Hayhurst: Blue Jays’ Johnson must attack hitters

Josh Johnson's contract with the Blue Jays expires following the 2013 season.

Josh Johnson came to the Jays with a lot of hype.

An imposing, front-of-the-rotation, two-time all-star with a plus arm. If Johnson did any kind of good in his 2013 campaign he would assuredly end the season to the sound of a cash register.

At the time, the Jays were so thrilled to have Johnson that their main worry was that they’d be priced out of his services for 2014.

Even if they did produce the money, would Johnson take it? Or, like so many U.S. born players, would he elect to go south of the border regardless, leaving the Jays to forage for another front end pitcher.

But that was all rose-coloured speculation, something the 2013 pre-season was full of. Johnson started the year pitching poorly, got hurt, missed a month to get better, and came back pitching ineffectively. Johnson now owns a record of 1-3 with a 4.89 ERA on a sub-.500 Jays team at the bottom of the AL East.

Despite how things have worked out for Johnson so far, I still contest he is an incredibly talented pitcher. I’m not convinced, however, that he knows how talented he is.

Josh Johnson’s tendency, despite being a large and intimidating pitcher, is to nibble. He goes to the corners early, and tries to make a living there. Among 149 MLB pitchers with 50 innings this year, Johnson ranks 148th at throwing pitches in the strike zone.

Can’t blame him for trying, but the great thing about having a plus arm with great angle is that you don’t have to nibble.

You can attack the zone because your arm angle gives you an advantage most pitchers don’t have. Plus, with Johnson’s size and release point, it behooves him to come up and in since his plane of action on the ball is one of his biggest assets.

Of course you can’t live in the middle of zone and survive at the big league level. I grant you that, but you can come in there more than Johnson does, and buzz the tower of opposing hitters when they start to get comfortable.

For a man of Johnson’s size with his fastball, he throws like someone much smaller, using about 45 per cent off-speed pitches, with the largest portion of that dedicated to the slider.

Now, throwing a lot of off speed as a starter is fine IF you can throw all your off-speed for strikes any time you want, to any part of the plate you want. Josh Johnson just isn’t that guy.

Consider Johnson’s struggle with throwing his slider to right handed hitters for strikes. Oh, he can throw it for swing and misses, down and out of the zone, but as far as using it for a get ahead, or sticking it on a corner with regularity, he doesn’t. He throws a swing-and-miss pitch that is usually out of the zone more often then he puts it in the zone for a called strike.

Johnson is actually better with his slider against left-handed hitters, both in and out of the zone.

I asked him about this on Baseball Central and he said he felt more comfortable with his slider against left-handers because, even if his slider is flat and in the zone—a worst case scenario when throwing it against righties—thanks to its action it can run into the handle of a lefty’s bat.

The data supports this. This year he’s thrown 140 sliders to right handed hitters. Forty seven per cent of them have been balls, 30 per cent have been strikes. 40 per cent have produced swings.

Against left-handers, 83 sliders have yielded 38 per cent balls, 30 per cent strikes (same as against righties), 53 per cent produced swings. A smaller ratio, but more strikes and more swings produced.

If you take a moment to consult his slider heat charts, you’ll also notice he’s more apt to backdoor, front door, and go to the bottom middle of the zone with his slider to lefties than righties.

Summation: he pitches with his slider to lefties.

Though Johnson throws his slider more to righties, it’s almost always in the same place—down and away. Not terribly shocking considering that’s the normal spot for a slider… but…

Couple that with the fact that Johnson will use his slider around 25% of the time in an 0-1, 1-1, 2-1, counts, and 30-40 per cent of the time in 0-2, 1-2, 2-2, counts and there is a fairly good chance that you’ve seem his out pitch before he’s used it for an out pitch, and, if you’re right handed, you’ve also seen him throw it to his favoured out pitch location.

The reason I bring this up echoes back to my original point: Josh Johnson doesn’t realize how good he is. It’s not that he doesn’t have good stuff to throw.

It’s that, from watching his tendencies, he doesn’t seem to trust himself to throw all his pitches to all batters in all locations. Not every pitcher can do this, of course, but when you add it all up—a big pitcher who doesn’t come in the zone, doesn’t announce his presence inside, throws his out pitch early and often and in specific areas—the result is much like what Jays fans have seen so far.

The good news is, changing any of these things would yield positive results almost instantly. The easiest thing to do would be to hold off on the slider until you’re in a strikeout count.

Second easiest, start pitching inside and moving some feet so, even if a hitter figures out your tendencies, he’s not comfortable enough to act.

Finally — and this is the most difficult but most rewarding — learn how to throw that nasty slider front door on righties and make it more than a one zone weapon.

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