as you said, a non-elite reliever?

What would you want the Orioles to give up for a guy who's a very solid reliever but doesn't strike guys out and is due for big pay bump?

Jon Shepherd said...

Liam...that is the question. Different organizations view closers differently. Look at the mess of folks who think Heath Bell is solid even though he continually shows otherwise. Lots of people liked Kevin Gregg. Maybe people like Johnson enough to offer a couple decent second tier prospects or maybe a recoverable commodity at first, second, or left.

Liam said...

I think those two scenarios are realistic, and I'd much rather hold into Johnson and his 2+ wins a year than take a chance on a couple unspectacular prospects or another reclamation project. The odds of whatever we recovered turning into as valuable an asset as Jim Johnson are too small.

Jon Shepherd said...

You don't lose Johnson's 2 wins. The wins get shifted with a bullpen.

Liam said...

They get shifted, but onto who? I see what you're saying but eventually you have to account for those ~70IP. Assuming those 70IP are pitched by replacement level players, the bullpen as a whole is out 2 wins. As far as I know we don't have much depth as far as quality relievers are concerned.

Jon Shepherd said...

Wins will shift. The difference is not really Johnson or the next guy to get into the bullpen because the people who are relatively similar to Johnson will be eating up some of those innings. The transitional effect is lower.