As the adage goes, 'keep it simple, stupid'.
Sometimes, it's doing the most with the least that allows you to succeed in a given situation. This notion was on display Tuesday night during the Orioles – Rays game, in the form of Jim Johnson's two seam fastball:
A fantastic pitch by Johnson to Sean Rodriguez, and one that is now beginning to define his success as Orioles closer. After a couple of years of less than stellar performances and toying with mixing in other pitches, Johnson has appeared to not only fine tune his two-seamer, but is now throwing it with Mariano Rivera-like frequency, to the benefit of the O's and detriment to hitters.
Let's have a closer look at the trajectory, figuratively and literally, of Johnson's pitch selection through the years, with a focus on the two-seamer. First, his pitch selection from last night, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
What we see here is the rare combination of elite velocity and movement of the two-seamer (FT) that Johnson has; this allows him to not only blow batters away with mid-to-high-90's velocity, but it also doesn't allow hitters to sit dead red, as they must respect the movement of the pitch as well. It's this movement that is also helping Johnson to a 54% groundball rate with the pitch (and 61% overall) thus far in 2013. Looking at the table above, last night's two-seamers for Johnson were averaging almost 8 inches of tail (Avg H-Break) along with about 6 inches of sink (Avg V-Break) into a right handed hitter, on par with bullpen mate Darren O'Day's submarine sinker.
We have a taste of the simplified approach that Johnson has begun to employ with the some visual assistance from last night's outing, let's now take a look back at Johnson over his career, again with the help of PITCHf/x and Brooks Baseball:
Let's look at the movement components of Johnson's offerings:
From these charts, we can see that Johnson's two-seamer (SI) not only has a little more sink (the vertical movement component), but also has more tail (horizontal movement) into right handed batters in 2013 versus 2012. Also of interest is Johnson's curveball (CU) characteristics. While he isn't using it as often as compared to other seasons, it does look to be a big curve by PITCHf/x standards, and is a nice way to keep hitters from sitting on a two-seamer, by changing the plane of the hitter's vision from the big break on the pitch and also from the change of speed compared to the fastball.
While not presented in graphical form here, Johnson's two-seamer is also looking to be a bit slower thus far in 2013, coming in at 93.7 MPH on average, compared to his career average of 94.8 MPH. In 2013, Johnson has also seen a slight uptick in strikeouts per 9 IP, coming in at 7.71, compared to a career average of 5.75 K/9; he is also inducing more groundballs in 2013 with the two-seamer, enjoying a 7:1 groundball to flyball rate, compared to his career rate of 2.7:1.
One remaining component and arguably the most important one, is the amount of confidence Johnson has in his two-seamer. Here, I present 3 more charts, looking at pitch use across inning. The x-axis is the inning and the y-axis is the percentage a pitch was thrown in that inning.
First, Johnson's pitch use for his career:
The trend we see here is how reliant Johnson has become upon his two-seamer in the late innings and how much success he has had in those high leverage situations with the pitch. It isn't a huge leap of faith to infer that as his increased use of and confidence in the two-seamer went, so did his productivity and performance; while it's still early for 2013, we do see an increased use of the two-seamer (roughly 70%) in the 9th inning, as compared to his 51 save, 2.4 rWAR 2012 season.
There has never been a doubt over whether Jim Johnson had the stuff to be a great reliever; the rate limiting step in his career has always been his ability to corral his impressive pitch repertoire and consistently repeat his mechanics and throw good strikes as a result. Sometimes the best way to move forward is to temporarily step back and simplify things; for Johnson, this meant mastering his whopper of a two-seam fastball and doing away with other pitches, in particular, his four-seam fastball. As a result, he has become the lockdown late inning reliever that Orioles fans have enjoyed in recent years, all while making opposing hitters look foolish in the process.
Jim Johnson - keeping it simple... and smart.