Jim Johnson’s Struggles and Why Changing Speeds is so Important

The highlight of the Orioles – Blue Jays game this afternoon was, for me, Tommy Hunter’s ridiculous barehanded catch of a Jose Bautista bouncer to end a threatening inning. It sounds like Tommy will be ok, but we’ll need the swelling to come down before knowing for sure.

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The low point of the game, was undoubtedly Jim Johnson’s blown save. It’s safe to say that Johnson is full-on struggling right now, but why is that? The simple answer is that he’s not Mariano Rivera; but he’s trying to be. Take a look at the graphic below from his outing today in Toronto:

speedYou can clearly see above that only 3 of Johnson’s pitches came in below 90 miles per hour. All 3 were curveballs, and came in between 79 and 82 miles per hour. The first curve was the 2nd pitch of the inning and was nowhere near the zone. The second curve was a throw-away pitch in the dirt after getting ahead of Arencibia 0-2. The third curve was another throw-away pitch in the dirt on a 1-2 count to Arencibia.

Pitch #23 was a 90.35 mph changeup(!) that missed the zone by a good foot, meaning none of the 4 “offspeed” pitches Johnson threw even threatened the strikezone.

Johnson essentially has made himself a one pitch pitcher, much like another closer in the AL East. However, Johnson doesn’t have the command that Rivera does to be successful, and it’s allowing hitters to attack his sinker rather than him attacking them with it.

This has become a trend with Johnson. Below is the pitch speed chart for the game on 5/25 where Johnson recorded his 15th save of the season:

speed (1)

1 pitch came in below 90 mph during this outing* (*note, that Johnson’s changeups were actually 89.90 and 89.94 mph, but close enough).

How about the game on 5/21 where Johnson pitched a scoreless 10th against the Yankees to give the O’s a chance to win in the bottom of the inning? The chart for that outing is below:

speed (2)1 pitch in this outing came in below 90 mph, a curveball at 88 (or thereabout) on the second pitch of the inning. Every other pitch was at least 92 miles per hour.

You’re sensing a trend, no? Typically, Johnson throw his sinker about 78% of the time, with his changeup and curveball coming in at 11% each. However, his changeup is averaging 89.04 mph this season, meaning that 89% of the pitches Johnson throw come in between 89 and 97 miles per hour.

What’s more troubling? The speeds at which Johnson throws his fastball and changeup are trending in the wrong direction, decreasing the difference in speed between the two offerings.

In 2012 Johnson’s average fastball/sinker speed was 95.05 mph; while his average changeup velocity was 88.85 mph. This equaled a difference of 6.20 miles per hour.

So far in 2013, Johnson’s average fastball/sinker comes in at 94.33 miles per hour, while his change is averaging 89.04 mph. That’s a difference of just 5.18, a full mile per hour less than 2012.

What does this mean? It means that hitters can sit on one speed, because odds are pretty good that you’ll get multiple chances to time him and get a swing at a pitch in the 90-95 mph range. As a result, the sinker has been, by far, Johnson’s worst pitch this season. The second worst pitch? His changeup. The chart below shows the results of Johnson’s pitches. Two notes for the chart: “Fourseam” is likely a misidentification of the sinker, so ignore that row. The most important column to pay attention to is the True Average (TAv) column at the end of the chart.

ResultsI am definitely not a major league pitcher, but if I was, I would probably not want to throw my two worst pitches 89% of the time. Unfortunately for Jim Johnson, his curveball is not exactly a pitch he can rely on for strikes. Last season, he was only able to throw it for a strike (called or swinging) 55% of the time. That number too has dropped a bit this year, but the sample size and difference is too small to read into too deeply.

Control has been an issue for Johnson as well, which exacerbates the problem with how hitters approach him. Johnson has fallen behind in the count often, and been forced to throw his sinker for strikes. Hitters are sitting on it because they know exactly how hard it’s coming in, and getting to take big hacks because they are ahead in the count. This combination leads to balls driven into the gaps, over fences, and into otherwise undesirable locales if you’re the pitcher.

I don’t know why Jim Johnson has gotten to this point, but I think it’s fair to say that the combination of poor command and too little variation in pitch velocity has become a serious problem. What I can do though, is propose some fixes.

How can Johnson be fixed? A few things that can band-aid the situation, and some long term options for he or the team to consider can be found below:

Short Term Fixes:

1. Throw the curveball more, and not just as a throw-away pitch when up 0-2 or 1-2.

2. Attack the zone early in the count to get ahead of hitters.

Long Term Fixes:

1. Develop a new changeup that comes in slower than the current 90 mph model.

2. Work on command of secondary pitches so you’re not having to throw fastball/sinker after fastball/sinker every time the hitter gets ahead.

 

All data & charts/graphs in this post are from BrooksBaseball.net. Check out Jim Johnson’s player card on Brooks Baseball here to see what else the numbers have to say about the O’s closer..

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About the author


Jeff Long   

Orioles Analyst

Jeff was the owner of the Orioles blog Warehouse Worthy, which focused on making advanced statistics a part of the conversation for the average fan. Outside of baseball, Jeff is a graduate of Loyola University where he received his Bachelor’s and Master’s in Business Administration. The Maryland native currently works for an Advertising Agency in downtown Baltimore. He also contributes to Beyond the Boxscore.


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2 Responses to Jim Johnson’s Struggles and Why Changing Speeds is so Important

  1. Kerry Butler says:

    I agree with your observation and cure except for one difference. I think he needs to quit throwing the sinker altogether. I think he has been in the majors long enough for most batters to be able to time his sinker. I think he needs to throw a curve and slider a lot more than he currently does, and slow the curve to 80.

    • Jeff Long says:

      Kerry,
      That’s an interesting thought, and while unorthodox, it’s not unprecedented. The O’s have another reliever in AAA, Mark Hendrickson, who is attempting to completely reinvent himself in order to succeed and prolong his career.

      I’m not sure if Johnson is at that point just yet, we saw last season how effective he can be when he IS getting ground balls with his sinker, something that just isn’t happening right now. I think I would prefer to test the waters with a less risky cure than you suggest, but if that doesn’t work out it may be time to look at the sinker more critically.

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