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Why the Toronto Blue Jays Need to Extend Josh Johnson

In the Marlins deal last November, Josh Johnson was the main headlining piece along with Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle. Then the Blue Jays added R.A. Dickey in December and the starting rotation looked to be very strong. Dickey, Morrow, Johnson, Buehrle, and Happ were all supposed to have strong seasons and hope for a 2013 World Series title was in abundance. Then came April. The rotation struggled, terribly. Josh Johnson seemed to be the worst infringer of them all. He was the worst disappointment of the season. But was he actually that bad?

Using all of the standard metrics for pitchers, Josh Johnson was brutal. He was 2-8 with a 6.20 ERA and 1.66 WHIP. He also only pitched 81 and a third innings. How could you possibly say he had a good season? Those stats look worse than 2012 Ricky Romero. If you take a look at his K/9 of 9.18 you see he had the best K/9 of his career. You also see that he had the worst BB/9 of his more recent years at 3.32. These two stats are a little deceiving in this case however. Because of his much longer innings, his K/9 and BB/9 would both be up as he faces more batters per inning. We then have to look at the rate per batter. He had a K% of 21.6%, which is just shy of his career average (not best, as K/9 suggests) of 21.9%. This makes his strikeout rate look less appealing but it is still very good. The adverse effect is applied to his walk rate, as his BB% was 7.8%. This mark is better than his last two years and better than his career average of 8.1%.

Now on to why I believe Josh Johnson will be a good starter next year and onward. In case you haven’t heard of them before, there are ERA-accompanying stats called FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. These stats try to eliminate events that are beyond the pitcher’s control (fielding independent pitching). FIP is calculated from K’s, BB’s, and HR’s to IP. xFIP is the same, except that it corrects the pitcher’s HR total to what it would be with a league average HR/FB rate. SIERA uses a more complex formula based on K%, BB%, and batted ball profiles (ground balls, fly balls, and pop ups) to approximate ERA. These three stats do a much better job of predicting future ERA than they do of current ERA. ERA fluctuates greatly from year to year and sample to sample for pitchers, while the guts of these metrics are more constant. ERA is not stable as it depends on luck in BABIP, HR/FB, and LOB as well as team defense. FIP is usually closest to the ERA of the sample, as it doesn’t account for HR/FB luck. SIERA is the best at predicting future ERA, followed closely by xFIP, FIP, and lastly, ERA.

So while Josh Johnson’s ERA is 6.20, his BABIP is an inflated .356 (compared to a career average of .305 and league average of .294) and this should regress back towards the mean. FIP has BABIP luck taken out of the equation and has Johnson with a FIP of 4.62. This is much lower than the 6.20 ERA, but 4.62 is still not very good for a pitcher of his price-tag. However FIP does not assume a league average HR/FB rate, this is where xFIP comes into play. Johnson’s HR/FB% this year is an abysmal 18.5% (compared to a 8.2% career average and 10.6% league average). It can be assumed that this will regress towards the mean as well next year. So accounting for this absurd HR/FB%, Josh Johnson had an xFIP of 3.60. That looks a little better doesn’t it? Especially since xFIP does a better job of predicting future ERA.

The one problem with using FIP and xFIP in this case however, is that they are based of rates with IP as the denominator. As I discussed earlier, due to the long nature of Josh Johnson’s innings, this would increase the K, BB, and HR per inning as more batters come to the plate. This is where SIERA comes into play as the best statistic to use in this case. SIERA, as mentioned prior, deals with rates where PA (or BF) is the denominator. It is also shown that batted ball profiles are somewhat controllable by the pitcher and have an impact on results. In most cases, xFIP and SIERA are very similar, but replacing the IP denominator with BF and including some batted ball profile gives SIERA the slight edge in predictability. Josh Johnson’s SIERA this year was 3.73, which is probably the best guess as to what we can expect his ERA to be going forward.

3.73 or 3.60 look excellent and amazing considering the results we saw. What a ray of hope! But what if he really was just more hittable this year? What if he wasn’t unlucky and batters can just hit him? This is what I will look into now.

