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You're Already Looking for Another Fool Like Me: Predicting Josh Johnson's 2014 Value

Should the Jays extend Josh Johnson a qualifying offer? I propose a less orthodox contract that offers more risk to both sides but also provides more reward to both sides.

Josh Johnson was not thrilled when John Gibbons told him he didn't think he warranted a Qualifying Offer.
Josh Johnson was not thrilled when John Gibbons told him he didn't think he warranted a Qualifying Offer.
Jonathan Moore

I hate to write another article weighing on a topic that's been covered so extensively but oh well. As everyone knows, the Blue Jays traded for starting pitcher Josh Johnson last season in the final year of his contract, which means that they'll have to decide what to do with him now.

As has been covered ad nauseam elsewhere, good strikeout- and walk-rates notwithstanding, Johnson had a fairly abysmal 2013, including missing a lot of time due to injury (he only made 16 starts) and being shellacked when he was on the mound (6.20 ERA, due in large part to 1.66 HR/9, .356 BABIP). Furthermore, as Johnson will be returning from elbow surgery to remove bone spurs, it seems unlikely that the Jays will be extending him a long-term deal unless it on very team-friendly terms. Of course, the flipside to trying to extend him long-term would be to cut him loose straightaway, letting him become a free agent. The downside to letting Johnson walk, of course, is that he may still be a useful player whose negotiation rights still technically belong to the Jays. The middle ground, naturally, would be to offer Johnson a short-term deal. Given the 2013 Jays starting pitching woes (26th in fWAR), the Jays aren't exactly swimming in MLB-ready pitchers so bringing Johnson back could be a smart move if the price is right. The question, of course, ultimately comes down to that price and, more specifically, whether to extend a so-called Qualifying Offer (often abbreviated Q.O.) in order to ensure draft pick compensation for him should he decline that short term deal, opt to become a free agent, and sign elsewhere. The value of a Qualifying Offer for a one year contract is $14.2 M guaranteed.

Given that we're talking about a not-insignificant amount of money for a one year deal, in order to determine whether Johnson's worth such an offer, the first step of this question is deciding whether or not we think he'd accept such an offer if extended. If we can be reasonably certain that he would decline it, then it'd be foolish not to extend the offer, since the Jays have something to gain but nothing to lose (remember, we're expecting him to decline in this scenario) by doing so. Unfortunately, we can't tell what Johnson's going to do for sure but, given that he's coming off (albeit fairly minor) surgery and an atrocious season, it seems like Johnson would be eager to sign a short-term deal to prove his usefulness before cashing in as a free agent next season. A one year, $14.2 M qualifying offer allows him to be pretty well compensated and provides the short-term flexibility that would allow him to cash in as a free agent afterwards, so it seems to me that there's a good chance he'd accept. Which brings us to the question of whether he'll be worth it if he does.

In order to do so, we need to figure out just how valuable we think he is and whether that sort of value would be worth 14 M smackers. Needless to say, outside of his acute case of gopheritis in 2013, Johnson's been very good when he's been on the mound (3.40 / 3.32 / 3.57 career ERA / FIP / xFIP). Also needless to say, he's not been on the mound all that consistently. Since 2008, Johnson's made 129 starts. Contrast that with someone like Tim Lincecum, who (during the same timeframe) has made 196. And that timeframe isn't being unfair to Johnson at all -- he made four MLB starts in 2007. The troubling homerun- and strikeout-rates in 2013 also suggest that his stuff may not be quite as good as it used to be, either (though the K- and BB-rates still look pretty good). For simplicity's sake, let's assume that Steamer's projection for Johnson's 2014 FIP (3.72) is accurate and work from there. Obviously, Johnson could be better or worse than that but I'm far from an expert on such matters and am happy to leave the projecting up to the folks who are likely to do a better job.

So, if Johnson's pitches to a 3.72 FIP, how much better than an average (or replacement) pitcher would he be? Well, this is the arithmetic-heavy section (if you don't like it, complain to the_tbj_fan and Kraemer_17 for requesting the methodology) so just bear with me for a moment. If you don't like numbers, don't worry . . . the exact values are less important than the ideas that they're representing.

First, let's assume that league average FIP for 2014 is the same as it was for 2013 (4.02). Unfortunately, this doesn't account for the fact that Johnson is projected to be pitching half of his games at Rogers Centre and the overwhelming majority of them in the AL. It's harder to pitch for the Jays than for the Giants, so we need to credit Johnson for doing so. According to the Fangraphs Guts! section, the adjustment factor for the 2012 Jays is 102. Thus, we multiply 102 by the league average FIP (4.02) and find that a league average pitcher would be closer to 4.10 pitching for the Jays. We can conveniently confirm this as reasonably precise by checking Mark Beuhrle, a Blue Jays starter whose 4.10 FIP in 2013 corresponded to a 101 FIP- (meaning that his FIP was just 1% worse than average). So we'll go with 4.10 -- maybe it should really be 4.08 or 4.09 but 4.10 is close enough. So now we know that Johnson's projected at 3.72 and 4.10 would be league average.

