Josh Johnson is a very good pitcher.
The conceit in this series, for those who missed the introduction, is that I don’t know anything about the guy, and chose to watch every one of his 2012 games to learn what I could. And to provide some hopefully-original content, following the watch-the-game-and-write-about-what-you-see concept.
There is the risk of taking this too far. A lot of what we remember never happened that way, or at all. (I remember one long summer when one of the few bright spots was watching the Jays hit the hapless Lenny DiNardo all across the field; years later, I looked it up, only to find out DiNardo didn’t pitch against Toronto once.) A lot of what we see can be affected by factors we don’t even realize are there. What colours my perception of a fastball thrown to a certain batter on a certain count in a certain game situation in a certain stadium? Quite possibly a certain something else.
But the sum total of all those observations and all those somethings, over Johnson’s five April starts, with all caveats attached, is simple:
He is very good.
Let’s go through what I saw/learned in his five April starts.
His mistake pitches
Everyone has them. Some of them end up a lot farther away from the pitcher than 60.5 feet. But when Josh Johnson misses his spot, it’s like this: he throws a slider low and away from a right-handed batter, his catcher slides over (or, in the upcoming case of Arencibia, will stab the dirt kicked up when the ball has already skipped past), there’s no big deal, and everyone tries again on the 2-1 pitch. Nobody crushed a hanging curve, at least not in these games. Johnson faced 128 batters in April, and the only extra-base hits were five doubles. No home runs, nor any deep fly balls that could have taken advantage of a short fence or outgoing wind. (I looked at the stats only for games I had finished watching. When I wrote that, I didn’t know a thing about what he did in May or later.)
When Steve Clevenger singled in Johnson’s third start, it was the first time he had been hit hard in several innings.
No messing about
This is another reason Johnson is good (it’s more qualitative/uncertain, but I believe valid). I love Roy Halladay in many ways, but in part because he gets the ball back from the catcher, immediately raises his glove to his face, and waits for the batter to join the rest of us. Then he throws something unhittable. Then he does this 100 more times.
Johnson does not quite achieve the same look, or the same results, but the spirit is there, and simply as a watcher of baseball, I find this immensely pleasing. Working quickly doesn’t necessarily make you a better pitcher, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to give the batter less time to prepare, nor does it hurt to have your defence more alert, as is often said. And for those who subscribe to the theory that elapsed pitching time is more important for determining fatigue than pitch counts, you will find lots to like in Johnson.
It’s not just the speed that falls under the no-nonsense category: he’s also remarkably boring while on the mound. There is no showmanship, no celebration, minimal visible complaining. These characteristics, too, are not things that mean he is better, and I don’t really want all pitchers to be as robotic as Halladay. (The actor who plays him here is far too animated. Terrible casting.) It’s simply an observation.
Case in point. This is the most extreme reaction Johnson showed after a play all month, following a two-run single in the first inning on Opening Day:
Granted, it’s a great eye-roll of frustration, and I had the vague idea to have a “Faces of Josh Johnson” montage after seeing it. But it lasted a fraction of a second and he’s given me no material since. Which is probably just as well.
Johnson’s nonchalance works in other ways: I didn’t even notice that he had nine strikeouts against the Mets until the game was over, because he never gets heated about it. José Lima he is not. But who is, I ask?
(Again, if you watch the linked video, you see what I meant about his mistakes not being crushed. That was a bad pitch to a good hitter with two men on base, and obviously he would want to have it back. It scored one fewer run than a home run would, but it was still just a single. If he had retired Berkman one batter earlier, and served up that pitch to Freese to lead off the second, it probably wouldn’t be remembered now.)
His tendency to dance around the strike zone, and not in a good way, was most present in his April 17 start against Chicago (3 walks, 3 Ks). It didn’t hurt him much, but then again nothing hurts you against the Cubs except maybe the crushing sympathy you feel. Like any pitcher, Johnson’s not harnessing his control can destroy him, making him work on 1-0 and 2-1 counts instead of 0-1 and 1-2. It’s really is amazing how batters change their approach on 2-1, where they leave borderline pitches alone, vs. 1-2, where they swing and miss at them.
Against the Phillies, Johnson fell victim to the same inability to hit his spots, and didn’t make it out of the fourth. Although he gave up 11 hits and 6 runs there (potentially 8 if Gaudin had allowed either inherited runner to score), it actually wasn’t a bad start.
This gets to another point I want to make, independent of Joshua Michael Johnson.
“You can’t scout a boxscore”
One of Keith Law’s favourite phrases rattled around in my head once I finished watching Johnson’s April starts and compared my perceptions to his basic stats.
We all wave away short-term performances and streaks and droughts and slumps by repeating “small sample size.” It’s right of us to do that. But I submit that we don’t all truly appreciate it until it’s up close. I came away from these five starts massively impressed with the guy on the mound … yet, on the month, he had an ERA over 5. We know this is only 28.2 innings, but how many times do we still dismiss a guy based on a small number of poor innings, whether they are actually poor or merely perceived to be?
Johnson’s FIP was 2.40 in April, which is closer to what I saw out of him, easily. And we can quote his .446 batting average on balls in play, and make all the usual arguments about its unsustainability, and how FIP is a better predictor than ERA of how he will do in the future, but the point here isn’t that some statistics are better than others. We know that. It’s more like a great example of “Some statistics, or actually seeing the player in question, are both better than other statistics.”
If nothing else, I can now call up from the memorybanks a perfect example of what a .446 BABIP looks like. Johnson was extremely unfortunate to have some of these batted balls slip through the infield, something I will go right ahead and blame not just on Hanley Ramírez, but also Gaby Sánchez (who hardly even looks like a ballplayer).
That slider looks good, or does it look great?
His slider can be devastating*. I include the asterisk for good reason. Another point not necessarily specific to Johnson here: we watch the pitcher mostly from a CF camera, and more than anything else, its placement will affect what we think of his pitches. This is another not-new observation — it’s simply very obvious once you have the opportunity to sit and pay close attention.
In his last April start, against Arizona, the broadcast switched to a high angle, above the pitcher, rather than one offset from true CF towards LF (beside the pitcher, if you will). Already impressed with his pitches, I suddenly saw a slider that looked much more like a slider, and a curve that went from so-so and rarely-used to fantastic. Which is it?
Another obvious-factor-that-I-appreciate-way-more now. Not just in terms of balls going for hits or outs (sidebar: Lawrie over Hanley at third is going to help Johnson so much). Catcher defence too.
I must have wiped the 2010 John Buck from my memory, because I didn’t realize he was so bad defensively. By the first inning of Johnson’s third game, I had already written down in my notes that he was a poor receiver. His glove was flipping and flopping all over the place. And sure enough, Buck was bottom-10 in Mike Fast’s now-famous study of catcher framing (perhaps worse, accounting for how much more he played than those below him).
Lest you think I know what I’m talking about, though, I didn’t record why I thought he was so bad, aside from what I’ve already said. So I’m unable to discuss this any further, or to convince you that there is actually some insight here…
Next up: Johnson’s May games.