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Inside Josh Johnson's Struggles from the Stretch

Should the Jays tell Johnson to throw exclusively from the wind up?

Jonathan Moore

Hey, have you heard Josh Johnson is really bad? Oh, good. Well then let’s jump right into it.

With no men on base, Johnson has been a fairly effective pitcher. He’s beat the league average for the first handful of pitcher stats a lot of people look at and, objectively speaking, he looks fine throwing from the wind up.

But get a man on base and Johnson collapses. His numbers with runners on base are downright atrocious. Among pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched, Johnson is dead last in strand rate (preventing runners who reach base from scoring) with a mark of just 60.9% (the league average hovers 71-73% in recent years). Have a look at Johnson’s splits with and without men on base:

Bases Empty 241 294 406 0.3 0.1 295 0.2
MOB 377 453 626 0.2 0.1 423 0.3
Lg Avg 253 317 399 0.2 0.1 296 0.2

Some may see this and call for regression. After all, one of the things pitchers are said to have less control over is the sequencing of events, whereby a pitcher who allows homer-single-single is much worse off than single-single-homer despite those results being essentially the same. Extreme measures do tend to regress toward a league mean, though many pitchers show an ability to effect this rate – prior to this season, in fact, Johnson had been one of those who consistently beat the league average.

However, "luck" and "regression" are sometimes misconstrued in this context. Johnson hasn’t been unlucky, per say, as he’s pitched terribly with men on base to a degree that it's unlikely to continue to be that bad. You can probably think of an example where a bleeder prolonged an inning, but not enough of them to claim random variance has been Johnson’s entire undoing.

Instead, it’s likely that he’s been flawed, mechanically or mentally, pitching from the stretch.

Perhaps, one might suggest, a loss in velocity from the stretch has made Johnson’s fastball less effective. Unfortunately, while a convenient explanation, it’s generally not true and pitch velocities out of the stretch and wind up are highly correlated. Look at Johnson’s splits, for example:

Split FBv
Bases Empty 93
MOB 92.8

So it’s not a loss in fastball velocity, but perhaps it’s an issue with mechanics or placement. I’m not a scout and can’t really speak to the mechanics side, but I can pull some placement data. Again, we go back to some splits ("heart" here means the middle chunk of the zone):

Split FB% FB Zone % FB Heart % Non-FB Zone% Non-FB Heart %
All Situations 61.3% 43.2% 6.9% 27.3% 4.5%
MOB 43.8% 43.1% 6.7% 23.9% 4.7%

This still doesn’t give us a lot of information except perhaps that Johnson’s off-speed pitch location gets spotty out of the stretch (or he avoids the zone even more), and his fastball usage drops significantly. Whether this is a confidence issue or something else, I don’t have the access to know, but there it is.

So, with no obvious solution to Johnson’s issues, could the team tell him, "hey, pitch out of the wind up exclusively," throwing caution to the wind with men on base?

That’s a pretty extreme and risky proposition given that every single would be far more likely to turn into a double or even a triple (Johnson could still employ a pick-off move and certain situations would keep a hitter from running, so they wouldn’t steal 100% of the time). With nobody on base, Johnson has allowed a .241/.294/.406 slash line. Of the 201 batters he’s faced with the bases empty, 42 have landed on first base, a rate of roughly 20%. The others who reach are via doubles or homers.

For simplicity, let’s assume teams would only try to take second off Johnson if he pitched out of the wind up with men on. How would this change his line?

Current: .294 OBP, 20.9% on first, 5.0% on second, 3.5% homer
Now: .294 OBP, 0% on first, 25.9% on second, 3.5% homer

There's also the impact of Johnson being able to throw a first pitch strike more often (since a batter would be willing to let his man take second uncontested for an 0-1 count), but that's tough to quantify. So, ignoring that, here’s how is slash-line would change if you count all singles and walks as doubles ("SLG w BB" just includes BB in SLG so I didn’t have to calculate wOBA):

2013 Empty 241 294 406 481
2013 MOB 377 453 626 748
Fake Wind Up 241 294 556 706

It damn sure isn’t pretty, but Johnson’s numbers would actually be better than they have been out of the stretch. Let that sink in: Johnson would be better off letting everyone take second base and pitching out of the wind up than pitching out of the stretch with a man on first.

Of course, this is all extremely hypothetical – teams would try for third, too, and it’s entirely possible that Johnson’s struggles go beyond stretch mechanics. This is an unreasonable exercise meant to simply highlight how extreme his struggles have been. There is an equilibrium point at which Johnson would be so bad from the stretch you’d prefer this option, but the much more likely (and more effective) method would be to get to the actual root of the issues.

What those roots are, though, I have no idea. And it appears Johnson doesn't know, either.