Pitcher Study: Josh Johnson

Is Josh Johnson still an ace?

The 2012 season had some encouraging signs after shoulder injuries cut short potential Cy Young campaigns in 2010 and 2011. Johnson posted a 3.81 ERA and 3.40 FIP, but more importantly he took the mound 31 times, showing he at least has the ability to make it through an entire season without major issue.

But the results have to be considered unsatisfactory relative the the prior three seasons. In 458 innings from 2009 to 2011, Johnson managed a brilliant 2.64 ERA and 2.74 FIP. I watched one of Johnson’s more typical starts from 2012 — September 12th against Philadelphia (7 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 6 K, 3 BB, 1 HR) — and I came away with two questions, the answers to which will determined if Johnson can return to his prior ace level.

Can his fastball return to the out pitch it was in 2010?

Johnson’s fastball velocity has continuously dropped since his shoulder issue first turned up in late 2010, ending his season. After averaging 95.0 MPH in 2009 and 2010, Johnson’s fastball slipped to 93.8 in 2011 and 92.8 in 2012.

When humming in the upper 90s, Johnson’s fastball was a swing-and-miss out pitch nearly in league with breaking pitches. Beyond just being able to place it for a strike, Johnson drew whiffs on 10.3 percent of fastballs in 2010 — just under the 11.3 percent average curveball whiff rate and well above the 6.0 percent average fastball whiff rate.

With two strikes, a swing-and-miss fastball is a huge asset. The ability to blow away hitters with the easiest pitch to locate allows pitchers to conserve pitch count while racking up outs (and strikeouts in particular).

But as Johnson’s velocity has dissipated, the fastball just doesn’t work as well in the two-strike count. Hitters have always done more damage against it when put in play — a .268 average and .399 slugging percentage against .205/.277 on his slider and .165/.223 on the curveball. With the decreased velocity, hitters are making more contact on Johnson’s fastball, and so it loses its viability next to his incredible slider (20.7 percent whiff rate last season).

As the logic suggests, Johnson’s fastball usage in pitcher’s counts has significantly decreased as hitters make more contact. Observe, his percent fastball usage (denoted by lines) when ahead in the count along with fastball whiff/swing (denoted by bars), by year:

In order to bury hitters when ahead in the count, Johnson has had to swap out the fastball for more curveballs, which leads to question number two:

Can Johnson throw enough curveballs and sliders for strikes?

By flipping five percent of his fastballs into curveballs, Johnson has managed to maintain a good overall whiff rate despite his more hittable fastball. At 9.2 percent in 2012, his whiff rate was indistinguishable from 2008 and 2009, with his 11.8 percent mark in 2010 looking like an outlier. But despite getting just as many whiffs as usual, Johnson posted his worst K/9 in six years and his worst BB/9 in five years.

By switching from fastballs to breaking balls, Johnson has had to sacrifice some of his control of the strike zone. Whereas his fastball has gone for a ball just 35 percent of the time for his career, that number rises to 39 percent for both the curveball and slider. In 2012, over 40 percent of his breaking pitches were missing the zone (42 percent of the more prominent sliders, 38 percent of curveballs)

The effect was palpable in his start against the Phillies. On multiple occasions, Johnson jumped out to 0-2 or 1-2 counts but would lose them via obvious balls thrown on breaking pitches. In the seventh inning, Johnson fell from 0-2 to 3-2 on Pete Orr (including a slider and a curve) and allowed a single on a full-count fastball. The next batter, Jimmy Rollins, took the first two pitches for balls (changeup, slider) and launched a 2-0 fastball into right field to give the Phillies a 3-1 lead.

According to StatCorner, 77.6 percent of Johnson’s strikeouts were by the swing in 2012, his highest mark ever. Fewer looking strikeouts led to more walks and a more human Josh Johnson on the mound.

Unless Josh Johnson comes out pumping 96-97 MPH in his first start as a Blue Jay — and what a sight that would be for Toronto — expect to see continued extra breaking balls. And unless Johnson can find the zone with those breaking balls with a little more consistency, expect him to pitch like the number-two qualiy pitcher we saw as a Miami Marlin as opposed to the Florida Marlins ace of 2009-2010.

PITCHf/x data from BrooksBaseball.net



Print This Post



Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Hurtlockertwo
Guest
Hurtlockertwo
3 years 7 months ago

I’m thinking the Marlins don’t care.

ArodinmyPujols
Guest
ArodinmyPujols
3 years 7 months ago

I’m thinking the Reds don’t care

Gleb
Guest
Gleb
3 years 7 months ago

You can bet that Toronto Cares.
Johnson, Romero, Buehrle, Morrow, ______ is still a pretty good rotation.
Is it good enough to contend in the AL East? That depends on if johnson is an Ace, or just a solid pitcher. Can Romero bounce back? Can Morrow stay healthy?

Antonio bananas
Guest
Antonio bananas
3 years 7 months ago

Can Reyes stay healthy and not decline, can Bautista stay healthy and not decline, can encarnacion keep it up? Lots of question marks.

nilbog44
Member
nilbog44
3 years 7 months ago

Romero was the worst pitcher in baseball last year basically. He has a long way to bounce back.

Paul
Guest
Paul
3 years 7 months ago

Is it possible for these results to improve? Could Johnson gain his velo and K’s back? Or is a steady decline expected (especially with the move to the AL)

Pete
Guest
Pete
3 years 7 months ago

If I am not mistaken, I thought I read somewhere that Johnson had some very solid numbers against the AL East so maybe numbers will increase. I wonder the same about his velocity though.

