Tomorrow Jake Marisnick will be a Major Leaguer. Following last night’s game the Marlins announced, via Twitter, that both he and top prospect Christian Yelich are on their way to the big leagues, straight from Double-A Jacksonville, where the 22-year-old ex Jays prospect and his 21-year-old teammate were both in the top ten in OPS despite being among the youngest qualified hitters in the Southern League.
It’s a bit of an early debut for Marisnick, but it’s hard to deny that he’s zoomed past Anthony Gose– who continues to regress at the plate and on the basepaths in his repeat year at Triple-A– and firmly made himself a centrepiece of last November’s deal between the Jays and the Marlins.
A decent lavishing of praise is sure to come today, as tends to happen when top 100 prospects make their debuts, which will surely make a lot of Jays fans sick to their stomachs. Meanwhile, one of the key players who went the other way in the deal, Josh Johnson, is left to pick up the pieces of another terrible outing for the Blue Jays last night.
Johnson recorded just six outs on Monday against the Dodgers– one of the few teams who, had he been pitching better, may have been convinced to have some genuine interest in him at the trade deadline– and for the sixth time in thirteen starts this season he allowed four or more earned runs, ballooning his season ERA a half run from 5.16 to 5.66.
So while Marisnick is about to become a big league player, is it possible Johnson could be heading in the other direction, all the way out of the league? I’m sure there are some fans that so, but I highly doubt it’s remotely close to that dire. Johnson’s fastball still sits at 93 and touches 94, even though he doesn’t pitch like it, so there’s always going to be interest there. But something absolutely has to change if he’s going to rediscover what made him successful– or to discover for the first time what he can do to get by now that he’s no longer the power pitcher he was back in what I think we can safely, already, call his pre-injury heyday.
Unfortunately for the Jays, one thing that would probably help a lot is giving him an extra easy out each time through the batting order– i.e. moving him back to the National League.
Believe me when I tell you, I don’t say that because I’m turning into one of these punchable faces who insist that players from the NL are never going to translate to the AL (and fans of this organization, who remember NL-to-AL guys like Roberto Alomar, David Cone, Scott Rolen, A.J. Burnett, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion really have no excuse for thinking that way anyway), rather, it’s because he could seriously use a real rally killer up at the plate every once in a while, because when he’s forced to pitch from the stretch, with men on base, Johnson has been brutal.
What’s especially frustrating about that is, when he’s pitched with the bases empty, Johnson has been one of the better pitchers in the league– for whatever little that’s worth. Had he pitched enough innings to be qualified, the .286 wOBA hitters have posted against him with the bases empty (before Monday night) would rank Johnson in the top third in the league, and ahead of guys like Hiroki Kuroda, David Price, James Shields, Justin Verlander and C.C. Sabathia.
When pitching from the stretch, however, things have absolutely fallen apart. Johnson’s .400 wOBA against with men on base would rank him fifth last among 104 qualified starters, ahead of only Scott Diamond, Wade Davis, Justin Grimm and Lucas Harrell.
Worse still, there doesn’t seem to be a simple fix here, as it turns out Jack Moore wrote a piece for FanGraphs nearly a year ago to the damn day about this very issue, which could pretty much be published verbatim today and nobody would notice the difference.
There have been plenty of good signs in Josh Johnson‘s return from a season-ending shoulder injury this year. His 2.98 FIP is excellent; he’s striking out nearly eight batters per nine innings and walking well under three. His 9.35 strikeout rate is an improvement over last year’s mark of 8.5%. His 46.9% ground ball rate is healthy, just under his career average. And yet, despite all this, runs keep crossing the plate against Johnson. His 4.14 ERA would easily be a career high.
As is so often the case, the issue is an elevated BABIP. Johnson checks in at .338 so far this season, a career high and 36 points over his career mark. To make matters worse, the most damage has come with runners already on — Johnson has allowed a .305 BABIP with the bases empty but a whopping .383 mark with runners on. The league typically allows more hits with runners on, but the league split is seven points higher with runners on, not well over 70.
Johnson’s FIP of 4.26 isn’t quite so great this year, but his xFIP– which is kinder to his above average BABIP and HR/FB rate– looks downright respectable at 3.60, for whatever little that’s worth. On a per-batter basis Johnson has struck out more batters this season than last, and walked fewer batters than he has since 2010. Ho ho ho, but heading into last night’s game the “whopping” disparity between his BABIP with the bases empty and with men on has somehow actually grown.
