Blue Jays Fans Are About To Love Josh Johnson

Just because someone is 6-7 it doesn't mean they are a monster, look at those soulful eyes... - USA TODAY Sports

At a time when there is some uncertainty surrounding the starting rotation Josh Johnson needs to step up his game. Luckily, he will.

Despite a rough road trip last week the Blue Jays sit a 41-42 and have found their way to relevance in the American League playoff race. However, even with a fantastic June this team will have to play some very good baseball down the stretch if they want to see playoff action for the first time in 20 years. Going into this season the Jays looked like a squad that could succeed by both scoring runs and preventing them at an above average rate. Unfortunately, that hasn't been exactly how it has played out this year.

The offense has been pretty good, having scored the 10th most run in baseball going into last night's game. The problem has been the pitching. Not even including last night's meltdown from Chien-Ming Wang the Blue Jays entered yesterday 22nd in the league in ERA and 28th in FIP, both very troubling numbers. Due to injuries the Jays have turned to a lot of different arms to fill the gaps in their rotation with mixed success. By mixed success I mean that Esmil Rogers has been excellent filling in and everyone else has been staggeringly awful.

Even those who have been healthy have been iffy. Neither Mark Buehrle nor R.A. Dickey has missed a start but they have disappointed with ERA's of 4.81 and 4.59, respectively. To be fair to Dickey he was battling injuries and has been excellent in his last two starts, but the overall numbers are still very unimpressive. Esmil Rogers has arguably been the best starter for this team in 2013, a statement that would have been considered absolutely insane when he was acquired and is still fairly bewildering.

The starting pitching simply has to improve for this team to go on the kind of run it is going to need. As mentioned above, there is definitely reason to be optimistic about R.A. Dickey's chance to improve significantly in the second half. The velocity on his knuckler seems to be returning and the aches and pains seem to be receding. Unfortunately, one man does not a playoff caliber rotation make. Assuming that AA does import anyone at the trade deadline, which might be too great an assumption, someone else needs to step up to make this rotation respectable. That man is Josh Johnson.

Toronto Blue Jays fans probably aren't 100% sure how they feel about Josh Johnson at the moment. The tall right-hander has a 1-2 record with a 5.21 ERA in nine starts this year. He has spent some time on the DL, as he has been known to do, and has had more poor starts than good ones. In his last two starts he has surrendered nine runs in 9.1 innings and it would be fairly reasonable for followers of the Blue Jays to feel fairly disappointed with what they've seen so far despite a couple of dazzling outings.

Luckily, there are better things on the horizon, far better things. Josh Johnson possesses a 3.82 FIP, the best mark of any Jays pitcher who has made a start for the team this year. The difference between his ERA and FIP is largely due to his .353 BABIP, a number that is definitely unsustainable, especially considering Johnson's career BABIP sits right at .300. The regression of Johnson's BABIP alone will probably give him a chance to be an above average pitcher for the remainder of the season but as it turns out there are even more reasons for optimism.

One of the main reasons to be excited about Johnson down the stretch is the strikeouts he is piling up. The conventional wisdom is that when pitchers move from the NL to the AL they strike out fewer batters due to the fact they have to face intimidating DH's like David Ortiz or Munenori Kawasaki as opposed to pitchers. Josh Johnson does not appear to be a fan of that conventional wisdom. Right now he has K/9 of 9.12 which would be a career high if it held up over the duration of the season and is eerily similar to the 9.11 mark he put up while leading the NL in ERA in 2010. An examination of his plate discipline stats shows that the way he is pitching now is looking a great deal like what he was doing in 2010 when he had his career year and his greatest success striking batters out. This chart only includes information back to 2010 because that is the main focus of this comparison but I will include his career numbers so you don't feel unjustly robbed of all information pre-2010.