Phil
Guest
Phil
3 years 7 months ago

The ‘move to the AL East’ stuff is getting heavily overblown. The Boston offense is not what it was, Tampa is built on defence and pitching, and the O’s are likely to fall back to Earth. The best offense in the division might be the one JJ doesn’t have to face

GMH
Guest
GMH
3 years 7 months ago

Perhaps. But the Rays and Yanks were one-two in walks, and the Yanks and the Orioles were one-two in home runs. One-third of Johnson’s starts will be against teams with a lot of power and/or that wear pitchers down with deep counts. Efficiency has never been Johnson’s strength, and the drop in velocity and heavier reliance on breaking balls makes him more prone to longer at bats. Toronto may not be a good fit.

Phil
Guest
Phil
3 years 7 months ago

You could say the same about any pitcher – who wouldn’t pitch better in the NL West in a cavernous ballpark?

If the O’s are top two in HRs again next year I will eat my hat, your hat and everyone else’s who has ever visited Fangraphs. The Yankees line up will obviously be tough, and the Rays may walk alot but they also don’t hit that much. I don’t know how different it is to other divisions – I saw an interesting comp showing the AL central had better overall rankings in Runs scored than the East last year

The Party Bird
Guest
The Party Bird
2 years 7 months ago

Orioles top the majors in home runs for 2013. Hope you like eating hats.

TheGrandSlamwich
Guest
TheGrandSlamwich
3 years 7 months ago

I will not let you eat my hat!

jim
Guest
jim
3 years 7 months ago

he’s going from a division with almost all neutral or slightly pitcher’s parks to a division with almost all hitter friendly parks. i think that’s very relevant.

Phil
Guest
Phil
3 years 7 months ago

The fact that they are hitter friendly parks is not only true for Josh Johnston, but the opposing pitcher as well, so whilst true it doesn’t affect Johnson’s chances of helping his team win games

Preston
Guest
Preston
3 years 7 months ago

2012
AL East: 3663 runs in 2012, 19443 runs last five years
NL East: 3,374 runs in 2012, 17,705 runs the last five years

They are very different scoring environments. You may want to chalk it up to some bias about the Yanks and Sox, but it just happens to be true.

Antonio bananas
Guest
Antonio bananas
3 years 7 months ago

Not exactly perfect. Neutralize for the do and instead of looking at the divisions as a whole, only look at the 4 teams he didn’t/won’t be playing for.

Antonio bananas
Guest
Antonio bananas
3 years 7 months ago

For the DH, not the do

Antonio bananas
Guest
Antonio bananas
3 years 7 months ago

Not gonna do the last 5 years. But al east runs scored (minus Toronto) 4.55, al average 4.4. NL east minus Mia, 4.25, NL average 4.2.

When you break it down, only the Yankees 5 runs/game is the only AL east team that is above the AL average. The NL east had both the Nats at 4.5 and Atlanta at 4.3 above NL average. So in the l east, he had to face more teams with better than league average offense. In the al east, based on last year, he’ll be facing mostly league average offenses and one way above average offense.

Bruce
Guest
Bruce
3 years 7 months ago

This holds true for many other pitchers – Roy Halladay, for one – who start out as fireballers then start throwing fewer fastballs, and at lower velocities, as their game develops. With a fastball that he can throw for strikes at 92 and pump up to 95 if necessary, Johnson’s still got ace material as long as he has nasty breaking stuff to get batters out. Which he does.

Jake
Guest
Jake
3 years 7 months ago

Johnson doesn’t need to return to 95 MPH to be effective. You can’t reasonably expect him to gain 2 MPH on his fastball with advancing age can you (how was his velocity last half of the 2012 season compared to first)? Besides, who doesn’t want a 3.4 FIP and 3.8 WAR on their roster? Whether that disqualifies him as a legitimate ace (whatever that means) he’ll probably give the Jays exactly what they expect and what they need. As a Jays’ fan, the only concern for me was 2012’s HR/9 as Johnson moves to a more hitter-friendly park against teams that generally hit more dingers. If he can gain even a bit of steam on his fastball he could improve to maybe a 4.5 WAR which the Jays would likely be thrilled with. Being on a more competitive team might also give him confidence and incentive to improve.

Jake
Guest
Jake
3 years 7 months ago

Looking more into this, his velocity seemed to peak in June/July as did his K/9 rate. Maybe his arm started to fatigue after that? With a full summer of health, perhaps his velocity can hover around 93.5 with a K/9 around 8.5.

ALEastbound
Guest
3 years 7 months ago

I think more savvy Jays fans realize we are probably getting a good #2 type starter. But the mainstream media has definitely made it seem like he is all but guaranteed to be a top 5 AL pitcher.

Mike
Guest
Mike
3 years 7 months ago

As a Marlin fan who watched a number of JJ’s starts this year. The loss of FB velocity was highly significant in the way he works the counts. He is effectively a two pitch pitcher – the change up is nothing special and was always reliant on the FB, both as a set up for the slider and to put hitters away. This year hitters were able to run the counts deeper as they could catch up with and foul of the FB.

I wouldn’t expect the FB velocity to return, and rarely would he ‘pump it up’ to 95 it was usually less even when running a 4 seamer up in the zone. The old JJ could run the 4 seamer high at 97. Also remember that the Marlins went with a 6 man rotation for a period during the summer to increase rest on all their arms and there was no spike in velocity as you might expect.

Personally I think he will be good for a 3.5 WAR but not the pitcher he was at his peak. He is good value this year but I would be cautious about extending.

Mark
Guest
Mark
3 years 7 months ago

Didn’t Keith Law say that the high end fastball velocity returned at the end of the year?

Jake
Guest
Jake
3 years 7 months ago

Looking at the fangraphs velocity chart that doesn’t seem to be the case but it’s hard to tell without raw data. It actually looks like June/July his velocity was the highest which seemed to result in a K/9 around 8.5 but that’s just eyeballing it. Would be nice if the author could look into it.

wpDiscuz