Now, remember that FIP approximates ERA, which is (obviously) the number of runs per nine innings. So Steamer's projecting Johnson to be better than the average pitcher by 0.38 runs per nine innings. Assuming that an average starter pitches 180 innings, Johnson would be 7.6 runs above average. Add in the difference between average and replacement level (25 runs per 200 innings, you can check this empirically by dividing the value of a league average pitcher like Travis Wood or C.C. Sabathia by their innings pitched and multiplying by 200), and Johnson would be (7.6 + 22.5 =) 30.1 runs above replacement for a 180 inning season. At 9.62 runs per win (this is based on the Jays this season, to confirm, simply divide Runs Above Replacement by WAR), this would put Johnson at around a 3.1 WAR season. So far, this sounds like a pretty good deal for $14 M.

Unfortunately, however, Johnson doesn't do himself any favors as a fielder. He's a big guy and falls off the mound, so he's actually a below-average fielding pitcher and does a pretty bad job holding runners on (this goes back to his days with the Marlins so let's not blame this one on J.P. He takes enough abuse.). Over the past four seasons, DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) pegs Johnson at -3.5 runs below average per 180 IP. This should probably be regressed but as Johnson seems to be getting worse, not better (last season, DRS has him as -5 runs in just 81 innings), I think -3.5 runs per 180 seems fair. This knocks him back to 26.6 runs per 180 IP, bringing his WAR down to 2.8 WAR.

More importantly, we're still operating off the assumption that, like the average pitcher, Johnson's going to put in 180 innings. Entering 2013, ZiPS projected Johnson to pitch 149 innings. Let's be as friendly as possible to Johnson, who is now a year older and following an injury-plagued season (as opposed to a healthy 2012) and again project that he'll pitch 150 innings. Well, using simple ratios, we can see that Johnson's now looking at (2.8 WAR / 180 IP) * (150 IP) = 2.3 WAR. For 2.3 WAR to be worth a $14.2 M qualifying offer, the value of each WAR would have to be around $6.2 M, coincidentally around what some of the folks around here were clamouring for the Jays to offer Mark Ellis. Given that we're almost certainly being overfriendly to Johnson by projecting him at 150 innings, it seems like Johnson doesn't warrant a 14.2 M offer unless the Jays get something else out of the deal.

In the comments section of an earlier post (if you read that comments section, I'd imagine you've stopped reading this already as it's essentially just restating what I said in those comments (again, blame Kraemer_17 for that one!)), I mentioned that I'd like to see the Jays try something a bit unorthodox with Johnson. It doesn't make sense to me for the Jays to offer him 14 M guaranteed but I wouldn't mind seeing them tack on some options. Now, as we stated above, Johnson wants to pitch this season, show he's healthy, and cash out. He doesn't want to sign a long-term deal with team-friendly conditions, simply because he is at (what he likely considers) the nadir of his value. He'd likely be even less apt to sign a team option, where if he's bad or hurt, the team can elect not to keep him around at all. Giving the Jays an option essentially gives the Jays all the leverage. My proposal is to keep in a team-friendly option but to also provide him with a player option. I suggested something like:

1 yr / 10 M; team option for 3 yr / 50 M (must take all at once); player option for 1 yr / 8 M.

Essentially, the Jays retain Johnson for 2014 for a salary similar to what he ought to be worth on the open market. Whether Johnson's bad, great, or just fair, I see all three scenarios as win-win for both the Jays and Johnson under these contract terms.

Scenario 1: Johnson's bad.

If Johnson's awful or gets hurt badly, he picks up his player option: he likely makes more than he'd sign for as a free agent and gets another chance to prove he can be healthy through a full season without being locked into a contract that buys out another year or two at low value. The Jays, again, have a high upside pitcher signed for 2015, at a likely overpriced but still fairly palatable cost.

Scenario 2: Johnson's great.

If Johnson's exceptionally good, the Jays pick up their team option and Johnson is now signed for 3 years at just over 16 M per season. This could be a good value contract for the Jays because a productive Johnson could provide upwards of 4 wins per season. Still, as MjwW pointed out in that same comments section, Johnson is no spring chicken and, given his injury history, a lot of teams would be hesitant to sign him long-term even after one good season so he may not be leaving all that much money on the table.

Scenario 3: Johnson's fair.

This is the middle ground and (possibly) most likely scenario. Johnson declines his player option, the Jays decline their team option, and Johnson becomes a free agent. Depending on how good or healthy Johnson is, there's a good chance that the Jays now know whether they can safely make a qualifying offer (and, if they can, they do). Johnson was paid pretty well for 2014 and now gets to cash in as a free agent. The Jays got good value for their $10 M, are no longer on the hook for him, and may be able to get draft pick compensation.

Now, I'm not an expert on salary compensation so it's possible that my numbers are off but I do think this sort of contract provides a nice mix of risk and reward for both Johnson and the Toronto organization. The player option provides Johnson some leverage in case he gets hurt and the team option provides the Jays some leverage in case Johnson looks really good. If some of the starters in the high minors continue to develop, they could potentially even pick up Johnson's option and then shop him since the cost isn't prohibitively high for an above-average major league starter.

I'd ask what you all think whether the Jays should extend a qualifying offer but someone already beat me to it. Instead, feel free to use the comments section to sound off about how wrong I am.

Thanks, as always, to the folks mentioned above and Elvis Costello, whose "Living In Paradise" provided today's post title.