On May 8th I wrote a piece that detailed why I thought Jason Hammel was struggling this season. That post was met with some criticism at the time as Hammel had pitched decently well leading up to it and his ERA was an ok-but-not-terrible 4.10. As of today, Hammels ERA is a pretty-awful 5.19 and few O’s fans would argue that he hasn’t lived up to expectations this season.
I say all of that because I’m now going to do the opposite and make an argument for why Jim Johnson will be just fine, at a time when he is pretty obviously struggling. Yes, in May I wrote up a piece about why Johnson was struggling and how he needed to change speeds more effectively moving forward to be successful. No, I don’t think that post was wrong, but I think that with more of the season under our belt we can make a better judgment about why this season looks so different from last year for Johnson.
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After last night’s implosion many fans, analysts, etc. are calling for Jim Johnson to be pulled from the closer role. Let me start this discussion with a simple point that I really do believe:
Having a closer is a waste of resources.
That said, the odds that the Orioles do not have a ‘closer’ are slim to none right now, so let’s focus on why it should still be Jim Johnson.
Last night I gave some thoughts on the BSL Forums when the topic of replacing Jim Johnson inevitably came up. Today, I want to take a little deeper dive into the numbers, acknowledge the issues, and tell you why Johnson is going to be just fine.
The biggest issue for Johnson this season has been command of his pitches. Johnson’s walk rate of 3.12 BB/9 is his worst since 2008 (when he ironically had a 2.23 ERA). There is no doubt that having such a high walk rate is hurting Johnson this season. His WHIP is up over last year, which again shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. He hasn’t however, pitched than much worse than last season; Johnson’s FIP is up about .5 runs per 9 innings over last year, and his xFIP less so.
Why? Well last season he was really, really lucky. His BABIP in 2012 was a paltry .251 (a career low) and he allowed home runs on just 6.8% of fly balls (a career low). This season those same stats have ballooned to .308 and 10% respectively, which obviously means more runners on base and more balls leaving the yard.
We can take a look at things Johnson can control to judge how well he’s doing in 2013 compared to 2012 without being thrown off by his inflated ERA. Let’s start with K/BB ratio, something that can be used to quickly identify how good a pitcher is at doing good things (striking batters out) and avoiding bad things (walking batters). For 2012 Johnson posted a very solid 2.73 K/BB ratio, which was 66th among relievers last season. The 2.29 ratio he has posted thus far in 2013 ranks him 101st out of relievers for what that’s worth.
Let’s take a look at some plate discipline numbers that go into making up these stats so we can get a better idea of why they are what they are. In 2013 Johnson is getting more swings on pitches this year (43.8% in 2013 vs. 41.8% in 2012), but batters are making less contact (81.6% vs. 83.3%) on those pitches than they previously were. Johnson is getting .9% more swinging strikes so far this season as well, 7.8% this season vs. 6.9% last year. Believe it or not, he’s also throwing 6.3% MORE first pitch strikes this season as well.
Based on the above paragraph, you could make the argument that Johnson actually has better stuff this season than he did in his highly successful 2012 campaign. I would argue that Johnson can succeed with the way he’s pitching this season.
The biggest problem for Johnson has been the lack of ground balls that he’s gotten this season. Johnson’s ground ball rate is down 8% this season, with half of those would-be groundballs becoming line drives, and the other half becoming flyballs. Now since line drives are typically harder hit balls, and Johnson has an inflated HR/FB rate this season which is making those increased flyballs hurt him more.
Johnson can still do this; so it seems likely that the ability to get groundballs is still there. If a few things start to go in Johnson’s favor, instead of against him, it’s very likely that he turns it around in the second half. He’s getting first pitch strikes, striking out more batters, and still has the ability to get groundballs. After that first pitch strike, Johnson needs to pound the zone with 2-seamers in order to get those groundballs. IF he can do that, then he’ll be just fine.
*All stats c/o of Fangraphs.
**GIF c/o CamdenChat & @OriolesGIFs