The Josh Johnson that the Blue Jays traded for back in November isn’t the same Josh Johnson that we all remember at his 2010 peak, in which he posted a 2.30 ERA over 28 starts. At the end of that season Johnson placed eighth among qualified pitchers in WAR over the previous two seasons. His ERA was fifth during that span, ahead of Kershaw, Lincecum, Cain and Greinke. His FIP ranked second, behind only Lincecum, among a top ten featuring Lee, Halladay, Verlander and Felix. And his xFIP placed him fifth, ahead of many of the same names.
Then, of course, came the injuries that limited him to just 60 innings in 2011, and a subsequent drop in velocity that Johnson himself speaks of as permanent. As a consequence, he’s had to expand his repertoire, moving from a guy who threw fastballs and sliders over 90% of the time according to the Pitch F/X data from 2009, to a guy now mixing in a changeup, a sinking two-seamer, and, most importantly, a curveball.
It’s Johnson’s two-seamer that was the focus of a piece from Mike Rutsey of the Toronto Sun this week, as he spoke to the pitcher himself, as well as Jays pitching coach Pete Walker, about using the pitch more consistently this year. “As any pitcher progresses in his career they realize they can make some adjustments and I think he’s realizing that that’s a pitch that with encouragement from people is a pitch that he can use and be effective and make him even more a complete pitcher,” Walker explained.
“The year before [last], right before all the shoulder stuff, I was throwing hard, getting a lot of foul balls– foul ball, foul ball, foul ball– and somebody just suggested, ‘Hey, how about we get something a little slower, or a split or something?’ ” Johnson explained. “And actually, the off-season before that, I tried to throw a split a little bit, and then I had no chance– I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was terrible with it. But the curveball, I used to throw it back in– when I got drafted– so 2002, 2003, and then they took it away in ’03 to go to a slider. So, I had some familiarity with it, and then I just started throwing it in Spring Training. I think I threw one on Opening Day, and then it was probably about one a game for those first two or three games, and then it was two, three, four. That was probably the most, that, and then I got hurt. Then I came back last year and I wasn’t throwing quite as hard, I needed something to keep the hitters off balance, so that was just– the next step was to throw it even more.”
We don’t just have to take Johnson’s word for the fact that Johnson started throwing the curve more frequently over the course of last year, though, as back in December, over at The Mockingbird, Jon Hale went deep into the Pitch F/X of Johnson’s 2012 campaign. He explains that after a half dozen games, the new realities of his once-dominant arm “became obvious to him and/or his coaches, and he started using a pitch in strikeout situations that he had only tinkered with in the past. It worked amazingly well for him, and he started to get more and more confidence with it as the season went on until he was just as effective as he used to be when his repertoire was much more nasty, but predictable.”
Part of this was, as Johnson says, the curve’s ability to keep hitter’s more off balance.
“I always wanted something slower,” he explained on Baseball Tonight, “and I always talked about, instead of my changeup and slider at about the same speed, and my fastball was anywhere from four to six or seven miles an hour harder, and that’s it. They had you looking in one little area[, velocity wise].”
According to the Pitch F/X data at FanGraphs, Johnson knows his stuff– in 2012 his changeup averaged 87.6 mph, with his slider at 86.9 and his fastball at a career low 92.8. The curve was 78.5 on average, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was always quite the same pitch. In a follow-up piece at The Mockingbird, Hale looked more deeply at the just the curve.
Money bullet points:
- Johnson tightened up his Curve into more of a pure 12-6 as the season went on.
- He was getting more and more drop on it until the all-star break, when something went horribly wrong. From then on, that trend reversed.
- It was getting more and more ‘loopy’ until late in the season, when again, after a terrible start, things started moving in the opposite direction.
- The league was more and more able to make contact with his curve as the season went on.
- This led to more and more hits coming against it until the midway mark, at which point, yep, things reversed dramatically.
Lumping all this together, I would say that Johnson was working on making his curve more and more nasty as the league was catching up to it, and then somewhere around the mid-way point (possibly spurred on by it falling apart) wisely switched his focus to making it more controllable so he could place it more effectively. But that might be just because I know that’s what happens to every rookie pitcher and it makes sense that it would for a veteran with a new toy…
This seems to be precisely what Johnson is saying to Olney, as he makes the ears of every Jays fan perk up, explaining, “One of my favourite guys to watch is Halladay– the way he goes both sides of the plate with everything. I remember watching a bullpen of his two years ago, and just how impressive it was. Both sides of the plate with every pitch, exactly where he wanted to. I just thought, you know what, that’s pretty much what I need to get to. I’m not going to be able to throw 97 for my whole career, so I need to learn how to use the curveball, use the changeup, sink the ball to both sides of the plate, and just keep hitters off balance.”
Asked what the biggest challenge with it has been, and he replies without hesitation, “Trusting it. That’s the biggest challenge for any pitch, trusting it and believing in it to throw it in different counts, different ways, different sides of the plate. Towards the end of the year I could pretty much throw it to both sides of the plate– it was my best pitch, I thought. The one that got me back in the count or ahead in the count. So yeah, it definitely helped.”
Again, this matches up with what Hale saw in the Pitch F/X, and yet, Johnson felt that it was not only a big pitch for him last year purely as a weapon. “I think that helped me kind of find my rhythm– my rhythm and tempo were just all over the place last year. I think a lot of it had to do with my stride, and how long it was getting– kind of jumping at the hitter rather than staying back and letting everything flow, which is what I’ve been doing this year so far. So I’ll stay right there and keep using that curveball and continue to work on the sinker.”
I’m not sure he has much of a choice, but shit, at least it’s this nuts and bolts stuff that’s on his mind, rather than anything contractual. Of his looming free agency, Johnson tells Olney he’s “not even worried about it. I’ve always said that you go out there and take care of business and do what you do and everything will take care of itself– don’t have to worry about money, years, it doesn’t matter. All I want to do this year is go out there and win. Everybody wants a winner, so it can only help my cause.”
That’s all that fans here want too, Josh. Especially behind a Halladay-loving starter who continues to transition smoothly into being a “pitcher” through his age 29 season, no matter how much blind faith it’ll take for us to forget that there could be some serious bumps along the way. So far so good, I guess. And it doesn’t hurt that Johnson is clearly keen enough to say the right things. Maybe I shouldn’t, given the very reasonable cynicism two sentences back, but I think I really do believe…