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


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

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 ACEBecause 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

[table id=2 /]
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

[table id=3 /]
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:

[table id=4 /]
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

[table id=5 /]
Table adapted from FanGraphs.

These numbers don’t really come as a surprise as they basically confirm the eye test. When Johnson is pitching well, his fastball is still his best weapon. Looking at his last three starts the fastball has been his most consistent pitch. I’m referring to a small sample size but its interesting to note the effectiveness of his fastball against San Francisco and Colorado appears to be correlated to his two quality starts.

As I mentioned earlier, in 2010 Johnson led the National League in ERA so it should be interesting to compare his effectiveness (obviously over a much larger sample size) for that season to his most recent starts for Toronto.

[table id=6 /]
Table adapted from FanGraphs.

This is where it gets more difficult for me to make a call on. Based on his last three starts, Johnson has been a very effective pitcher. His batted ball numbers look great as well.

Batted Ball

[table id=7 /]
Table adapted from FanGraphs.

Make no mistake, playing at Rogers Centre is much different from playing in Sun Life Stadium. The fly ball killing humidity and more forgiving dimensions made it a much easier park to pitch in, as evidenced by Johnson ridiculously low 7 home runs allowed in 2010. Looking at his batted ball profile from 2010 it’s fairly similar to what we have been watching his last few starts for Toronto.

[table id=8 /]
Table adapted from FanGraphs.

So is Josh Johnson back? I guess it depends on your definition. He’s not the flame-throwing right hander that scorched the National League in 2010 but his recent starts have looked extremely promising. To keep things in perspective, I’m looking at an extremely small sample size plus he was downright awful to start the year. There’s no guarantee that Johnson can keep up this pace. And with his history of injury problems you cant help but wonder how long his arm will hold up before another trip to the DL is required (or worse…) And it was against the National League. So there are still plenty of arguments to possibly downplay Johnson’s effectiveness lately.

The real test has yet to come as it should be interesting to see how he fares against the American League East gauntlet. At this time of writing he’s scheduled to pitch tomorrow against the Baltimore Orioles.

But I don’t want to be the one to put a damper on this now nine game winning streak. I see good signs for the now veteran pitcher. Josh Johnson: June 2013 Edition looks like a player who, if he can manage to stay healthy, could still be a very effective pitcher for however long he is in a Toronto Blue Jays uniform.