Josh Johnson has been tERA-ble for Toronto Blue Jays


Jun 24, 2013; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher

Josh Johnson

(55) in the dugout against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Before I get started, I want to give a bit of context around by personal opinions of what the Toronto Blue Jays should do with Josh Johnson. He’s been a tough player to figure out this season.

I wasn’t worried when Johnson sputtered out of the gate. Do you remember how cold it was in April? The weather was brutal, especially that miserable day game in Detroit. Although not all of his starts were outdoors, heck it was snowing in Toronto so I refused to read too much into his abysmal April numbers. Johnson wasn’t the only pitcher who struggled early. He also wasn’t 100% (shocker), which led to an early trip to the disabled list.

Despite getting hit fairly hard during his rehab stint in Buffalo I remained fairly optimistic about Johnson. He returned to the Blue Jays and put up some very promising numbers, albeit against mostly National League West opponents, but at that point it was enough for me to have faith he could still be productive for the Blue Jays.

Travis Bateman wrote a great piece about Johnson yesterday that you should probably read now if you want the rest of this post to fully make sense. Don’t worry – I’ll wait right here for you.

As I glance over Johnson’s sabermetrics for (not) the first time this season, I tend to agree with Bateman that he can’t continue to be THIS bad. As recently as June 22, 2013 I stated the following in my own piece about Johnson:

"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."

It seemed like a fairly safe prediction at the time. There was nothing drastically off from Johnson’s 2012 numbers that screamed regression. But he’s been far from effective since that time.

Bateman points to Johnson’s abysmal 18.7% HR/FB rate that is bound to come back down to Earth eventually. Combined with a respectable xFIP of 3.54, it would appear that with a more average level of home runs allowed Johnson wouldn’t be that terrible of a pitcher.

Obviously make sure you read the entire article but Bateman comes to the following conclusion about Johnson:

"I’m going to go out on a limb here (but maybe not if you believe in the above statistics as I do) that Josh Johnson will be the Blue Jays best pitcher over the next two months. He’s going to pitch well enough that we Jays fans will feel silly for ever having doubted the fact we would extend him a qualifying offer, and will be extolling his effectiveness at this time next year when the Jays are in the middle of a pennant race."

I want to agree with Travis and love the bold prediction but watching Johnson I don’t come to the same bottom line. I have to wonder how accurate xFIP really is to predict his future performance, as it should in theory. But xFIP doesn’t take into consideration the ball park and only considers league average HR/FB rate. Johnson’s FIP of 4.60 and tERA of 5.34 also concern me.

Plus his HR/FB rate was 8.4% last year, which doesn’t sound bad until you remember it was in the National League and approximately half his starts would have been at Marlins Park, which is known as one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball with the “Bermuda Triangle” in left center extending to 420 feet. Compared to the revolving door of sandbox stadium found in the American League East, asking an average HR/FB rate from Johnson may not be possible as long as he is a member of the Toronto Blue Jays.

What sabermetrics don’t measure (or at least the one’s that non-millionaires have access to) is how hard the ball is hit. At least to me it’s appeared almost everyone has been able to square up Josh Johnson, even the Triple-A Houston Astros. Even if his HR/FB rate does regress to a more average level, Johnson has been hit hard this year. Maybe a few more of those balls end up in gloves or die at the warning track (and for some reason Johnson seems to inspire shoddy defense around him) but overall his pitch values still leave much to be desired.

Many people have complained about Johnson’s “nibbling” this season as Travis noted in his post that Johnson is pitching outside of the strike zone almost 8% more often this season, which is a fairly significant difference. But I don’t think that this has necessarily been by design for Johnson, he simply hasn’t had any success locating his pitches. Sure he’s missing off the plate a ton, but he’s also missing in the wrong spots over the middle of the plate. Looking at his Pitchf/x Heat Maps through the years Johnson has never been particularly great at locating his pitches but with a fastball that would touch 98 MPH he used to get away with it.

Here’s a heat map from his pitches so far in 2013, not including last night’s start. See that yellow area right in the middle of the strike zone? I probably don’t have to tell you that’s not where you want to be as a pitcher.

Credit: FanGraphs

Going back to 2012, when Johnson had relatively similar stuff at least velocity-wise to what he has now, he attacked hitters more effectively down and away in the strike zone to both left- and right-handed batters. He wasn’t missing over the heart of the plate as frequently as this year. I shrunk the point size as he threw a lot more pitches last year so that the trend is easier to see.

Credit: FanGraphs

Here’s some help to interpret the Heat Map.

There’s been discussion about possible mechanical issues for Johnson as most of his problems stem from when he is pitching out of the stretch compared to the windup. Not including last night’s game, Johnson has allowed a .407 batting average in stretch situations, compared to only .222 out of the windup. According to Richard Griffin’s article in the Toronto Star, Johnson and Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker are trying some things to correct the problem. Griffin gave us a quote from Blue Jays manager John Gibbons in his article:

"I know they’re tinkering with moving him to the first base side of the rubber to make it a little easier to get to that part of the plate consistently. They’re experimenting with some things. We need someone to win some games. It’s one of those things where he’s trying to figure it out, get some consistency. It kind of comes and goes with him."

That’s not exactly a resounding endorsement from the rarely critical Gibbons. The more he pitches the less it seems that Johnson should be given a qualifying offer this offseason. That doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t, as a one-year contract still gives them flexibility moving forward without being burdened by a typical free agent contract. So there is a case to keeping him from a financial standpoint. But that’s making the assumption he can be effective next season, which based on this season’s trend of inconsistency looks less and less likely.

I tried to support moving him before the non-waiver trade deadline but really, who would even want this guy? I’m sure Anthopoulos will expose Johnson along with many other Jays to revocable waivers, which I should note is business as usual but I would be shocked to see any team take a swing at adding Johnson.

He still has potential to be great but it’s not often that a pitcher get better after he turns 30, which Johnson will be in January.

In regards to the Jays decision to qualify Johnson, another point of interest revolves around the club’s budget for next year. If Rogers decides to tighten the reins on Alex Anthopoulos by limiting his ability to further increase payroll after this season’s disaster, even a one-year contract to Johnson potentially could further ruin the Jays “three-year window”. They need results from Johnson now.

The Jays are already committed to $110 million next year, which thanks to translation from Andrew Stoeten at DJF we know doesn’t include Colby Rasmus‘ arbitration raise, the option for Casey Janssen, the difference between picking up Adam Lind‘s option and his buyout, and smaller arbs for Brett Cecil, Esmil Rogers, or J.P. Arencibia.

Anthopoulos has hinted that the Jays will be active this offseason and I can see why. Leaving things as they are and signing Johnson would bring Toronto’s payroll into the neighbourhood of $135 million. Hopefully people keep buying all that Blue Jays swag, which I’m assuming they probably will. The cynical Torontonian in me knows that winning and revenues are never correlated in this city.

It may or may not be the popular opinion among Blue Jays fans, but I still think cutting ties with Johnson is the way to go. It’s a young man’s league now and the Jays have potentially Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek and rising star Marcus Stroman waiting in the wings. I don’t think ridding Johnson leaves the Jays in any worse shape chasing pennant dreams next season. If anything, I think they would be better off without him.

All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and do not include last night’s shellacking/debauchery.