Johnson’s injury history and the effect it has had on his velocity is well documented. He is not the same pitcher he was in ’09 and ’10.  He is a different pitcher now, but he has been this way for two years, not one. Josh Johnson is the same pitcher that he was in 2012 when he posted a 3.81 ERA for the Marlins (he might even be better). How is this possible you say? His ERA has jumped 2.39 runs! I will dive into all of his peripherals to prove that he hasn’t changed that much.

First let’s take a look at his velocity (I will be using PITCHf/x numbers for all values).

His average FB velocity in 2012 was 92.8mph, while this year it is 92.9mph. Slider velocity was 86.9mph and now is 86.1mph. Curve was 78.5mph and now is 79.1mph while his changeup was 87.6mph and now is 88.6mph. All of these velocities are very constant! There is nothing here inferring that he is more hittable than last year, let’s move on.

Let’s look at plate discipline to see if there is anything that suggests hittability. His O-Swing% (outside zone swing%) was 30.9% and now is 32.3%. This should decrease hittability if anything, since contact should be worse on pitches outside of the zone. His Z-Swing (zone swing%) is a constant 60.4% compared to last year. His O-Contact% is slightly up (59.5% to 61.9%) but this shouldn’t matter, as these pitches should be less hittable. His Z-Contact% is slightly down (90.9% to 89.6%), which should be good as it means more whiffs in the zone. His zone% in also slightly down (44.9% to 43.7%), but who cares if he doesn’t walk more batters. Lastly, his SwStr% (swinging strike%) is essentially constant (9.2% to 9.3%). Again there is nothing here to suggest that batters should be able to hit him better.

I have heard some people say that he just gets rattled when things go bad. I’d like to partially debunk this theory, as his pace (time between pitches) is essentially the same as last year (20.9s in 2012 and 21.0s in 2013). Pitchers who are rattled generally take more time between pitches. There’s not really any other stats that can prove otherwise, as all his peripherals are fairly constant.

The one main difference that is notable in his peripherals between 2012 and 2013, is his 2-seam fastball use. He has used his two-seamer 13.3% of the time compared to only 4.8% last season. This difference has come at an expense of all three of his secondary pitches, which are all slightly down in usage. Is his two-seamer a bad pitch? It’s certainly not his best. I would take pitch values from this year with a grain of salt, as they are all low due to his bad luck, but his two-seamer has been below average for three years in a row: -1.94 RAA/100 pitches (runs above average) in 2011, -2.43 RAA/100 in 2012 and -1.99 RAA/100 in 2013.  Other than his changeup since his velocity decline (which went from average to well below average), the two-seamer has been consistently his worst pitch. The fact that he is using it more is not a good thing, but this is easily corrected if it is pointed out to him. It has nothing to do with a lack of ability. His above average curve and slider have taken a hit in usage and this needs to be corrected.

Pitch selection hasn’t been too much of an issue for him in terms of strikeouts and walks however. Both his K% and BB% are trending the right direction from last year. His K% is up 0.9%, while his BB% is down 0.4%. These both suggest he has improved since last year, and his xFIP and SIERA mirror that. xFIP has gone from 3.73 to 3.60 while SIERA has improved from 3.86 to 3.73. He has been getting better at pitching with his reduced velocity, not worse (as it appears on the surface).

One counter argument to this could be that he’s just throwing more meatballs down the middle that are getting hit, but also mean he walks less and strike out more. This was partially debunked by his lower zone% and lower z-contact% from before, but I want a little more proof that this is not the case. FanGraphs, with the help of PITCHf/x, is an amazing website that, in addition to all these fancy stats, also provides heat maps for pitchers to see exactly where they are throwing the ball.

Here are Johnson’s 2012 heat maps:

And here are his 2013 heat maps:

Not much difference is there? He enjoys throwing down and away the most, and this hasn’t changed at all. In case you’re wondering, there is less yellow in 2013 because he’s thrown about half as many pitches.

