Josh Johnson could pitch. In this decade, seven players have put up a season in which they threw 180+ innings with a sub-60 ERA-: Clayton Kershaw (three times), Felix Hernandez (twice), Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester in 2016, Zack Greinke and Jake Arrieta in 2015, and Josh Johnson in 2010. That was the second straight excellent year for Johnson, making the All-Star team in both 2009 and 2010, and finishing fifth in the Cy Young balloting the latter year. Early in 2011 he just kept it going, with a 0.88 ERA through his first few starts. In four of his first five starts that year, he took a no-hitter into the fifth inning. Dusty Baker — a man who has seen quite a few games of baseball in his life and normally isn’t too effusive in his praise of other teams’ players — had this to say at that point:
“That guy has Bob Gibson stuff. He has power and finesse, instead of just power. That’s a nasty combination.”
It seemed like he was going to dominate the NL East for years to come.
Josh Johnson felt pain. His first Tommy John surgery was in 2007, when he was just 23. His elbow had been bothering him for nearly a year before he finally got the surgery. His manager was optimistic at the time:
“I think he’ll be fine once he gets that rehab stuff out of the way,” Gonzalez said. “You see guys who underwent Tommy John surgery, they come back and pitch better.”
But the hits kept coming. His excellent 2010 season was cut short because of shoulder issues (though he didn’t go on the DL) and his promising 2011 season came up short because of shoulder issues. Those same issues had been bothering him all season but he pitched through the pain for two months.
“It took everything I had to go and say something,” he said. “Once I did, it was something lifted off my shoulders. Let’s get it right and get it back to feeling like it did at the beginning of the season.”
“I’m hoping [to return by June 1st],” he said. “You never know with this kind of stuff. You’ve got to get all the inflammation out of there. From there it should be fine.”
That injury cost him the rest of the season.
Josh Johnson loved baseball. Think about something you loved doing, and your reaction if someone told you that you had to undergo painful surgery with a 12-month recovery time in order to continue doing it. Imagine you did that, but then later on, someone told you that you had to do it again if you wanted even an outside chance of performing that activity, but the odds were pretty low. Josh Johnson had three Tommy John surgeries, because they gave him a glimmer of hope of continuing to play baseball.
Josh Johnson had a great career. It’s only natural to look at a career cut short by injuries and ask “what if?” but he accomplished plenty. He struck out Derek Jeter and Ichiro in an All-Star Game, threw the first pitch in Marlins Park, and made over $40 million playing the game he loved. He even lucked his way into hitting three home runs. Now he’s a 33-year-old millionaire in retirement; I think he did all right.