Learning a lot by watching
I admit that I am nearly always observing these events in ways that are favourable to Josh Johnson. It can’t be helped. He’s now on my team of choice, so I root for him, and if there’s a modified Stockholm syndrome that develops after you’ve watched this many starts by any pitcher, consecutively and in such a short time period, then I am suffering from that too.
And yet, I do believe it’s not just a mirage that a large number of bad things that happen to him are largely not his fault. Consider the following:
- His first win of the year came in his 8th start, yet he had pitched better than that in at least three games previously, and his team was 3-4 in his starts before that game.
- In the third inning on May 4 at San Diego, no less than three batters faced 0-2 counts with two outs (plus one more at 1-2), yet every one reached base safely. (This is not a great example to begin with, as he did not locate well in general in this game, and it’s a little rich to say “oh, he just needed one more strike.”) NL batters had a .192 OBP on or after an 0-2 count last year; if you want to abuse statistics, a 1.000 OBP in 3 PA is 3.5 standard deviations above that. Had he simply struck out O-Dog — which as much as it pains me to say, is not difficult to do these days — Johnson would have escaped the third up by three runs (5-2), having thrown only about 45 pitches. Instead, he threw 67, fell behind 6-5, and didn’t make it out of the inning.
- Johnson’s last batter faced in that game was the pitcher, Anthony Bass, who “tripled” with the bases loaded. Stanton misplayed it in RF quite poorly, and Bass’s bug-eyed swing tells even more you how fluky that was. It represents, to this day, 60% of Bass’s RBI in professional baseball. (Also, Bud Black is even luckier: he let his pitcher hit for himself, with the bases loaded, after he had already given up five runs, and didn’t get burned for it.)
- On May 9, you get the sense that Johnson must have hated this team, and would now be approving the inclusion of John Buck in the Dickey trade. A leadoff double comes when Hanley is playing in, then Buck can’t control a wild pitch and then he throws it into left field. That all happened within a three-pitch sequence.
- Johnson gave up three runs on May 25, but three outs were also recorded in total on those plays.
- Bryan Petersen, whom I did not know before (I typed “Chris Peterson” at first, then “Chris Petersen”), and am not impressed with defensively now, provided Johnson with another triple on this fly ball during the May 30 game. That was not a softly-hit ball, and may not have stayed in other ballparks, but it was in the air for five and a half seconds and could easily have been caught.
- Even the TV broadcasters noticed this trend. A graphic on the screen during that start was titled “Death by Paper Cuts” and detailed how 90% of his hits allowed were singles, at the time the fourth-highest rate in MLB.
The point I’m trying to make is this: two things drive Johnson’s success, and the first is that his extra-base hits allowed would not always be XBH in average situations. There aren’t these long line drives to the gaps (usually), as everything seems to be pulled down the line or off the end of the bat the other way. Odds are some of his potential XBH will land in leather rather than on turf, unlike lesser pitchers who allow hard contact more often.
After a 5.34 ERA and 2.40 FIP in April, Johnson put up 4.41 and 2.74 in May — nearly a run shaved off per start, and the Marlins won all six games he started in May, but his basic numbers are still nowhere near how good he has actually pitched. The high BABIP dropped significantly, though: .446 in April, and .324 in May. This drop accords with observations.
The second reason for Johnson’s success: deception. Make no mistake, he has excellent stuff, but he seems to be better than most at making his fastball look like his slider, and vice versa, up until the point when the batter has to choose how and where to swing. I’d estimate that he throws either pitch between 85% and 90% of the time (the curve is quite rare, and he has no fourth pitch I’ve seen). There are lots of swings under or behind a fastball, and above or ahead of a slider. They look bad in hindsight, but only because the batter didn’t know he was going to miss by that much, further evidence that Johnson can fool good hitters this way. A notable observed exception to this was Bryce Harper (see below).
On top of those Johnson-specific observations, the same rule of thumb that applies to any pitcher obviously applies to him, too: falling behind in the count leads to hard-hit balls; staying ahead leads to weak grounders. Sounds so simple, yet careers are made on mastering it.
No Wil Ledezma Specials
I alluded to this earlier and will expand on it here: it has been such a strange experience watching Josh Johnson give up runs. He allowed three on May 25: the first came on a play that actually increased the Marlins’ chances of winning (GIDP); the second scored on a grounder through his legs but on the same play a baserunner kill at third ended the inning; and his third was a two-out, full-count home run that Melky basically hit off the foul pole — he hit it hard, to be sure, but no longer than 350 feet.
This is not that bad, really. Where is the awful six-run inning? Where is the string of doubles and homers that chases him from a game? The closest he got to that in May was the Padres game mentioned above, when he already had two outs, and the only XBH from then on should have been ruled a single and a two-base error.
What does he do against good LHB?
This is for future study, not an April/May observation.
The Harper plate appearances on May 30 — he swung at 12 pitches and made contact on 11 of them, and fouled off pitches other Nationals had no hope of hitting — inspired me to wonder how Johnson approaches lefthanded batters with a combination of good pitch recognition, plate coverage, and power. Johnson must come inside on lefties, due to the nature of his pitches, or start outside and hope it slides across the corner. If he meets a LHB who can tell the difference between his two main pitches, it may not end well for him. Harper’s 10-pitch at bat in the fifth only ended in an out because he lined a ball right at the second baseman.
So for the rest of the games in this series, we will look more closely at his plate appearances against these kinds of hitters. Harper hit .270/.340/.477 last year, an ISO above .200, more than 40 points higher than the NL average, while striking out no more than the NL average (20% of his plate appearances). Thus we will take all the regular LHB (>= 500 PA) above-average in both those categories, and who play for teams Johnson will face between June 1 and the end of the 2012 season. We get Harper and Adam LaRoche on the Nationals, then Ike Davis (Mets) and Jimmy Rollins (Phillies) as other divisional opponents, and potentially Ben Zobrist (Rays) and Carlos Gonzalez (Rockies) in Johnson’s single games against those teams — six hitters who may help us divine how Josh Johnson can retire tough LHB.