Josh Johnson Nowhere Near This Bad
That's where Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said right-hander Josh Johnson was after his latest clunker in Thursday's loss to the Angels. Johnson failed to make it out of the third inning for the second time in three starts, allowing 10 hits and six earned runs, bringing his total to 25 ER over his last four outings. For the season, Johnson's ERA sits at a whopping 6.60, which is the highest mark among pitchers who have thrown at least 70 innings. Over 76 1/3 frames, Johnson has allowed a career-high 15 homers, and has gone from one of the top dogs of the upcoming free-agent class to someone who doesn't appear to belong in a big-league rotation.
Yes, Johnson has lost tens of millions, and probably his confidence, too, but he's not this bad. In fact, all he has ever been was good, if not great, throughout his career. The larger sample size -- his track record -- speaks more to what he is than this bizarre 2013 version we're currently witnessing. It does for now, at least.
Johnson's stinker brought out a lot of emotions on social media Thursday night, most of which were irrational. I saw the words minor leagues, DFA, release, bullpen, disabled list, etc. With the exception of the DL -- and only Johnson and the Blue Jays' medical staff can answer if there is in fact an injury -- none of those options make sense. I have no rooting interest in Johnson to pitch well other than the fact that as a baseball fan I enjoy watching him when he's on. But let's get serious for a second.
When Ricky Romero continued to lay duds last summer, the Blue Jays chose to ride it out with him, and Johnson's performance is far less troubling than Romero's was. In addition to getting lit up, Romero couldn't find the strike zone, and it's important to remember that Johnson has. Providing there is no injury, besides the knee tendinitis, the Blue Jays should continue to give the ball to Johnson every fifth game and let him work through his struggles.
Toronto is out of contention, so Johnson's performance is not impacting the club in a harmful way in the standings. And sending Johnson to the minors is not an option for several reasons. For one, he can block any move due to the amount of service time he has accumulated, and don't expect him to consent to that or a switch to the bullpen when he is an impending free agent.
There's a chance Johnson remains with the Blue Jays beyond this season, so Toronto fans better hope he can turn things around.
And there are a few reasons which point to why he can.
I'd be a lot more concerned with Johnson if he was throwing 90 mph, failing to miss bats, and couldn't find the strike zone. But he's throwing the same velocity as last season -- averaging 93-plus mph on his fastball -- has an above-average strikeout rate, and the top strikeout-to-walk-ratio among Blue Jays starters not named Todd Redmond. His walk rate is the lowest it has been since 2010, and his strikeout rate is better than it was last year when he was a 3-plus WAR pitcher with the Marlins. Johnson's swinging-strike rate is the second best it has been in his career. His whiff rate on his four-seamer, curveball, and changeup are all better than what they were last season, too. This isn't Ricky Romero 2.0.
There are some other things, too, that are unlikely to last, such as his extreme home-run rate and BABIP, and his ineffectiveness out of the stretch, which is something Andrew Stoeten of Drunk Jays Fans recently wrote about -- so for the purposes of this piece, I'll focus on the other areas. I will say, however, that Johnson's strand rate of 60.9% is abnormally low. With the exception of a 15-inning sample in 2008, Johnson has never stranded less than 71%, and his mark this year would be the lowest among all starting pitchers if he had thrown enough innings to qualify. The league-average mark is around 70-72%, so he's on the extreme end of the spectrum. What's really surprising about his strand rate is that he is still a strikeout pitcher, so he should be able to get out of more jams and limit some damage with his ability to punch guys out.
Homers have destroyed Johnson this season. His home-run-to-fly-ball-ratio of 19% is double what it has ever been in any season of his career, which is staggering. Again, if Johnson were among the league qualifiers, it would be the second-highest mark in baseball. And this is coming from a pitcher who has had a better than league-average rate -- if not an extremely low mark -- his entire career. The homer-happy Rogers Centre has hurt him, but, even still, his history points to this being an anomaly more so than something that will continue to last. Johnson simply wasn't a pitcher who was prone to the long ball before this season. There is nothing concerning about his fly-ball rate, it's just that more of them are leaving the yard than ever before. And his contact rate is in line with his career mark.
His fastball is the pitch that has been getting crushed, and the fact he is still finding the zone, points to a lot of his struggles being the result of poor fastball command. Serve 'em up, they will hit 'em out. Hit some better spots, mix more, throw some secondary offerings for strikes, the numbers could change fast.
As for his BABIP, well, you guessed it. Johnson's mark of .354 is a career high and would put him tops in the majors if qualified. His BABIP over the last four years, starting with 2009 looked like this: .290/.297/.239/.302.
While this year appears to be an outlier, and there is no guarantee that he's in line for a stat correction this season -- although the chances look strong -- this isn't the pitcher Johnson is going to be moving forward.
Toronto fans probably don't want to hear it -- and a lot can change over the next two months, such as an injury, which Johnson hasn't been foreign to -- but, as of now, I strongly believe the Blue Jays' best move is to make Johnson a qualifying offer at the end of the season. If there ever was a bounce-back candidate, it's him, and worst case, a bad one-year deal is something you can live with. If he turns it down, Toronto would be entitled to draft-pick compensation once Johnson signs elsewhere, and you better believe he is going to find suitors. Johnson failing to receive a major-league contract in the offseason? Come on.
The risk of letting Johnson walk without making an offer, especially when the upcoming free-agent class is weak on starting pitching, is a far greater risk than bringing back what was once one of baseball's premier arms not too long ago.
h/t Fangraphs for stats