Bases empty? .282 BABIP.
Men on? .380.
This, of course, has been pretty apparent to anybody with eyes, but to see the actual numbers is pretty staggering. Especially when one assumes that this is something both the Jays and the Marlins would have long ago picked up on and had been tinkering with.
I also don’t have the access to the same kind of data for this year that Jack did a year ago (or maybe I just don’t know where to find it), but he explained that, back in Miami in 2012, with Johnson pitching from the stretch, “at 16.7%, the slider is still generating whiffs but significantly fewer than its 22.4% norm. And instead of swinging strikes, the result is hits in play — 7.2% of Johnson’s sliders from these stretch situations have resulted in hits or run-scoring outs.
“The changeup has been even worse,” he continued. “Of 49 thrown, nine have resulted in hits or run-scoring outs, the second most common result after ‘ball.’ Only one of the 49 changeups has generated a swinging strike, and just four have generated in-play outs.”
It would almost make you hopeful about Johnson turning it around, we’re it not for the fact that it’s been in plain sight– or at least as visible as Moore’s piece and FanGraphs’ splits tab– for a year and a half now. And if it weren’t such an ugly difference.
Beyond the BABIP and wOBA differences, Johnson seems to lose what little control he has, with his K/BB dropping from 4.20 in the windup to 1.92 from the stretch. And his line drive rate goes up by nearly six per cent.
So… uh… could he pitch exclusively from the windup? As much as that obviously would be a gift to his opponents’ running games, could it possibly make things worse? I mean, obviously you’d like to see him make some kind of change that allows him to pitch more effectively from the stretch, but shouldn’t they be pretty much at the point of trying anything?
Because– and here’s the nut– he genuinely is putting himself in a position where making him a qualifying offer this coming winter is becoming an untenable proposition.
That’s not a particularly controversial statement, and some fans, I understand, would be just fine with that, but it truly would mean a tremendous loss of value for the club.
Already Johnson would seem to have blown up whatever contingencies had been conveniently built in around him. One could be forgiven for thinking that, if the 2013 Jays were, in some hopelessly mad parallel universe, going to fail, at least a healthy Josh Johnson would have made an excellent trade chip. Much is made about the draft pick the club could get back if he declines the qualifying offer, but with the club having gone all-in so hard last winter, and it failing so spectacularly in this form, one legitimately has to wonder whether Alex Anthopoulos will even be around to reap the benefit of a player who at the absolute earliest wouldn’t be making his big league debut until 2016.
I’d commend Alex if he held firm on getting the pick, if he thought it was in the organization’s best, long-term interest, regardless of whether he thought he’d be here or not, but the temptation has got to be to get the club something that can help them in the two seasons that follow this one, if there’s any possibility of doing so for Johnson.
Is there any possibility, though? Would a team see his success from the windup and actually think they could find a way to make him usable, or make his stuff effective from the stretch the way it was back in 2010, when he was actually better with runners on? Nah, it’s a total fantasy. What team could possibly part with anything of value for Johnson, at this point, and sell it to their fans and their ownership as some kind of defensible move?
For the time being, the Jays are stuck with him. And actually… that may not be the worst thing in the world, because maybe there actually is reason to be hopeful.
I’m sure that in the mind of a lot of fans the trajectory here is simple: Johnson plays out the string, doesn’t get a whole lot better, and the Jays simply let him walk. There are, however, other possibilities.
For starters, given his $13-million contract– which will still have $4.6-million left on it once the non-waiver trade deadline passes– it’s highly unlikely that Johnson gets claimed when the Jays place him on the revokable trade waivers that are at the centre of the August trading period.
They still have a little time to get him sorted out, in other words. And there’s maybe even a bigger reason to be at least a little bit hopeful…
In terms of his velocity and his batted ball stats– i.e. line drive rate, fly ball rate, ground ball rate– Johnson has been pretty close to the same guy he was last year. His pitch usage has been pretty similar overall, as well. Yes, his HR/FB is double his career norm, and at 14.7%, well above the 8.4% he posted last year, which is largely due to the offence-friendly home environment and league that he now pitches in, but you’d still have to expect at least a little regression from that– though… I suppose it’s possible he’s just so awful pitching from the stretch that the normal theories about such things just don’t fit him anymore when he’s pitching with men on base.
