Earlier this year I wrote an article about Ricky Romero and the dark place a pitcher goes when things start to fall apart on the mound. That sinking feeling, when, for whatever cosmic reason, things start to go wrong again, and again, and again to the point you wonder if they will ever be right once more, or, if failure is the new normal.
The first failure can be written off as breakage. Nobody is perfect.
The second failure reminds you that the game is cruel and being a pitcher can really stink because it supplies you with so much time to sit and think about what went wrong before your next chance to try again.
The third time, well, that is when doubt starts to creep in.
A streak of three failures makes you wonder if your next outing, the fourth, will be the one that gets you back on track, or, what if, just what if it’s more of the same. It’s the point your paradigm shifts.
Four failures … Then what? Four is bad, right? That makes me, the pitcher, bad, right? That makes this season a bad one, right? Paranoia, anxiety and doubt you can’t shake, even when you’re on the mound.
We all tie a lot of who we are into what we do. Baseball players are no different. When we win, we think of ourselves as winners. When we fail, we think of ourselves as losers. It’s an ego roller coaster.
The pro’s pros understand there are lots of ups and downs, and they strive for balance. But even the best of the best get a little shaken when the bottom just keeps dropping out, and for Josh Johnson, it’s been a hell of a long, sharp, winding descent.
He’s given up more home runs this season (15) in 76 innings pitched than he did all of last season (14) with 191 innings pitched. His ERA is double what it was last year at 6.81, and righties are hitting a mind-boggling .343 off him.
That said, if I had to put Johnson against Romero right now and choose who to give a $14-million contract to, I’d pick Johnson.
Because for all the struggles that Johnson has had, for all the disappointment he’s brought to the Jays this season, he’s still throwing strikes.
Sure, the strikes he’s throwing are getting hit, but at least he’s getting the ball over the plate. In fact, he’s getting the ball over the plate far too often.
A quick review of his heat maps and zone tendencies shows that he’s missing more in the middle portion of the plate than he has in almost any previous year.
He’s also not getting in on the hands of right-handers anywhere near to what he used to.
Some, like my Baseball Central co-host, Sam Cosentino, speculate that his stuff has straightened out. I tend to disagree, mainly because there has been no correlating change to his release point. Pitchers who drop their arm slot tend to see their fastball flatten out and that’s not the case with Johnson.
I think it’s far more likely that he’s suffering from an acute mechanical issue, specifically one that affects his delivery out of the stretch, where he seems to be his least effective with an opponent batting average of .377, a .626 slugging percentage and weighted on-base average of .455.
His arm is lagging just enough to, while still allowing him to throw strikes, stray up into the hittable, batting-practice portion of the zone.
Going back to Romero and my argument for why Johnson’s breakdown is nothing like it, if you watch Ricky at the apex of his struggles, it was more than just mechanical.
Johnson is able to repeat his delivery and keep the ball around the plate. Romero’s delivery came undone and the ball was anywhere from a foot in front of the plate to over the catcher’s head.
During Romero’s 2012 season, he gave up six more hits than he did in his first year while only pitching three more innings. But he walked 26 more batters, including two games in which he walked six, one in which he walked seven, and one in which he walked eight. He also struck out 50 less batters than he did his 2011 and 2010 seasons.
Johnson is currently striking out more than a batter per inning at 78 and has only walked 28. His BB/9 and K/9 are still in line with career averages. His hits and homers have inflated, but a wOBA of .473 does imply some bad luck.
Furthermore, Romero was going through his struggles as the supposed ace of the rotation. He took this job very seriously, which is completely understandable since he wanted to be a strong and professional leader. I can absolutely respect that, but it did nothing to help him deal with the psychological trauma a prolonged stretch of failure can put a player through.
Johnson is not the staff ace. He has a lot of expectation, but he can share some of the let down with all the other big stars that haven’t lived up to the hype. Johnson also has Dickey and Buehrle to seek the guidance from -- two pitchers who’ve had long rides on the roller coaster in their career. Romero, on the other hand, was the older, wiser starter during his down year.
The final concern to factor in is that GM Alex Anthopoulos told me point blank that he and his coaches didn’t really know what to do with a guy like Romero. The mental side of failure is hard to quantify, even harder to fix. They tried everything they could and, in the end, designated him.
With Johnson, the battle is not between the ears, but in the delivery, pitch selection and tendencies. These are all fixable issues by traditional methods.