Year

O-Swing %

Contact %

Swinging Strike%

F-Strike%

2010

32.1%

74.9%

11.8%

64.7%

2011

29.1%

80.8%

8.2%

55.1%

2012

30.6%

78.8%

9.5%

58%

2013

33.2%

76.2%

10.4%

63.8%

Career Total

27.6%

78.8%

9.6%

59.9%

Johnson is getting batters to swing outside the zone more this year than any other year and the other numbers are all a close second to his sterling 2010 performance. He is unlikely to get back to the level he was at three years ago because of the injuries and velocity loss, but it is noteworthy that he is still missing a ton of bats, which is very encouraging. If he can keep his swinging strike percentage in the double digits then he is going to rack up the K's. With this kind of ability to avoid contact, his pace of over a strikeout an inning looks more likely to be sustainable, and starters with that kind of strikeout ability are usually pretty successful.

Beyond Josh Johnson's K's another encouraging indicator that he is in for a big turnaround is the way in which his HR/9 is bound to return to earth. Right now Johnson has a 1.12 HR/9 rate which is fairly ugly but not altogether unbelievable. After all, the league average HR/9 right now sits at 1.01 so Johnson's rate is below average but not abnormally high. The thing is that it is abnormally high for Johnson. Josh Johnson has demonstrated the ability to suppress home runs in the past with a career 0.61 HR/9 despite not being especially adept at forcing the ground ball (47.1% career rate). Below is a chart showing Johnson's HR/9 and HR/FB rates compared to the league average over his career:

Year

League Average HR/9

Josh Johnson's HR/9

League Average HR/FB

Josh Johnson's HR/FB

2005

1.04

0.00

10.6%

0%

2006

1.12

0.80

10.8%

9%

2007

1.03

0.57

9.6%

8.3%

2008

1.01

0.72

10.1%

9%

2009

1.05

0.60

10.1%

7.5%

2010

0.96

0.34

9.4%

4.2%

2011

0.94

0.30

9.7%

3.8%

2012

1.02

0.66

11.3%

8.4%

2013

1.01

1.12

10.9%

12.2%

As you might imagine, Johnson did not pitch much in 2005; or 2007, 2008 or 2011 for that matter. However, the pattern seems clear that he has kept his home runs down until now. It would be easy to simply say that his home runs are up because he is pitching in a harder park and a harder league but I don't see that accounting for him giving up the dinger at what amounts to approximately twice his career rate. To see how much the change in park might have affected Johnson I dug up some park factor data to see the difference between the Rogers Centre and the parks Johnson has pitched in as a Marlin. Keep in mind for this data that a score of 1 means that a ballpark gives up an average number of home runs.

Year

Rogers Centre Home Run Park Factor

Sun Life Stadium/Marlins Park Home Run Park Factor

2005

1.26

0.81

2006

1.27

0.88

2007

1.16

1.01

2008

0.93

0.84

2009

0.99

1.13

2010

1.36

0.82

2011

1.19

0.94

2012

1.17

0.72

It is true that Josh Johnson has consistently pitched in parks more favorable than the Rogers Centre but it is not as if he was pitching in the confines of Safeco of Petco or some extreme pitchers park, arguably until last year where Marlins Park was quite pitcher friendly.

While facing tougher lineups and pitching in a tough home park will probably force Johnson's HR/9 above his career rate of 0.61 I think it will settle comfortably below its current level. Over almost 1,000 career innings he has produced a HR/FB rate of only 7.4%, which to me suggests he might have some of that mystical ability to create weak fly balls. The two other pitchers most common associated with home run suppression and weak fly balls, Matt Cain and Jered Weaver, have very similar career HR/FB rates of 7.1% and 7.8% respectively. Those two pitchers also benefited from even more pitcher friendly parks than Johnson did making it interesting that Johnson doesn't seem to be lumped into this group very often.

I realize that it is not especially bold of me to predict a regression to the mean, but that's more or less what I'm doing. However, I don't think the case of Josh Johnson is as simple as "wow that BABIP looks high", there appears to be more going on. I anticipate he keeps up his elite strikeout rate and keeps the ball in the yard on the way to a very effective second half of the season, health permitting as always. I may have timed this prediction poorly with Johnson pitching against a very strong lineup tonight but I suppose that's the way the cookie crumbles. Hopefully Josh makes me look good with an excellent outing on the way to the big second half he seems poised to have.

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