Heading into the 2007 season, Florida’s Josh Johnson looked like an ace-in-waiting.
As a 22 year-old rookie in 2006, the 6-7 righty posted a 3.99 FIP in 24 starts and seven relief appearances. Johnson punched out 7.62 batters per nine innings, while issuing 3.9 BB/9. He showed sharp stuff, with a 92 MPH fastball (an average offering, with +0.03 runs/100 pitches), a wicked mid-80’s slider (+1.81) and a mid-80’s changeup (+1.70).
Sadly, Johnson never was healthy in ’07. Battling elbow problems, Josh didn’t make his first big league start until mid-June. Some blame the balky elbow on then-manager Joe Girardi’s decision to send Johnson back out to the mound after a rain delay in September of ’06. Whatever the cause, Johnson made just four starts before again succumbing to injury. He underwent Tommy John surgery in early August.
After rehabbing, Johnson returned to the bump in July of 2008. He made 14 starts for the Fish, looking none the worse for wear. Johnson whiffed 7.94 batters per nine frames, lowering his walk rate to 2.78 BB/9 in the process. The 2002 fourth-rounder posted a 3.73 XFIP.
Johnson’s stuff was nastier than ever. His fastball crept up to an average of 93.5 MPH, with a +0.51 run value per 100 tosses. Josh had some problems pulling the string (-2.41 runs/100 with the changeup), but his biting mid-80’s slider stifled the opposition (+1.54). In less than a half-season’s worth of pitching, Johnson compiled two Wins Above Replacement.
In 2009, Johnson established himself as a full-fledged ace. Josh was somewhat fortunate in terms of home runs served up (0.6 HR/9, 7.5 HR/FB%), but he was an elite arm regardless. Throwing 209 innings, Johnson had a 3.42 XFIP that ranked 5th among National League starters. His K rate climbed to 8.22 per nine innings, with unusually sharp control for a power arm (2.5 BB/9).
As if the whiff rate and ability to paint the corners weren’t enough, Johnson induced grounders at a career-high 50.3% clip. He jumped ahead of hitters often, with the best first-pitch strike percentage of his big league tenure. Johnson got first-pitch contact or gained the 0-and-1 advantage on the batter 63 percent of the time (58.2% MLB average).
Johnson’s fastball found another gear this past season:
Radar gun readings are nice, but results are better. Johnson’s fastball was among the best in the business, at +1.04 runs per 100 pitches (8th among starters). His 87 MPH slider remained sinister (+1.28), and Josh even succeeded on the rare occasion when he tossed a changeup (+2.51). Johnson was worth 5.5 WAR, a performance that would earn him near $25M on the free agent market.
26 in January, Johnson possesses every attribute desired in a premium starting pitcher. He misses bats, rarely gets behind in the count and keeps the ball on the ground. He won’t sneak up on anyone entering 2010, but Johnson is well worth a high-round draft pick. There’s nothing fluky about the performance of this Fish.