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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