The month of June has been very kind to Josh Johnson. In 14.2 innings, the big right-hander owns a 1.84 ERA with impressive peripheral numbers to match: 16 strikeouts, just four walks, and no home runs against two quality lineups in Atlanta and Boston. The key has been a revival off the stuff that made him a Cy Young Award contender when healthy, stuff that was missing in the first two months of his return from a shoulder injury that ended his season after just nine starts in 2011.
In many cases, “stuff” is just a code word for velocity. Indeed, a big part of Johnson’s solid start to June has been an uptick in velocity. After owning an average fastball velocity between 94 and 95 from 2009-2011, Johnson mustered just a 92.9 average fastball over the first two months of the season, and most of his pitches similarly dropped in velocity.
Along with the velocity drop, Johnson’s slider lost much of its bite. Although it was still drawing whiffs — 18.5% after hovering around 21% in 2011 — when hitters made contact, it was very solid. For the first time in his career, Johnson’s slider has a negative pitch type value. This stems entirely from his failures over the first two months of the season, as one in every 12 sliders resulted in a hit — 13 singles, three doubles and a home run.
When Johnson is going well, even if hitters are able to make contact on the slider, they’re typically only able to spoil it and foul it off. Given how many whiffs Johnson draws on it, a foul is often just delaying the inevitable. That wasn’t the case over the first two months. Only 13% of Johnson’s sliders were fouled off over the first two months compared to over 17% in 2011.
With his velocity back, Johnson has thrown the slider nearly 10% more often in June (31.3% vs. 22.7%). Over 22% of these sliders have been fouled off compared to just 11% put in play. After allowing a barrage of hits off the slider in the first two months, hitters have managed just one — a single — in his last two starts. This more effective slider is coming in at the expense of his changeup — a pitch that has drawn just 3.5% whiffs and been worth -2.3 runs in just 86 offerings. As such, it’s easy to see why Braves and Red Sox hitters had a much more difficult time with Johnson than the rest of the league to date.
Johnson has had intermittent bright spots within the dull this season — an April 24th duel against Johan Santana and the Mets in which he struck out nine over 6.2 innings stands out — but this two start stretch to open June is the first we’ve seen of truly dominant Josh Johnson this season. The peripherals and the results of the Cy Young contender are finally back for consecutive starts. It’s always exciting to see a player of his talent level flash what they’re truly capable of. If this jump in velocity and the bite of his fastball is real and sustainable, we could see the old Josh Johnson return for good.