Another theory I have heard would be that his pitches are straighter now. I will look into this. This actually might have a case. His movement on each pitch has decreased since last year (around .6 inches for each pitch). However, we need to look into the numbers a little deeper. PITCHf/x movement in the z-direction (up or down) excludes gravity and gives a movement number in which the ball would move without gravity. What does this mean if we have positive movement values (which Johnson does with every pitch except his curve)? It means that, without gravity, each pitch would move up. In reality, gravity is much larger than this movement force and the balls drop. So a larger positive movement number means that the ball will drop less than a smaller movement value, and therefore have less movement. Johnson’s fastball and this two-seam fastball (to a larger extent), both have less rise this year, this means they actually have more drop. His slider is about the same while his changeup and curve are showing slightly less drop. I might say this is a problem, but his curve was his best pitch this year while his changeup has been bad for 2 years anyways and should just be a show pitch. I would be more concerned if he was showing less movement in the horizontal direction, but this isn’t the case. With the exception of his changeup (which is moving less), each pitch’s horizontal movement is almost identical to 2012. All things considered, nothing here suggests that he is any more hittable, especially considering his batted ball profile.

One last thing to look at is to see if batters are getting better contact aside from high home run rates is batted ball profile. Again these almost look identical to 2012. His line drive rate is slightly up (23.6% to 24.2%). It isn’t much, but still a small concern. His ground ball rate is related and took a small hit (46.2% to 45.1%). His fly ball rate is slightly up too (30.2% to 30.7%), but that’s not a problem either. His infield fly ball rate is also up (7.2% to 8.6%) which is actually good since they are almost always an out. His infield-hit rate is up (5.1% to 5.9%) showing some more of his bad luck. Again, SIERA takes batted balls into consideration and it wasn’t too concerned with his rates with the 3.73. There are some xBABIP formulae out there that predict what BABIP should be based on batted balls. These formulae are better at suggesting if a pitcher (or batter) has changed their true talent BABIP (instead of getting lucky) then actually predicting BABIP.  Using Steve Staud’s xBABIP that uses LD%, FB%, and IFFB%, Josh Johnson’s 2012 and 2013 xBABIPs are nearly identical (.3163 to .3159). Matt Swartz’s xBABIP uses GB% and K% and yields .2894 in 2012 and .2880 in 2013. This is almost exactly the same again. This suggests that Josh Johnson’s true talent BABIP has not changed and that he has been getting very unlucky. There is no large or conclusive outliers in Josh Johnson’s stats suggesting that he his any different of a pitcher than in 2012.

Another thing that I would like to add is that Josh Johnson has been very consistent at preventing home runs and having a HR/FB rate that is less than league average. This is shown by his 8.2% career average and that he has posted HR/FB rates lower than league average in every year of his career except 2013. This causes his FIP to be consistently lower than his xFIP and SIERA (has been every year save 2013). So while xFIP and SIERA are the best estimators of ERA, Josh Johnson usually outperforms them in FIP. He had an excellent 3.40 FIP last year and was just a bit unlucky with LOB%, which cause his ERA to higher at 3.81. Using all of this information and the proof that Josh Johnson hasn’t changed, it would be safe to say that his ERA should be around 3.55 next year (if he were still in the NL) if everything keeps trending the same way.

There are two more things to consider though: league change and age. The AL ERA this year is 0.26 runs higher than the NL ERA. This can be accounted for in the 3.55, which brings him back to around 3.70-3.90. Age is another thing to consider, Josh Johnson is going from 29 to 30 years old. As a pitcher, this actually gives him an approximate 0.05 decrease in ERA. This generalization is shown in this graph from Baseball Prospectus. Taking this into consideration I believe we will see Josh Johnson post an ERA between 3.65 and 3.85 next year.



So let’s say we have Johnson posting a 3.75 ERA next year. A full season of Johnson should be around 3.0 WAR, cut his innings in half (injury risk) and that’s still 1.5 WAR. With wins being worth approximately $9M next year, Josh Johnson could realistically be worth anywhere from $13.5M to $27M, depending on injuries. A qualifying offer will be around that $13.5M. So even with a qualifying offer, the downside is that you will pay what you get, while the upside is much better. You can’t really lose. However I don’t think the Jays need to pay him $13.5M. Remember, he posted a 6.20 ERA this year. GMs around the league, as well as agents, will want to stay away from a bad, injury-prone pitcher. I believe the Jays could extend Johnson at around $11M/year over three years. At this price you could most certainly expect positive value from him. There are not really any cases like this to compare the situation with, so predicting possible contracts is a shot in the dark, but no matter the contract, I am positive it will be worth it. The Blue Jays definitely need to extend Josh Johnson as soon as possible. It is one of the best buy low opportunities they’ll ever encounter.