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  • May
    27

    Kerry Leibowitz - Up in the Air: The Problem with Jim Johnson

    Written by Kerry Leibowitz

     

     

    With the—admittedly understandable—hysteria afoot following the ninth inning Orioles meltdown on Sunday afternoon against the Blue Jays, I thought it would be a good idea to take a semi-objective look at Jim Johnson and his recent set of performances.

     

    What is undeniable is that Johnson has now blown four ninth inning save opportunities in the team’s last 13 games (four blown saves in five opportunities for Johnson personally).  Worse, two of those four blown saves involved lost leads of the multi-run variety.  So the Orioles have lost four times in a 13-game span in which they took a lead into the ninth inning.

     

    By comparison, Johnson blew only three (of 54) save opportunities all of last year.  So in the span of the last 13 games—covering only five save opportunities—Johnson has exceeded last year’s blown save total.  Last season the Orioles lost only once when they took a lead into the ninth inning, so the past two weeks have been a revelation—and not a good one.  Losing four times in a 13-game span despite holding a ninth inning lead…let’s just say that this is an exceptional number of such losses in such a short span of time.  And last year, the only game in which the Orioles lost despite holding a ninth inning lead involved only a one-run lead.  The Orioles never lost a game last year when they took a multi-run lead into the ninth inning.  They’ve already done that twice this year in the span of just nine games.

     

    So that’s the nature of the problem.  It obviously begs the question of what, if anything is wrong with Johnson.  I’m tossing the “if anything” phrase in the mix because results can be misleading at times.  For instance, if Johnson was surrendering runs because of a series of ground balls that were finding holes, I think we’d have to throw up our hands and say “that’s baseball,” even if it happened four times in the span of 13 games.

     

    I think most people reading these words are aware of the fact that Jim Johnson is widely regarded as a “ground ball pitcher,” essentially due to his possession of a superior two-seam sinking fastball.  But just how much of a ground ball pitcher is he?

     

    Johnson took full control of his sinker in 2011.  Here are some numbers, demonstrating just how thoroughly the term “ground ball pitcher” applies to Jim Johnson.

     

     

    GB/FB

    GO/AO

    2011

    1.61

    2.33

    2012

    1.80

    2.13

    2013

    0.97

    1.61

    ML AVG

    0.80

    1.08

     

    GB/FB = Ratio of ground balls to balls in the air for all balls put into play

    GO/AO = Ratio of ground outs to air outs

    ML AVG = The major league average from 2007-May 25, 2013

     

    Clearly Johnson is far more of a ground ball pitcher than the average big leaguer, even this year to date.  But take note of how far the ground ball ratios thus far in 2013 compare to each of the two prior seasons.  That’s a dramatic difference.  In fact, the significant drop off visible in 2013 masks what’s been going on lately, as I’ll endeavor to demonstrate.

     

    Beginning in late April of this year, Johnson successfully converted five saves over a six-appearance span.  But I saw most of those games and I noticed that an awful lot of balls seemed to have been hit in the air.  It’s my sense that Johnson’s problems actually preceded the first blown save, against the Padres on May 14, and by a significant amount of time.  Here’s a table showing Johnson’s GB/FB breakdown over his last 13 appearances, beginning with the April 26 game against Kansas City:

     

       

    Opp

    GB

    FB

    Apr 26

    @

    OAK

    1

    2

    Apr 27

    @

    OAK

    1

    2

    May 2

    @

    LAA

    1

    1

    May 4

    @

    LAA

    1

    2

    May 7

     

    KCR

    0

    2

    May 8

     

    KCR

    2

    0

    May 10

    @

    MIN

    1

    2

    May 14

     

    SDP

    4

    1

    May 18

     

    TBR

    1

    3

    May 20

     

    NYY

    2

    2

    May 21

     

    NYY

    0

    3

    May 25

    @

    TOR

    1

    1

    May 26

    @

    TOR

    2

    5

    Total

       

    17

    26

     

    Over his last 13 appearances, Johnson has produced 17 ground balls in play and 26 balls in the air.  That’s a GB/FB ratio of 0.65.  That’s significantly worse than his season-to-date GB/FB ratio of 0.97—to say nothing of the halcyon days of 2011-12 when his ratio was in the neighborhood of 1.70.  Also note that it’s lower than the major league average.  For the past month, Jim Johnson has been a fly ball pitcher.  Prior to the April 26 appearance against the Angels, Johnson had produced 15 ground balls this season, versus 11 balls in play in the air, a ratio of 1.36.  That’s still well below the previous two seasons, but more than twice the ratio from April 26 to the present and still far in excess of the major league average.  The fact that even the pre-April 26 GB/FB ratio was down significantly is a bit alarming, but that concern was mitigated at least somewhat by the increase in the number of strikeouts that he was obtaining.  (Prior to April 26, Johnson had fanned 11 batters in 12 innings (8.25 K/9); that number was just 5.4 per nine innings last year.)

     

    What’s going on?  This is where I’ll end any attempt to be objective and simply report what I’ve seen, which is that Johnson appears to have lost all command of his two-seamer.  It got so bad today that he all but abandoned it at times, going almost exclusively with a four-seam fastball.  A four-seamer has always been part of Johnson’s repertoire; he’s usually used it when he intentionally wants to work up in the zone (and yes, he does do that deliberately on occasion).  But the four-seamer—though probably Johnson’s highest velocity pitch—has little movement (like most four-seam fastballs) and is a complementary offering, as is his breaking ball and straight change.  Everything for Johnson works off the sinker.  If he doesn’t have command of the two-seamer he’s in trouble.  Today, he had no command of the sinker or anything off-speed.  He appeared to have little confidence in anything but the four-seam fastball, which made him a one pitch pitcher…and with that one pitching having little movement.  So…boom.

     

    So why is Johnson struggling to command his money pitch?  I’ll leave the nuances of what might be a root cause to Johnson’s struggles of late to the Orioles coaching staff.


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