Is Josh Johnson Back?

With my many fantasy baseball squads, sometimes I feel like I’m in complete control, and sometimes I feel like I’m flying down a snowy mountainside on a bike at near 60 miles per hour, surely destined for an epic crash (click on the link, it’s must-watch stuff). Owning Josh Johnson on a couple squads, I’ve felt a little of both.

Coming off of a serious shoulder injury in 2011, Johnson,28, had a strong enough Spring with 24 strikeouts over 22.1 innings pitched that indicated he ought to be healthy, and when Josh Johnson has been healthy, he’s typically been a guy you want in your fantasy rotation. As soon as the stats counted though, the results were sorely lacking. That is, until his start on Tuesday where he looked much more like the guy we either loved or coveted throughout all of 2010. So is it time to trust Josh Johnson going forward?

One of the first places we often look for information when players are returning from injury (or to explain ineffective performance) is fastball velocity. For Johnson, his velocity has been pretty solid from the get go:

Average FBv Max FBv
4-Apr 92.8 95.4
11-Apr 92.41 94
17-Apr 92.94 94.4
24-Apr 93.09 94.7

The average has been consistent enough, and in fact, his fastest pitch came in his first outing, but it’s interesting to see his speed over the course of his start that first game:

He started wearing down as early as the second inning (he threw 22 pitches in the first). He managed to be fairly successful after a rough pair of innings, but he struggled to keep his fastball up over 92 and started working in more off-speed stuff as the game went on.

What’s particularly interesting about his first couple of starts is the dramatic change in his pitch selection. When Johnson was so successful in 2010 and 2011, he was about a 45% fastball, 25% slider, mixing in occasional two seamers, curveballs, and change-ups. His first start was dominated by a four-seam fastball and the second start was — just bizarre (columns represent first and second start of the season):

1st 2nd
FF 65% 21%
SL 15% 8%
CH 11% 35%
CU 6% 8%
FT 4% 29%

It was almost as if Johnson was experimenting or he just flat out knew he couldn’t locate his slider. But 35% change-ups is just strange. What’s perhaps even stranger was the fact that he barely missed a bat. He quite literally had one whiff in his entire outing, and it was on a four seam fastball. Here’s the whiff rates from the first two starts:

1st 2nd
FF 7% 6%
SL 15% 0%
CH 11% 0%
CU 0% 0%
FT 0% 0%

Ugly. His slider in 2011 was worth almost 3.5 runs above average per 100 pitches, and was far and away his best pitch. What was going on in the second start, I have no idea – but his change and his two seam fastball have historically been his two worst pitches. In fact, his two seamer has been absolutely torched so far in 2012 at over seven runs below average per 100 pitches. But over his third and fourth starts, things start to stabilize a bit:

3rd 4th
FF 42% 48%
SL 26% 22%
CH 12% 14%
CU 6% 14%
FT 14% 3%

His pitch selection starts to resemble the Josh Johnson of old, and his whiff rates also started to return:

3rd 4th
FF 5% 10%
SL 19% 27%
CH 8% 7%
CU 0% 7%
FT 7% 33%

And in his fourth start, his velocity throughout the game was much more steady, even throwing his fastest pitch in the 6th inning. Overall, he averaged the highest velocity of the year in his last start:

It could be that Johnson wasn’t quite comfortable in his first couple of starts or he was still building his stamina – I’m just speculating. But his results have been far better as his repertoire starts to hone in on what made him so successful in the past.

A few other reasons to be optimistic about Johnson include a sky high BABIP at .408 (career average of .299), a 68.4% strand rate, and the fact that when he’s been hit, he hasn’t been hit particularly hard. He’s given up 31 hits in 23.1 innings pitched, but fully 27 of those hits have been singles. What’s more, 12 of those 27 have been ground ball singles and his BABIP on grounders thus far is .308 and the league average is .221.

I’m very much looking forward to see if Johnson can build on this last start as we move into May. With another start or two like the last one, owners can begin to feel a little more comfortable about leaning on him and if you’re not an owner, you might start thinking about targeting him before his counting stats start to snap back into a territory that you would expect from Josh Johnson.

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Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.

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Or maybe he was afraid to throw the slider, but after two mediocre starts decided that glory last longer than elbows anyway…