No Need To Worry About Johnson, Blue Jays

BY @CHRIS_TOMAN

Not only is there nothing to worry about the Blue Jays’ 3-6 start – not with 153 games remaining on the schedule – there’s also no reason to be concerned over Josh Johnson’s velocity in Toronto’s 11-1 loss to the Tigers on Thursday.

Johnson didn’t have it against Detroit and was yanked in the second inning, turning in the shortest outing of his career. He had trouble finishing hitters, despite throwing first-pitch strikes to nine of the 13 batters he faced. He threw less than three-fifths of his pitches for strikes, he surrendered seven hits while walking two, and only six of his 56 offerings registered over 90 mph, while maxing out at 92.34 (he hit 92 just once). Johnson’s four-seam fastball averaged 90.73 mph on the day.

The rough start came on the heels of a solid debut with the Blue Jays against Boston, in which the right-hander lasted six innings while punching out six in a no-decision. That game, inside the warm confines of a closed roof at Rogers Centre, Johnson’s four-seamer averaged 93.66 mph while maxing out at 95.65. That’s a three mph difference in fastball velocity between starts.

Now, could the issue be that the game-time temperature in Detroit was a tick over freezing? It shouldn't be underestimated the effect the elements have on velocity. It’s not easy getting loose and cranking it up while throwing in cold and rainy conditions.

This piece at Baseballprospectus.com (h/t @enosarris who tweeted it out) illustrates the strong dependence a fastball has on temperature. On average, max velocity reaches its strong point in July, which happens to be the warmest month of the year.

Midway through 2012, Johnson had a few starts he was hitting as high as 96 mph and averaging 94-plus on his four-seamer. During his final three starts last season, his average four-seam was 93-plus mph and maxed out at over 95. Also, when I saw him throw in spring training against the Braves this year, he was consistently pumping out 93-mph fastballs with some 94s mixed in.

Given that consistency and considering there have been no reports about Johnson feeling discomfort, I wouldn't let one outing in rough conditions cause me to hit the panic button over his radar-gun readings Thursday.

It has been well documented for quite some time that Johnson doesn’t throw as hard as he once did.

The data at both Fangraphs.com and Brooksbaseball.net shows that he has lost a couple mph over the years but has still managed to pitch well. It’s not as though an average fastball of 93 mph with the ability to go higher is anything to sneeze at. Further, far less talented pitchers with less velocity than Johnson get by just fine in the big leagues.

As Jason Collette alluded to in a tweet, the 29-year-old Johnson entered the start with over 900 big-league innings of mileage on his arm and the fact he isn’t throwing as hard as he was in his mid-20s after dealing with some serious arm issues should surprise no one.

As I mentioned in a piece I wrote about Brandon Morrow after he was rocked by the Tigers on Tuesday, his velocity was also down, by two-plus mph in the frigid Detroit weather. There didn't appear to be concern over Morrow and neither should there be over Johnson.

Johnson did have a poor outing, though, on Thursday, as did Morrow and Mark Buehrle the previous two days. The trio combined to throw a total of 9 1/3 innings in Detroit, which, of course, will not cut it. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the season is still very young and the Blue Jays were playing the defending American League champs.

That’s not an easy matchup for any pitcher even during the dog days of summer.

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