September 26, 2012; Atlanta, GA, USA; Miami Marlins starting pitcher Josh Johnson (55) pitches in the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Johnson and What to Expect When You're Expecting

I’ve been a Josh Johnson fan for a long time. In the last half decade I’ve really cherished watching him pitch on Sunday Night Baseball, MLB Extra Innings, and MLB.tv. The Marlins have never been a team I’d actively seek out to watch when the Blue Jays weren’t on, but if I happened to be surfing through games and came across a Josh Johnson start, more often than not I’d be putting the remote down and settling in for a bit. His combination of size and stuff is encapsulating for a viewer. He’s exactly the type of pitcher that Blue Jays fans had always been hoping Brandon Morrow would develop into.

My elation was palpable when I first heard about the trade going down between Miami and Toronto. I had been playing Call of Duty with a friend of mine, and during a food intermission I received a text message from him asking what I thought of the Blue Jays trade. I had no idea what he was talking about, so I hastily jumped on my computer to check things out, expecting some minor transaction. Instead, I saw Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Josh Johnson. I’ve been driving the “trade for Josh Johnson” bus since last summer, so to see my dream become a reality left me literally speechless. Thankfully, voices aren’t needed on Twitter, and I was able to express my thoughts on the trade without anyone else having to hear my maniacal laughter.

Now into the month of February, we’re closer to Opening Day than we are to the trade itself, which happened back on November 19th. Time is very important in the world of baseball, as while our immediate reaction may be one thing, it could be something entirely different upon later reflection. Now, that isn’t to say I think the Marlins trade and acquiring Josh Johnson was bad – completely the opposite in fact – but I have been able to look a bit deeper into Josh Johnson and noticed some unsettling trends.

A breakdown of Josh Johnson’s pitches from 2009 to 2012 (Data via FanGraphs.com)

In the table above, you can see the breakdown of Josh Johnson’s pitches over the last four seasons. For each year, the left column is the number of pitches thrown of that type, and the right column is the percentage of the total pitches thrown that year. The five pitches Johnson has thrown are four seam fastballs (FA), two seam fastballs (FT), changeups (CH), sliders (SL), and curveballs (CU). The 2011 totals are obviously significantly lower, as he worked just over 60 innings that season.

A couple of things immediately jump out at you from this table. First, after barely throwing any early in his career, Johnson has begun spinning a curveball. After using the pitch literally zero times in 2010, he threw it over 8% of the time in 2011, and a whopping 15.3% of the time last season. The volume of changeups and sliders has remained relatively consistent through the years, so clearly the increase in curveballs has come at the expense of fastballs, which is the second thing that really caught my eye. Johnson has always been known for his big fastball, and while he’s not phasing it out by any means, it’s certainly puzzling that over the course of four seasons he’d cut his fastball usage by nearly 20%. Continuing to use FanGraphs’ PitchFX data, I delved further into the disappearing fastball, seeking some kind of logical explanation, which I summarized in the table below.

A breakdown of Josh Johnson’s fastballs from 2009 through 2012 (Data via FanGraphs.com)

The first column, total fastball percentage, is simply the combination of his four seam and two seam fastballs. The average fastball velocity calculation is inclusive of both types of fastballs, while the peak velocity is the hardest pitch he threw during that season. The third and fourth columns are his opponents’ wOBA against the two different fastballs. Like the previous table, there are a couple of points to take away from this data. First, since the 2009 season, Johnson’s average and peak fastball velocity have dropped by 2 miles per hour, and in an attempt to protect himself, he’s thrown it less and less every year. Second, his two seam fastball is, well, it’s just not a very good pitch. Opponents have hit it better each and every year since 2009. Fastballs are inherently easier to hit than breaking balls, so their opponents’ wOBA is always a little high, but the numbers between 2011 and 2012 are downright embarrassing. To put the .432 and .466 numbers into perspective, Albert Pujols has a .425 wOBA over his entire career. Yikes.

The other trend I’ve noticed while closely examining Josh Johnson’s PitchFX data is more puzzling than negative.

Josh Johnson’s release point from 2008 to 2012 (Data via FanGraphs.com)

If numbers are more your thing, here’s a table looking exclusively at Johnson’s four seam fastball, and the vertical height it was released from.

