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The Josh Johnson Dilemma

Earlier this year, Jack Moore reviewed Josh Johnson‘s inability to get hitters out while pitching from the stretch. Johnson and the Jays were very much aware of the situation, but even still, it did not improve as the season went on. In the end, Johnson limited batters to a .315 wOBA and a .307 BABIP when he worked out of a full wind-up, while opposing batters had a .440 wOBA and a .450 BABIP when Johnson worked out of the stretch. His BABIP while pitching from the stretch was 73 points higher than any other pitcher that made at least 15 starts in 2013.

The simple answer this dramatic split would be to simply point at Johnson’s BABIP and say he was unlucky. If one were to review the video from the first inning of his July 27th start against Houston, one could certainly believe that:

  1. Line drive single off the glove of Mark DeRosa by Jonathan Villar
  2. Line drive single past a diving Mark DeRosa by Jose Altuve
  3. Single through the right side by Jason Castro past a diving Mark DeRosa scores 1
  4. First pitch 3-run home run by Chris Carter

As Bruce Springsteen said in Lucky Town, “When it comes to luck you make your own.” Johnson’s .400 BABIP from the stretch through his first 11 starts ballooned to .625 over his final five outings, at which point he was mercifully shut down for rest of the season. There is certainly some bad luck in those results, but in reviewing the 2013 data and video, it appears to be part bad results, and part bad process.

Moore was not the only writer to review Johnson’s issues from the stretch in 2013, as many media types that cover Toronto noticed this as well. Gregg Zaun was the most critical of Johnson, believing the pitcher’s issues were related to his mechanics, his sequencing of his pitches, his velocity, and even his demeanor. Zaun believed the larger problem for Johnson was adjusting with his fastball, as he shared with Mike Rutsey of the Toronto Sun:

“He can’t pitch with his fastball (currently) and he needs to pitch with his fastball,” Zaun went on. “At 92 or 93, he’s got to be on the edges. When he was throwing 96-plus, he could afford to miss in the middle of the plate because he could out-stuff guys… if he’s going to be living at 92 and 93, he better be pinpoint and learn how to pitch with that fastball.

“His curve has some bite at times, his slider is pretty darn good at times, but they all have to be set up with his fastball and I don’t see a guy right now who can pitch to all four quadrants of the strike zone with his fastball.”

Manager John Gibbons stated one specific criticism for Johnson to Rosie DiManno of the Toronto Star in terms of his mechanics, but was as befuddled as the hurler about the exact root cause of the issue.

“He has a tendency to yank it to his glove side, falls off the mound a little bit,’’ said Gibbons. “I think that’s where he gets in trouble. “It’s not something that jumps out at you . . . he gets in the stretch, he’s tipping something or what have you. It’s been kind of a mystery for him, for us.’’

Pitching coach Pete Walker echoed some of the same thoughts to DiManno as well as Brendan Kennedy, also of the Toronto Star:

“He tends to fly open a little bit right now in the lower half (of his body),’’ Walker observed. “So he’s missing a little bit of the arm side at times and also pulling his breaking ball off the plate….We’re trying to get him over his front side a little bit better, a little more stable on his front side and finishing pitches better down in the zone….he’s definitely having a tough time commanding the fastball with runners on….We’re certainly aware of that & we’re trying to rectify it.”

Simply put, Johnson was Jeckyll from the windup and Hyde from the stretch. The table below shows Johnson’s overall indicators in 2013.

Delivery GB% Contact Z-Contact Zone% O-Swing BABIP
Windup 47.9% 72.3% 82.9% 43.3% 28.0% 0.307
Stretch 40.1% 77.5% 85.9% 41.3% 30.1% 0.450

When Johnson had to pitch from the stretch, he was unable to get on top of the baseball to generate the high rate of ground balls that he typically has done throughout his career and batters made frequent contact with his pitches, regardless of location. Now, let us look at those same indicators by pitch type for Johnson in 2013.

First, his fastballs:

Delivery GB% Contact Z-Contact Zone% O-Swing BABIP
Windup 47.5% 82.3% 85.6% 50.6% 25.9% 0.299
Stretch 43.4% 87.8% 89.4% 47.7% 28.9% 0.437

Next, his breaking balls:

Delivery GB% Contact Z-Contact Zone% O-Swing BABIP
Windup 45.0% 56.8% 75.3% 32.3% 31.6% 0.282
Stretch 34.2% 57.1% 75.5% 33.0% 33.6% 0.471

His change-up indicators are not listed because he only threw so few of them as his usage of the pitch has declined each of the past four seasons. His fastball found the zone with less frequency from the stretch, but when it did find the zone, batters had little trouble making contact with the pitch and hitting the ball into play safely. While batters also were able square up Johnson’s breaking balls in the zone for hits at an alarming rate, most of his indicators held true except for the decreased ground ball rate.

Those types of issues tend to appear when a pitcher is struggling with the command of his pitches, as well as falling into predictable patterns of pitch selection. When Johnson worked out of the stretch in 2013 and was behind in the count, he threw fastballs 71% of the time, compared to just 46% when he was ahead in the count. The fact Johnson had to use a pitch that he couldn’t command so frequently throughout the season helped lead to the forgettable final numbers he posted.

Johnson had the worst season of his career at the most inopportune time, as it was his final year before free agency. He missed half the season with arm issues that eventually ended his season on August 11th and resulted in surgery on October 1st. It is worth giving Johnson a mulligan due to the injuries which no doubt had an impact on his mechanics, but at the same time, it is still data that has to be considered when determining how much to pay him this winter.

The fact Johnson has worked more than 200 innings in a season just once in his career will loom large for any team looking to add his services in 2014, but there are still skills here to work with, as his 3.58 xFIP from 2013 shows. Pittsburgh’s attention to defensive positioning — and recent track record for helping pitchers rediscover what made them successful — would certainly be an intriguing landing spot for the still-talented right-hander.