Something interesting, though, is that he’s been godawful against right-handed hitters.
You have to go back to 2008 to find a year in which right-handed batters posted a wOBA above .300 against Johnson. Last year they wOBA’d .288 off him, and for his career the mark is .289.
This season? .405.
Again, is that number possibly a reflection on how bad he’s been from the stretch? Is he tipping his pitches when not in the windup? Is there something mechanical in Johnson that is hampering his ability to get right-handers out? Or is there maybe a little bit of shit luck in there as well?
I certainly can’t say definitively, but such a whopping outlier offers at least a small reason for hope for progression to the mean.
So, too, does the way that Johnson handled his up-and-down 2012 season.
The piece from Jack Moore that I quoted earlier was published on July 24th, 2012, at which point hitters had posted a .383 BABIP against Johnson when he was pitching from the stretch. By season’s end, though, he’d lowered it to .326.
In an excellent post-trade post at the Mockingbird back in December, Jon Hale went deep under the hood into the Pitch F/X and found post-injury Johnson to be a pitcher with a willingness to tinker in order to make best use of his repertoire. He concluded the piece:
Josh Johnson used to be able to get away with throwing two plus-plus pitches and a show-me change. After a series of arm problems, he’s just not that dominating power pitcher any more. Half a dozen starts into last season, that 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. It saved his year, and possibly his career.
What’s particularly striking about Hale’s piece is how he shows that, by the end of 2012, Johnson was throwing his curveball 20% of the time. This year so far he’s thrown it just 13.2% of the time– putting it in line, as I said above, with his overall usage of the pitch in 2012, which was at 15.7%.
There may be some reasonable explanation for that. He may have moved away from the pitch that was the key to his second-half success last year because the league caught on to what he was doing, or because that he can’t throw it– or anything– for strikes this year (his Zone% of 37.5 would tie him for dead last with Jason Marquis, were he a qualified starter), but… shit, I don’t know… and combine the potential of it becoming useful again with the wOBA outlier against right-handed hitters and the impressive progression to the mean in terms of his BABIP from the stretch last year and perhaps the ingredients are there for Johnson to still actually put it together here, as bafflingly counterintuitive as that may sound to anyone who has watched him pitch, particularly in his last six starts.
If so, now all he’s got to do is hit that sweet spot where he’s good enough to get the qualifying offer but not good enough to do better on the open market, and the Jays are golden!
That’s right, I’d be totally all for Josh Johnson being on this team next year, even at a $15-million hit– or, as I suggested last week, on a slightly richer deal that gives the Jays an option for 2015 or Johnson a tidy buyout. Of course that’s if– and it’s a big one– he manages to put it together the way he did last year.
Arms like his, even in its diminished form, simply don’t come around very often, and for some reason I’m ready to hold out hope.
In Hale’s piece he passes along a quote from Johnson at the end of last season:
“I’d say maybe the last 15 starts, I felt so much better than before. I was kind of fighting myself, fighting my body, trying to do this or that, maybe trying to find a little bit more velocity. But once I relaxed and just trusted myself, it just kind of came out.”
He certainly doesn’t appear to be trusting his stuff at this point– though, given his struggles with men on, can you blame him?– and the fact that he spent time on the shelf means he maybe hasn’t been feeling right in 2013, either.
So, as much as his last two starts appear to have been setbacks– especially following a pair of early-July gems against Detroit and Cleveland that lowered his ERA from 5.21 to 4.62– isn’t it maybe at least a little soon to write him off? After all, last year on this date Johnson had already made 20 starts, as compared to this year’s 13.
It sure is too soon if you’re like me and still believe it’s not entirely out of the question that Johnson could feasibly help the 2014 Jays by putting together a full season that looks more like that back half of his 2012– and, perhaps, what he’s about to do in these next two months– than we’ve seen so far.
This is… y’know… as long as he’s bad enough, yet good enough, for them to get stuck with him.
Sadly, though, at this point, that’s pretty much a best-case scenario, and way, way too hopeful to be realistic. 2013, you guys!