Jun 17, 2013; Toronto, ON, Canada; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Josh Johnson (55) delivers a pitch against the Colorado Rockies at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Is Josh Johnson Back? Toronto Blue Jays Fans Sure Hope So


Josh Johnson put on quite the show his most recent trip to the mound on Monday night for the Toronto Blue Jays. He struck out ten and generally dominated the Colorado Rockies to earn his second quality start in three outings since returning to the Jays on June 4th after a prolonged rehab stint.

I had a couple of conversations on Twitter earlier this year about whether or not Johnson could ever return to his sparkling 2010 form. That season he led the National League with a 2.30 ERA, averaged more than one strikeout per inning and allowed an incredibly low 7 home runs over 183.2 innings of work. He was an All-Star for the second time and finished fifth in NL Cy Young voting.

Leading into the 2011 Major League Baseball season, Sporting News Magazine ran a cover story about Johnson with the following quote:

THE ANONYMOUS ACE
Because He Plays for the Marlins, Josh Johnson is Practically Unrecognizable.
He’s Also Nearly Unhittable.

Despite the optimistic headline, there were concerns going into the 2011 season when it came to Johnson. He was shut down due to back pain in September 2010 to fall just short of reaching 200 innings for the second time in his career. It wasn’t perceived as serious at the time but after already undergoing and recovering from Tommy John surgery performed in 2007, it was obvious the Marlins weren’t going to take any chances with their prized asset. He returned on schedule for the 2011 MLB season.

Johnson started off 2011 in similar style to 2010 before he suffered a season-ending injury due to inflammation in his right shoulder. After sitting for nine months Johnson returned to pitch 191.1 innings in 2012 but he wasn’t quite the same dominating pitcher baseball fans had witnessed in years past.

The Toronto Blue Jays picked Johnson up as a bit of a wild card in their trade with the Miami Marlins that most notably landed them Jose Reyes. Most people (myself included) weren’t sure what the Jays were going to get from Johnson, who is scheduled to become a free agent at the end of this season.

After his throwback performance on Monday night, I received this question from one of the best people to follow on Twitter – Buck A’Neer @Mr_Barbarian:

I gave him my first impression (still throwing too many breaking balls for my liking, however 20 first pitch strikes and 18 swinging strikes sure is a good sign) but I figured it might be worth taking a closer look at to see if Johnson is actually close to returning to his 2010 dominance.

To keep everything consistent, I’m only looking at numbers provided by FanGraphs. Users of Brooks Baseball may report slightly different findings.

Let’s start off by looking at Johnson’s velocity by pitch per start in 2013. His average velocity for the season on his 4-seam fastball is 92.9 MPH and he’s averaged an even 93 MPH his last two starts. His max velocity for the season on this measures up at 95.1 MPH.

Pitchf/x Pitch Velocity

Year
Lev
G
PA
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
SB
CS
BB
K
BA
OPB
SLG
OPS
3 Seasons2048609719646991048364132.254.319.371.690
20122 Lgs592463762176433611740.278.339.462.801
2013Lansing12955252122243566214070.245.308.336.644
2014Dunedin1662812500501714.226.339.321.659
To view more of Lopes stats
Table adapted from FanGraphs.

In comparison, during Johnson’s dominating 2010 campaign his fastball averaged 94.7 MPH and maxed out at 98.1 MPH. An average of less than 2 MPH less doesn’t seem like much of a margin but in this game of inches a couple of miles per hour can sometimes be the difference between a swing and a miss. Hitters don’t have to worry about gearing up for the 98 MPH heat like they did in the past, which in part has led to him being much more hittable in 2013.

However Johnson did prove on Monday he can still be more than effective sitting at 93, at least against the Rockies. He has managed to evolve his pitch selection with age and injury as according to Pitchf/x he didn’t have the curveball in his repertoire in 2010.

But has this increased arsenal helped? In my humble opinion I think that he’s still throwing too many offspeed pitches. It seems, again at least to me, that Johnson doesn’t trust his fastball even when he was commanding it well.

I’ve included a breakdown of his pitch selection by start so far in 2013.

Pitchf/x Pitch Type

Year
SLG
ISO
wRC+
HR/FB
2013.360.081873.2
2014.534.20514717.1

Table adapted from FanGraphs.

Again comparing this back to 2010, there are some interesting trends. With the velocity down Johnson isn’t throwing the fastball as often but he threw a ton of sliders, which is actually similar to the way he dominated in 2010. He’s increased his slider usage each start since returning from injury (17.5%, 22.0%, 31.1%) The latter number seems high but isn’t too far off from his average usage in 2010. Here’s his Pitchf/x pitch selection for that season:

Date/Pitcher
IP
H
R
BB
K
GSc
5/4 - McGowan7313569
5/5 - Happ5304259
5/6 - Hutch8951649
5/7 - Buehrle7302675

Table adapted from FanGraphs.

In his most recent start Johnson threw either a 2-seam or 4-seam fastball 54.7% of the time, his slider 31.1% and either his change or curve 14.2%. The biggest difference continues to be in how often he throws his fastball, which he threw 7.6% less frequently on Monday compared to an average night in 2010.

But at the end of the day, it doesnt really matter what a pitcher is throwing as long as he’s effective. I haven’t even looked at vertical or horizontal movement yet, and unfortunately won’t due to time constraints, but to summarize his effectiveness here is a look at his pitch type linear weights (or pitch value) for each start in 2013.

Pitchf/x Pitch Value

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