It was reported last week that Jim Johnson could be a potential free agent target for the Orioles this offseason, even as a starting pitcher. Between 2008 and 2013, he was an effective reliever for the Orioles, throwing 395 innings to the tune of a 2.92 ERA (3.48 FIP) while producing a total of 5.5 WAR (according to Fangraphs). This fWAR number was good enough to place Johnson 16th among relief pitchers over that time period (minimum 300 IP). Johnson sticks out on that list, as the majority of pitchers ahead of (and behind) him include closers and other relievers one would likely consider “dominant”. That is of course a subjective term, but in this case I’m specifically referring to pitchers with high strikeout rates. Despite ranking 16th in fWAR, Johnson ranked 51st (out of 53 pitchers) in K/9, with a paltry 6.02. There is however, “more than one way to skin a cat” (DO NOT go off skinning cats), and while Johnson never was a strikeout machine, he kept the ball on the ground and in the ballpark, ranking 6th in groundball percentage (58.0%) and 4th in HR allowed per 9 innings pitched (0.52) during that time, both excellent attributes to have while pitching in Camden Yards.
|Jim Johnson (photo by Keith Allison)|
Prior to the start of the 2014 season (and entering his last year before becoming eligible for free agency), the Orioles surprisingly dealt Johnson to the Oakland Athletics for former prospect Jemile Weeks and a player to be named later (that PTBNL would turn out to be minor league catcher David Freitas). To some however, this trade wasn’t as surprising as it appeared on the surface, as Johnson’s expected $10 million salary was considered expensive for a pitcher with his profile, especially for a team with a limited payroll such as Baltimore. Johnson’s inflated salary of course was a result of the arbitration process, one which rewards relief pitchers for saves (despite it being a dumb statistic), something Johnson had accumulated a lot of over the previous two years.
Since leaving the Orioles, Johnson has travelled quite a bit, performing as two completely different pitchers (but mostly as a bad one), depending on whose uniform he happened to be wearing. This is pretty obvious looking at his numbers in the table below.
So if the Orioles are seriously considering a reunion with Johnson, which version of the pitcher are they more likely to get?
Let’s first focus on Johnson’s “luck” based peripherals over the past two years. It’s important to note that the word luck is in quotes since poor pitching by Johnson could certainly have been a major contributor to his “bad luck”. Everything that could have gone bad in 2014 (and his time with the Dodgers in 2015) for Johnson did, as those numbers look horribly out of whack in comparison to his career norms.
But how much of this was truly a result of bad luck compared to just bad pitching? Obviously, Johnson also didn’t help himself by walking 13.3% of the batters he faced in 2014, although he appeared to correct those problems in 2015. Taking a look at his batted ball tendencies doesn’t really tell us much, as they stayed relatively close to his career levels. Yes, his LD% was up about 2.5% and his percentage of “hard” hit balls (according to Fangraphs) was up about 3.5% in 2014, but both levels were similar (or lower) than their levels in his very productive 2013 season. It’s interesting that he did allow 48.3% of balls in play to be pulled in 2014, which possibly helped contribute to his increase in HR/FB%.
What about changes in the pitches themselves, such as the velocity, movement, etc? Velocity does not appear to be the culprit as his velocity over the years has remained fairly consistent. The quality of his pitches is where we start to see some differences, especially with Johnson’s sinker, which is his main pitch. According to Brooks Baseball, the horizontal movement on the sinker has fluctuated depending on the year, but has been trending in the wrong direction since 2012. Johnson has also been getting less vertical movement on the sinker as well, showing a clear downward trend over the course of his career.
Finally, let’s take a look at pitch location. According to Brooks Baseball, Johnson has thrown his sinker 63% of the time over the course of his career, so we’ll keep the focus on that specific pitch. Additionally, Johnson has never shown a platoon split (.301 wOBA against facing LHB, .310 wOBA against facing RHB), so we won’t limit the analysis to facing certain batters. Here’s how the location of his sinker has evolved from 2012 (arguably his best year) to 2015.
Johnson’s 2015 season is arguably his most interesting, as he was very effective with the Braves, but was “dumpster fire” terrible with the Dodgers, so let’s take a closer look at where he threw the sinker during his time with each team.
The figure depicting his time with the Braves looks awfully similar to the one from 2013, which shows a lot of sinkers thrown middle-middle, indicating that he benefitted from some good luck. However, it looks like he also generally kept the sinker down in the zone better than he did in 2013, which is a good thing. However, there is no getting around the fact that Johnson was just bad in Los Angeles. He left nearly all of his sinkers up in the zone, making it hard to argue that his .446 BABIP and 25% HR/FB rate were just a function of bad luck, even in a very small sample size. It’s true that bad luck may have contributed, but Johnson wasn’t doing himself any favors.
There’s a mantra that hitters are supposed to follow against a pitcher who throws a sinker: “If it’s high, let it fly…if it’s low let it go.” Well, during his time with the Dodgers, Johnson was “pitchin’ ‘em high” and batters were “lettin’ it fly” to the tune of a .184 ISO. Compare that to a 0.046 ISO against his sinker during his time with the Braves and .099 ISO against his sinker over the course of his career.
Jim Johnson will never be a dominant pitcher, especially as the effectiveness and movement of his primary pitch (the sinker) continues to erode, which makes it even more important that he effectively locates the pitches he throws. Over the last couple of years, he’s failed to do that on a consistent basis. At this point, the Orioles would be wise not to offer him a guaranteed major league contract to be a member of their bullpen. And the notion that he’s a potential rotation candidate (as inferred in the link above) is even less advisable. I would never be against a team adding a guy like Johnson on a minor league deal with an invite to spring training, because it’s essentially a move with very limited downside. But even if that’s the route the Orioles take, they should be ready to cut bait at the first sign of trouble.