by Kerry Leibowitz
As I watched Jim Johnson get into and out of trouble—again—in the ninth inning last night, I thought to myself, “do the Orioles have a better option?”
This is not a rant about how the entire closer concept is the most inane personnel utilization scheme in baseball in my lifetime; we’ll save that for another occasion. For the purposes of this piece, I accept (albeit extremely grudgingly) that every manager in the major leagues today is going to implement a closer system; it’s merely a matter of the identity of the pitcher filling the role.
So, within the confines of the closer system, we have to assess Jim Johnson. A cursory glance at his overall statistical line this year would suggest that he’s ill-suited for the job. His earned run average is above 3.5. He’s allowing about a hit an inning. His WHIP is about 1.3. These numbers aren’t horrible; they’re pedestrian for a major league reliever. But since “pedestrian” seems incongruous with “closer,” it might seem reasonable to conclude that Johnson has no business closing games.
But peek a bit deeper and it’s more difficult to draw that conclusion.
As last night’s ninth inning was unfolding, I remember asking myself “when was the last time Johnson had a 1-2-3 inning?” For the record, the answer is July 7. The time before that was June 24, so Johnson has had one clean inning in his last 11 appearances. (It should be noted that, in one of those last 11 appearances, Johnson was summoned to the game with two outs in the ninth inning and he retired the only batter he faced.)
But here’s the flipside; when the game was over, I asked myself “when was the last time Johnson allowed an extra base hit?” And the reason I asked myself that question is that I realized that even when Johnson allows a couple of baserunners in an inning—as he did last night—he seldom allows a run. The answer to the extra base hit question? June 30. He allowed one double in each of consecutive appearances (June 26 and June 30). Prior to that, you’d have to go back to June 11, when he allowed another double. So in his last 16 appearances, Johnson has allowed two extra base hits, both doubles. Prior to the June 11 game, you have to go all the way back to May 26, when Johnson was in the midst of his blown save medley. So in his last 24 appearances, Johnson has allowed three extra base hits—all doubles.
His last home run? May 20 (also in the midst of the blown save mess). That’s 24 consecutive appearances (and counting) without allowing a home run. That’s a Big Deal, capital B, capital D, because it means that the classic blown save—surrendering a home run—is all but off the table when Johnson is trying to close a game. Ground ball pitchers, therefore, have a lot more slack than pitchers who don’t generate a lot of grounders, partially because of the chance for double plays and partially because opponents largely have to play station-to-station offense.
Underlying all of this is the quintessential sign of Johnson’s effectiveness; we know the sinker is working because of all the ground balls being generated. It’s not impossible, but very few extra base hits (and no home runs, obviously) are the result of ground balls. And since the blown save at Toronto on May 26—which included, not coincidentally, a pair of doubles (both on balls hit in the air), Johnson has generated 41 ground balls (including five double play grounders) and 22 fly balls, for a GB/FB ratio of 1.86. That’s the definition of a ground ball pitcher.
On the other hand (I said it was complicated), Johnson has made things somewhat more difficult on himself on occasion. For instance, there was the seven-appearance stretch from June 24 to July 5 when he walked seven batters (two intentionally) in just six innings of work. Or the six batters Johnson has hit this year in just 45.2 innings.
But these things appear to be anomalies. For instance, other than the seven-game stretch mentioned above, Johnson has walked only eight batters in 39.1 IP (1.8 BB/9IP). And prior to this season, Johnson had hit only 13 batters in 336 career innings (0.3 per nine innings). It’s important to avoid falling into the trap of identifying the exception but classifying it as the rule.
During the one extended blown save stretch that Johnson suffered earlier this year, back in the second half of May, Johnson was unable to generate ground balls. He went from being an extreme ground ball pitcher to an extreme fly ball (0.65 GB/FB) pitcher. That problem has been dealt with and Johnson has resumed generating ground balls at a rate in line with the levels demonstrated in 2011-12. And, since the blown save against Toronto on May 26, Johnson has successfully converted 20 of 22 save opportunities (91%). Even with the stretch of four blown saves in five opportunities, for the season Johnson has converted 85% of his chances this season.
While Johnson certainly isn’t having a great year, by closer standards, he certainly isn’t having a bad one either. The baserunner numbers are a bit worrisome until you remember Johnson’s penchant for generating ground balls. And the data on this point is unmistakable—Johnson’s single extended stretch of ineffectiveness this year coincides perfectly with an inability to induce grounders. Once that problem was dealt with, Johnson’s save success rate returned to well-above-average levels.
So, if you’re going to employ a closer system, is there anyone on the Orioles’ roster who you feel confident will outperform Jim Johnson? Not that I see. The available options either have scary platoon differentials (Darren O’Day, Brian Matusz) or have demonstrated a worrisome susceptibility to the home run (Tommy Hunter). While it may make for some teeth-gnashing, I don’t think Buck Showalter is going to remove Johnson from the role and I don’t think he should.
Now, if you want to talk about eliminating the closer system entirely, that’s another story entirely…
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