Tao’s 37 Jays in 37 Days: Josh Johnson

Josh Johnson has looked in top form so far for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Who: Josh Johnson, right-handed starting pitcher, bats left, 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, 29 years old.

Provenance: Johnson was born in Minneapolis but went to high school in and around Tulsa, Oklahoma.
(Pause while I go listen to , which is a great song. Sorry. Onward.)
He was selected in the fourth round of the 2002 amateur draft by the Florida Marlins and made his major league debut at the age of 21 on Sept. 10, 2005.

Contract Status: Johnson is entering the final season of a four-year, $39 million contract. He will earn $13.75 million in base salary this season and his bonus clauses include a $1 million payout if he is named World Series MVP and $500,000 for winning the Cy Young.

Back of the Baseball Card: In 916.2 innings with the Marlins, Johnson has compiled a 3.15 ERA. He struck out 21. 9 per cent of batters and has walked 8.1 per cent in 154 career games. He is a two-time all-star and finishing fifth in NL Cy Young voting in 2010.

2012 Stats: Johnson started 31 games for the Marlins, posting a 3.81 ERA in 191.1 innings. He struck out 20.7 per cent of batters (7.76 per nine) and walked 8.2 per cent (3.06 per nine). According to Fangraphs, he is worth 3.8 wins above replacement, 3.1 per Baseball Reference and 3.0 per Baseball Prospectus.

2012 Repertoire, as per Brooks Baseball: Four seam fastball (51 per cent, 93.5 m.p.h.); Slider (24 per cent, 87.5 m.p.h.), Curve (16 per cent, 79.1 m.p.h.). Changeup (five per cent, 87.8 m.p.h.); Sinker (four per cent, 93.0 m.p.h.).

Recent Injury History: Johnson started only nine games at the beginning of the 2011 season before being sidelined with shoulder inflammation. He had previously missed the final month of 2010 with the same ailment and had Tommy John Surgery in Augusto of 2007.

Looking Back: Johnson’s 2012 season was one of the more scrutinized returns from injury in recent memory.

After a remarkable 2010 in which he won the NL ERA title (2.30), Johnson was set up to be one of the premier power pitchers in the game. He was building on that success admirably in early 2011 before his shoulder went awry, though the extent of the injury took a painfully long time to sort out. Though his last start was in May, he wasn’t officially shut down until almost two months later.

That frustrating delay had fans watching throughout 2012 with a high level of trepidation. His fastball velocity, which dropped by more than two miles per hour from its 2010 levels (95.6 m.p.h.), remained under constant scrutiny.

A predictable mid-season dip in his fastball velocity raised alarms, but by the final starts of the season in September, he had begun to regain a couple of clicks on the pitch.

Also notable in Johnson’s 2012 season was the increased use of a curveball. According to the Brooks Baseball database, he didn’t throw a single curve in 2010, relying almost entirely on a four-seam-slider arsenal.

For the most part, Johnson’s peripheral numbers came back to their historical levels last season, though his inflated ERA is likely due to an uptick in his homer-to-flyball ratio. At 8.4 per cent, last year’s mark was double that of his 2010 season (4.2 per cent, if you needed the math guidance), and marginally higher than his career mark (7.2 per cent).

Looking Ahead: Johnson certainly benefited from playing in a stadium that’s been sympathetic to pitchers through his first eight seasons.

He’s held the opposition to a .623 OPS against between ProPlayer/Sun Life Stadium and the new Marlins Park, while putting up a still decent .692 OPS on the road. Still, he’s never pitched in his career at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park, so it will be interesting to see the fun house atmosphere of those bizarro parks.

On the other hand, a pitcher who can miss a lot of bats can help to neutralize the effects of hitters’ parks. And thus far in the completely meaningless fake games of spring, Johnson has done a pretty snazzy job of sending batters back to the bench with their lumber in their hands, unscathed by leather. In his first four games, Johnson fanned 11 in 10.2 innings without walking a batter.

It might not be enough to proclaim that the fearsome hurler is back to his best form, but it’s a nice sign in a spring that has elicited more than its share of caveats for poor performance by potential starting pitchers.

And since we’re indulging in hoary old saws, it certainly bears mentioning that this is a contract year for Johnson. It seems as though it is a long shot that the Blue Jays will keep him in the longer term, but the question remains as to whether a great performance by JJ in the first four months will make him indispensable for the stretch run, or a key trade chip by the end of July.

Pessimistically: The deeper lineups of the American League make life more challenging for Johnson, bumping his ERA up and leaving him to minimize the damage from the fly balls that become dingers in some AL East parks. Shoulder, back, and bunion pain (or what have you) undermines his season.

Optimistically: He regains his strength, while adding the wisdom and guile of age to his game. Johnson asserts himself as a legitimate ace and dominates in big games.

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