Josh Johnson, let’s enjoy the ride

petco park sunsetThe Padres rotation is at an interesting place. As Nate discussed in an excellent post about cat puke and other things, the Padres have a deep crop of potential starting pitchers lined up for the 2014 season. But while there are a slew of potential contributors, they all carry a form or two of unpredictability. On one hand there’s some recent major league success, good stuff, solid minor league track records, cuteness, and cuddliness. On the other hand we have a lovely mix of injury histories, extended stretches of poor major league performance, youth, and the risk of cat puke on a nice Ikea couch.

Enter Josh Johnson

Who is Josh Johnson? He performed like an ace in 2009 and 2010 for the Marlins, and contributed a solid year for the club again in 2012. He was included in the crazy internet forum trade proposal-like deal from the Marlins to the Blue Jays, which also involved Yunel Escobar, Jose Reyes, Henderson Alvarez, Justin Nicolino, and more. He’s an interesting pitcher, though he shows many qualities of the Padres’ current crop of starters.

We’ll start with the bad stuff. Josh has been injured off and on for most of his career, eerily almost alternating between a couple handfuls and 30 starts per year. In 2013 he made 4 starts for the Blue Jays before going on the DL with triceps tightness, which I’ve never heard of, but sounds scary for a pitcher. A month later he made 12 more starts before a forearm injury took him out the rest of the year. Johnson will join Chase Headley, Cameron Maybin, and Carlos Quentin as the most recent surgery recipients recovering this offseason, as Johnson received arthroscopic elbow surgery in early October.

What to say when someone points out Johnson’s 2013 ERA

Depending on your view of things, you might consider Johnson’s 2013 performance with the Blue Jays as more of the bad stuff. A 6.20 ERA in 81 innings will do that for a guy. But his performance on the mound in 2013 paints a rosier picture than such a high ERA suggests.

  Innings ERA FIP xFIP Fastball Velocity
2013 81 6.20 4.62 3.58 92.9
Career 998 3.40 3.32 3.57 93.9

Stats courtesy of Fangraphs.

A closer look at Johnson’s 2013 ERA shows much of the increase is due to factors pitchers don’t have much control over. If you’re not familiar with defensive independent pitching stats and batting average on balls in play, they are some of the weirdest and most unintuitive discoveries in the history of sports. Josh Johnson’s career BABIP sits at .302, allowing a .356 batting average on balls in play in 2013. We can also expect a pitcher’s home run to fly ball rate to normalize over time, with a high HR/FB indicating additional bad luck for a pitcher. Johnson’s HR/FB rate sat at 18.5%, astoundingly doubling his previous single season career high of 9%.

We also saw a career high strikeout rate last season, though his walk numbers have crept up throughout his career. He still throws hard, but Josh’s fastball velocity has sat at 92.9 for two years now, a MPH below his career total. He hurls (pun intended) his fastball a lot, and hopefully he’ll see more success with it at Petco than he did last year. We might also see more curves, which he’s traditionally thrown less of, but have put batters to bed with no dessert the last two seasons. The curve has been phenomenal for  him lately.

There’s probably a whole lot of bad luck wrapped up in that gnarly 6.20 ERA last season. We should expect him to snap out  of it in San Diego.

Excitement, etc.

Josh Johnson brings a lot of excitement to the offseason and the team next year. After identifying the need for pitching for the second offseason in a row, Josh Byrnes returns with a lot more than Jason Marquis and Tyson Ross this go-round. (No disrespect meant to the latter half of the greatest starting combo in Padre history. No disrespect meant to Jason Marquis either while we’re at it.)

Johnson and newly acquired starter Ian Kennedy both bring high upside along with some moderate risk to the Padres’ pitching scene. Or should I say, more upside with risk. I like that. All or nothing is a hell of a lot more fun than expecting 76 wins and hoping against hope we just might get to 80.

The rotation is kind of like playing penny slots: you could hit the jackpot, you’re more likely to lose a few dollars, but at least you get to pull the cool arm thing and score a free drink or two. Maybe you get some cat barf, but cats are great cuddlers.  And you don’t have to watch Edinson Volquez, or Clayton Richard.

For more thoughts on the signing and entirely too many embedded gifs, check out the Ghost’s post.

Update: Some not great news about Josh’s BABIP from Fangraphs’ Jason Collette.

I’m available for weird chats on Twitter if you’re into that kind of thing.

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  • Sac Bunt Melvin

    Johnson’s batted ball data, evidenced by his near career average SIERA for 2013, also points to a rebound in 2014. I am excite.

  • ballybunion

    The fact that he (reportedly) took less money to go with the Padres is interesting. I think the word is that in addition to Petco, the Padres have a pitching coach who would rather tweak (not twerk!) a pitcher’s motion rather than try to rebuild his whole delivery, and a former pitcher and pitching coach as a manager. Now they have two pitchers to tweak, Johnson and Kennedy, but they’ll have all Spring Training to work with them. BTW I’ve been told that the term “triceps tightness” was invented by a journeyman pro golfer to explain his snap hooks into trees, ponds, galleries, etc. It may be an actual medical condition though.

    • Sac Bunt Melvin

      Now I absolutely need to know how to involve twerking into a pitcher’s windup.

  • Sean Dreusike

    Not exactly fair to use Johnson’s ” career high strikeout rate last season” as some sort of achievement. That refers to his K/9, but his K% was actually down. Why? He was giving up more hits and therefore was facing more batters. He had to get outs some way other than balls in play and eventually could get a K in those situations. However, this same issue is a point in favor of his BB/9 rate since that ticked up, but his BB% was actually lower than 2011/2012 levels.

    It’s also a little easy to fall prey to worshiping at the altar of xFIP and BABIP (not that you are, but just making a point). Despite the theories about pitcher’s not controlling their BABIPs there are still ways that balls in play will be more likely to become hits. Those that were watching Johnson this season saw him lose control of his breaking pitches. However, looking at the numbers it seems that instead of letting that control loss turn into walks, he kept relying on his fastball and used the other pitches less. That would make his pitch sequencing more predictable and more likely to result in hits and HRs. Especially if he also had fastball command issues.

    Byrnes and others scouts must see that as fixable, but the bounceback wouldn’t seem to be just a matter of putting him back on the mound and letting the luck even out.

    • Sac Bunt Melvin

      Great comment Sean, and good point about K/9 vs K%. As for the balls in play stuff, Johnson’s still solid SIERA corroborates well with the unlucky story.

  • http://padrespublic.com/ AvengingJackMurphy

    18.5% HR/FB rate! Yikes! With the floating pieces removed from his elbow and the thick marine air of San Diego I think the chances are decent that the cat puke will never hit the couch.