The vertical release point on Josh Johnson’s fastball from 2008 to 2012 (Data via BrooksBaseball.net)

The information for the figure came from the Game Charts feature on FanGraphs, while the data for the table came from Brooks Baseball. Regardless of which display you prefer, it’s pretty clear that over the past five years, Josh Johnson has been lowering his release point further and further. Beyond velocities, I usually don’t dig into the world of PitchFX too much, but I still thought this was extremely peculiar. Seeking answers, I asked the person whose opinion on baseball I value higher than anyone else’s: Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus.

I felt it was a pretty good answer, and while I can’t speak to the comfort explanation, we have the statistics to at least investigate the latter two possibilities; movement and command.

While you can’t accurately measure command – since no one but the pitcher and catcher knows exactly what he’s trying to do – you can use a pitcher’s walk rate to get some idea of their overall control. In Johnson’s case, the stat sheet doesn’t tell us a whole lot. His walk rate has always been very good, and while it has increased from 2010 to 2012 (from 2.35 to 2.98 to 3.06 BB/9), it decreased from 2008 to 2010 (from 2.78 to 2.50 to 2.35 BB/9). In summary: more likely statistical variance than anything meaningful.

Measuring movement is a bit more interesting, and in a quick back and forth, the Professor and I agreed that dropping an arm slot (i.e. lowering the release point) should generate more horizontal movement. Since Josh Johnson has established his slider as a dominant pitch, and the sample size is strong in each of the years in question, I decided to look at the horizontal movement on his breaking ball and see what I could learn.

The horizontal movement of Josh Johnson’s slider from 2008 through 2012 (Data via FanGraphs.com and BrooksBaseball.net)

Unlike the walk rate, there’s definitely something here. While there’s a drop from 2011 to 2012, the horizontal movement in the other four years is continuously increasing. If you look at the Brooks Baseball numbers, his slider had 33.2% more movement in 2011 than it did in 2008, and even in 2012, it has 14.4% more horizontal movement than 2008. With that being said, it’s impossible to truly conclude anything from this information, despite the noticeable trend.
One might argue that Johnson has intentionally dropped his arm slot over the years in order to better utilize his strikeout pitch, but there’s another side to that coin. Johnson’s injury history is long and well documented (and if you aren’t aware, since entering the league in 2006, he’s spent time on the disabled list with some kind of arm injury every year except for 2010 and 2012). As the declining fastball velocity suggests, it’s entirely possible that Johnson – and his shoulder – has worn down through his 20’s, and he can no longer elevate his arm to full extension thousands of times every summer. Instead of choosing to drop his arm slot to improve his slider, Johnson simply doesn’t have the arm strength to come over the top and rifle bullets at 98-plus miles per hour like he did at 25, and the improvement in horizontal movement is just a byproduct of that decline.

When I suggested this to Jason Parks, he said it was very possible, but obviously neither he nor I have any idea what is going on with Josh Johnson’s body. The only people who know the real reason behind the drop in arm slot are his managers, pitching coaches, trainers, catchers, and Josh himself, and I don’t see any of them telling the public what’s up any time soon.

I started this off by saying my thoughts had changed now that I’ve had time to look at the big picture, and what I meant by that was how I see the future unfolding for Josh Johnson in a Blue Jays uniform. Immediately following the trade, I wanted the front office to lock Johnson up for the next four or five years, even if it cost 15-plus million per season to do it. Now, I’m very happy to just wait and see how the 2013 season plays out, particularly after discovering the trends I mentioned above.

The R.A. Dickey trade certainly played a big part in that, as between Dickey, Morrow, Buehrle, and Romero, Toronto has four starters under control for the next three seasons. If Johnson returns to his 5-6 WAR form and helps carry the Blue Jays to the post season with 40,000+ fans in the seats cheering him on, an extension could and should be offered. On the other hand, if he struggles to adjust to the AL East or goes down with injuries, the organization can simply make a 1 year qualifying offer. In the latter situation, we either get Johnson for a second year on a reasonable deal, or we get a first round draft pick and hand the fifth spot over to J.A. Happ, Drew Hutchison, or Sean Nolin. Patience and caution appears to be the name of the game in dealing with Josh Johnson, and more than ever I’m happy we have one of the most rational and financially sound general managers in the game steering the ship.

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