25 October 2014

The Inconsistent Norfolk Career of Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson in 2014. Photo courtesy of Norfolk Tides/Christopher McCain
While the Orioles were enjoying their postseason, and everyone's attention was focused on the present, it seemed unlikely to me that anyone would want to read about their past or their future. My interest and expertise - their farm system in general and their AAA affiliate at Norfolk is particular - necessarily focuses on the Orioles' future (and past.) But now that their 2014 run has ended, perhaps fans will now look forward to the future and you may be interested in what I saw at Norfolk.

Going back to 2012, the first year of the Orioles' recent run of success, one of the unsung contributors was right-handed pitcher Steve Johnson. Johnson was called up in July for a brief period after somewhat unexpectedly pitching well at Norfolk, was optioned back, and then recalled for good after the September roster expansion. Johnson pitched in twelve games (four starts, eight relief appearances) for 38 1/3 innings. In those innings, he was credited with four wins and blamed for no losses, with a 2.11 ERA. While the Orioles may very well have earned a wild-card berth even without his contributions, Johnson and Joe Saunders supported the fast-fading Orioles rotation in the final month.

Johnson was considered for an important role on the 2013 Orioles' staff. Unfortunately both for him and for the Orioles, he started the season on the disabled list with a lat strain. He spent 2013 shuttling between Baltimore, Norfolk, and the Disabled List. He was ineffective (7.47 ERA in 16 innings) with the Orioles; moderately effective (4.11 ERA in 46 innings) with the Tides; and presumably successful during his time on the DL.

The Orioles solidified their pitching staff for 2014, and Johnson was no longer considered a contender for a key role. Instead, there was a feeling that if he could recover his 2012 form, he would be a nice bonus and/or insurance policy. Instead, Johnson again spent much of the season on the Disabled List and the rest of the season recovering from his time on the Disabled List. He had a 7.11 ERA in thirteen Norfolk starts and an innings-pitched total more in keeping with a high-school draftee in the Gulf Coast League - 13 starts, 38 innings pitched.

2012 wasn't Johnson's first stint with Norfolk. In 2011, he was pitching very well at AA Bowie when Norfolk needed some more starting pitchers. Johnson got the promotion and made seventeen starts at Norfolk. He wasn't very effective, with a 5.56 ERA in 87 innings. So I've seen Johnson in four different seasons at Norfolk; two in which he was poor (2011 and 2014); one in which he was so-so (2013); and one in which he was excellent (2012). That got me wondering - what were the differences between good Steve Johnson and bad Steve Johnson? Was it just good fortune? Even if he was recovering from injury in 2014, did he regress to his 2011 form or was he bad in a different way?

The table below shows, for each season, the number of total plate appearances I saw and recorded in each of the past four seasons, and the outcomes (on a percentage basis) of those plate appearances. The batted-ball outcomes combine hits, outs, and errors; I arbitrarily included hit batsmen in with the walks. A ground ball is any low-trajectory batted ball that was not or would not have been caught in the air by an infielder (had one been in the right position.) Finally, the distinction between a fly ball and line drive reflects my judgement; for what it's worth, Baseball Info Solutions has not questioned my decisions in the games I've recorded for them.

Plate Appearances
Ground Balls
Fly Balls
Line Drives

Observation #1 - Johnson is not a ground-ball pitcher. 35.6% of the batted balls he allows are ground balls. For every ground ball hit off him, almost two fly balls/line drives are hit.

Observation #2 - Johnson's 2012 success can be attributed to two things. First, his 2012 walk rate was by far the lowest of his four Norfolk season. Second, he had a low line drive rate (for him) and a high ground ball rate (also for him.) It's admittedly speculation, but it's possible that his decreased walk rate reflected improved control, and consequently he wasn't working behind in the count as much and didn't have to make as many easily-hittable pitches. I do have the raw data to explore that hypothesis, and so perhaps I will do so later in the offseason.

Observation #3 - Johnson was ineffective in 2011 and 2014 for different reasons. In 2011, Johnson simply surrendered too many line drives. While not every line drive is the prototypical "screaming liner", and some line drives are soft line drives, all of them are low-trajectory balls that wouldn't hit the ground before passing the infielders. It's been established that line drives turn into base hits more than fly balls or ground balls. So if, like Johnson, you're giving up line drives to nearly 20% of the batters you face, you're giving up a lot of base hits.

In 2014, perhaps because he was recovering from two years of injury and consequent low usage, Johnson walked too many batters. In the games I saw, Johnson walked 21% of the batters he faced; over the entire season, he walked 16%. In a more common measurement, that's 7.1 walks per nine innings.

Johnson has been outrighted off the Orioles' 40-man roster and will most likely become a free agent. The Orioles may try to re-sign him to a minor league contract and hope he recovers. We'll know what to look for to determine the degree of his recovery.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Really thought Steve was going to help this team esp in 2013 but injuries have just derailed him.

With pitchers you never know if it comes back. Hopefully, we can resign and see what progresses.

Best of luck, Steve.