New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays

Things are different for the San Diego Padres. They are a franchise without stakes, so technically all their signings are low risk. When Josh Johnson signs a one-year deal with the Padres for $8MM plus options (adding $1.25MM if he makes 26 starts and a $4MM team option if he makes fewer than seven starts), it looks like a decent low risk, high reward signing. The big right-hander becomes the latest in a long line of pitchers attempting to treat the Padres like a rebound relationship after posting a nightmare season with the Blue Jays in 2013.

Because the dollar amount is as insignificant as the Padres chances for contention, this signing looks like a no-brainer for them. They don’t actually need Josh Johnson to be anything for them, so even if he’s awful, it doesn’t really deter their plans for future third-place finishes.

Which is good because there’s a strong chance Josh Johnson just keeps on being awful as he was in 2013. The potential outcomes of Josh Johnson’s performance represents the difference between the Padres trading an effective pitcher, possibly reaping a compensation draft pick or jettisoning a broken player. But which is most likely? Just what are the Padres going to get in 2014?

Signing Josh Johnson comes with more risk than you realize. Often, pillow contracts like this go to pitchers struggling with either health OR performance issues – Johnson comes with both. There are little in the way of guarantees he will be healthy enough to make 20 starts or good enough to earn them.

Josh Johnson was once the National League’s best starter, boring his 95 mph fastball onto the unsuspecting hands of NL hitters and preventing home runs better than nearly every pitcher in baseball. While Johnson’s fastball velocity dipped across each of the last three seasons, he still average a reasonable 92.5 mph in 2013.

The problem with Johnson is not the speed of pitches but the location. Whether he was limited physically or mentally, Josh Johnson threw fewer pitches in the strike zone than nearly any other starter pitcher in baseball. This wasn’t just a 2013 phenomenon, this was part of an ongoing trend for the big right-hander.

josh johnson zone

So Johnson struggled to throw strikes with all his pitches, continuing a disconcerting trend. Batters still swung and missed his breaking balls at a healthy rate – though they did drive them with impunity when bat met ball.

The degree to which Josh Johnson was battered in 2013 is subject to much debate. Johnson’s strikeout and walk rates are still quite respectable, good even. He coaxed a very high rate of swinging strikes on all his pitches, his breaking balls in particular. All reasons for hope in San Diego.

Another reason some are betting on a Josh Johnson recovery relates to his injury and the fluky nature of his 2013 season. His home run rate was sky high after a career of preventing the long ball. His batting average on balls in play also tracked well above his career norms. Assuming a return to health and a little bit of regression, Josh Johnson should be fine, right? Hold on.

It makes sense that one stat that isn’t particularly skill-based, like home run rate, might return to its normal season after a run of bad luck. The same holds for in-play average. Balls find holes, sometimes in bunches. But the two together is a red flag. It suggests an inherent hittability that doesn’t bode well for the future. The biggest ballpark in the world cannot save a pitcher giving up line drives by the boatload.

Josh Johnson allowed home runs on 7.2% of his fly balls before 2013, when his HR/FB rate rocketed up over 18%. He allowed 1.66 home runs per nine innings (15 big flies in just 80 innings pitched.) Meanwhile, his batting average on balls in play grew to .356 compared to a previous career .297 BABIP.

If everything returns to his career norms, he’s fine. But can we seriously suggest allowing balls to fall for hits and balls to go for dingers is solely related to random fluctuation? Let’s consider the company Johnson keeps.

Follow this link for a list of all the pitchers to allow a BABIP higher than .340 and a HR/FB greater than 14% last season. There you will find a bunch of very bad pitchers, some older than others. Here is the 2012 list, where you find more crappy pitchers and also Daniel Hudson, whose arm blew up. Ivan Nova is on that list, which is encouraging. Ivan Nova is also 26-years old, not 29.

All else beginning equal, there was no regression to save most of the pitchers on those lists. The innings cap was set very low, so many of the pitchers didn’t reach Johnson’s 80 innings. Time heals most wounds but not all.

Looking from another angle, here are all the pitchers to post .340 BABIPs while allowing more than 1.5 home runs per nine since the turn of the century. To make these buckets more worthwhile, we can eliminate pitchers 28 and younger (who might be figuring things out) and who failed to pitch 50 innings.

Rk Player WAR BAbip HR/9 IP Year Age Tm Lg GS R BB SO ERA+ HR
1 Jason Simontacchi -0.8 .346 1.66 70.2 2007 33 WSN NL 13 53 23 42 67 13
2 Brian Tollberg -0.9 .352 1.61 61.2 2002 29 SDP NL 11 47 19 33 61 11
3 James Shields -1.5 .344 1.50 203.1 2010 28 TBR AL 33 128 51 187 75 34
4 Josh Johnson -1.6 .361 1.66 81.1 2013 29 TOR AL 16 64 30 83 66 15
5 Sean Bergman -1.6 .377 2.38 68.0 2000 30 MIN AL 14 76 33 35 54 18
6 Josh Towers -1.9 .342 2.47 62.0 2006 29 TOR AL 12 62 17 35 55 17
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/20/2013.

There is James Shields and then there is nothing. James Shields is a very, very interesting case, as he became a legit #2 starter in the American League over the past three seasons. James Shields has a pedigree similar to Johnson’s (i.e. a recent history of high quality performance before a wonky season.)

But James Shields also has health. Shields is incredibly durable – even when he was bad. Josh Johnson is not durable and he never really was. Instead he’s a wildcard on both fronts – questionable performance and a very real injury risk.

Just as Johnson’s overall numbers should improve given some regression, is it not possible his strikeout and walks rates are due to regress (in a downward direction) given his inability to throw strikes consistently?

Consider, for a moment, the case of Tim Lincecum. Like Johnson, Tim Lincecum was once among the three best pitchers in the National League. Like Johnson, Tim Lincecum slogged through tough seasons of late, battling diminished velocity and struggling to throw strikes.

Before we go any farther, the biggest, non-negotiable difference between these two players must be addressed. Both Tim Lincecum and Josh Johnson are 29-years old. The former Marlins right-hander made his big league debut in 2005, while Lincecum came up in 2007. In their careers, Lincecum has 60 additional starts and logged 400 more career innings.

Lincecum and Johnson have a few things in common – most notably, they were bad in 2013. Lincecum was worse in 2012 than in 2013 and even 2012 Lincecum was better than 2013 Josh Johnson. Their K/9 rates were nearly identical (9.18 for Lincecum, 9.19 for Johnson) but Lincecum threw more strikes, fell behind less, induced more swinging strikes, allowed less contact, and gave up fewer home runs (in a more friendly ballpark, of course.)

So while the K rates are nice, for Johnson to replicate Lincecum’s disaster season, he needs to improve in countless facets of his game, reversing three-year trends in some respects. There is a lot of work Johnson must do to become a viable big league pitcher again.

Maybe it is all a matter of health. A return to a release point unreachable in 2013 might solve all his ills and make him one of the best in the game again. But getting healthy has never been easy for Josh Johnson and it doesn’t become any more attainable after age-30. The successes or recoveries of Tim Lincecum or James Shields don’t mean a thing if Josh Johnson can’t stay on the field.

Perhaps Johnson will make the Padres look great by throwing him $8MM and in a transition year. Or maybe the scuffling shell of his former self points to a brief comeback, a player betrayed by his body just on the cusp of a life-changing payday. There is much greater chance Josh Johnson never rediscovers his old form and simply becomes another great mystery, rather than bouncing back to grab that $100 million dollar brass ring some believe is still out there for him.

Some information and stats via Fangraphs and ESPN Stats & Info