The starting pitcher market is beginning to dwindle down as we reach the July 31st trade deadline. Cole Hamels has already agreed to an extension with the Phillies, Wandy Rordiguez is now pitching in Pittsburgh, and Ryan Dempster is on the verge of moving to Los Angeles. Amongst other trades, the Marlins have parted with Hanley Ramirez, Omar Infante, and Anibal Sanchez, and the club appears poised to trade away the remainder of their bulky contracts. Starter Josh Johnson may be the next to go, and the Yankees could be in play if they’re in the market for a top of the rotation pitcher.
Personally, over the past couple of years, Johnson had been one of my favorite pitchers. His remarkable 2.41 FIP in 2010 probably made him the best NL pitcher that season, and his early 2011 season began with an April where he gave up only 18 hits in 41.0 innings pitched. The downside to Johnson is his injury history, which caught up to him in mid-May of last season. His health problems began in 2007 when he missed most of the season with nerve damage in his elbow. Once he recovered, he required Tommy John Surgery, which cut into half of his 2008 season. In 2010, Johnson dealt with a month-long should inflammation, which reoccurred and ended his 2011 season after only a month and a half of baseball.
While the shoulder is a reason for concern, Johnson has pitched to a 2.97 FIP in 2012, with a 4.14 ERA, a 7.90 K/9, and a 2.63 BB/9. That strong FIP is consistent with his career, and if he can stay healthy, he’s one of the few pitchers I would consider an ace. The health concern might be a big if, but top of the rotation starting pitchers are very difficult to acquire. If the Yankees find the price reasonable, Johnson would strengthen the rotation for this year and next.
His most used pitch is the four-seam fastball, which he throws 49% of the time. At 93 mph, the pitch usually has a below average spin angle at 202 degrees, and a spin rate at 1,962. The low spin angle allows the pitch to have strong rising action, but also takes away horizontal movement. Overall, he’s seen a below average 4.6% whiff rate, but used it to induce 41.0% groundballs, 27.5% flyballs, and 24.2% linedrives.
Graphed above are the horizontal and vertical breaks of the pitches on the left, and the pitch movement on the right. On average, Johnson’s four-seam fastball sees 8.97 inches of vertical “rising” action, compared to a no-spin pitch. The horizontal movement averages 3.55 inches inches of movement into right handed hitters, which is slightly below average. There is a wide range of four-seam movement though, varying from more of a straight sinking fastball, to a rising and cutting fastball.
The images above show the location of the four-seam fastballs from 2012 to both right handed and left handed hitters. Against right handers, Johnson tries to keep the ball low in the zone, and attacks same side hitters down and away, but doesn’t refrain from jamming them either. Against lefties, he also uses the down and away method, but is less reluctant to throw high. The four-seam action away from left handed hitters allows him to be less worried about hard contact up in the zone.
The slider is Johnson’s strikeout pitch, and second in usage with a 24% selection. It’s a hard slider at 87 mph, and diverges in spin angles from around 100 degrees to 180 degrees. With a 22.4% whiff rate, this slider is one of the best in the game. The batted ball profile on this pitch includes a 47.1% groundball rate, a 22.1% flyball rate, and a 27.9% linedrive rate.
The slider movement ranges from around 5 inches above and an inch below the no-spin origin vertically. It can also have as much as 5 inches of movement away from same side hitters. On average, he has 2.30 inches of vertical and 2.52 inches of horizontal movement. This is actually very close to the average slider, but combined with the strong velocity, it’s hard for hitters to identify the pitch in time to make contact.
Johnson finds the slider more useful against right handed hitters, although he still uses the pitch against lefties. His goal against righties is to locate the pitch down and away, and very often in the dirt. Facing lefties, he’ll locate the ball down and in, with the same idea of hitting the plate.
The curveball is usually a tool he uses to neutralize lefties. With a 13% selection rate, Johnson will often try to drop a surprise curveball into right handed hitters, and use it against lefties as a swing and miss pitch. The breaking ball averages a 43 degree spin angle and 1,194 RPM spin rate, which is normal. He’s been successful with the whiff rates on this secondary tool, and is earning a 13.0% whiff rate. He’s also seeing strong batted ball rates at 57.1% groundba6lls, 25.0% flyballs, and 14.3% line drives.
Movement-wise, the range varies from 4 inches to 8 inches of vertical drop. The horizontal movement also ranges from around 3 inches to 8 inches of additional movement away from right handed hitters. This sort of spread is very typical for a curveball. The average movement is 5.11 inches of vertical drop and 4.67 inches of horizontal movement away from same side hitters. Much like the slider, the strong velocity helps keep batters confused on the pitch, despite having mediocre movement.
As I mentioned above, he really only uses the curveball to drop a surprise strike to right handed hitters, and occasionally throws the pitch in the dirt. Against lefties, he’ll throw the pitch down and away consistently, hoping the backdoor breaking ball leads to a whiff or called strike.
Johnson uses the changeup 9% of the time. At 88 mph, the pitch only deviates from the fastball by around 5 mph, but can also show above average downward movement. This is due to a relatively high spin angle of 236 degrees, as well as a low spin rate of 1,529 RPM. Due to the lack of velocity change, the pitcher is only seeing a 3.4% whiff rate this year. The redeeming quality of the pitch is his groundball and fly ball rate, which have sat at 54.8% and 16.1% respectfully. The line drive rate is certainly a drawback at 29.0%.
As I mentioned above, the changeup provides a decent vertical drop, while maintaining horizontal movement similar to the fastball. The average movement is 4.32 inches vertically above the no-spin origin, and 6.45 inches away from left handed hitters. The sinking action of the changeup creates the groundball rates we saw earlier.
Above, the changeup is used almost exclusively against left handed hitters. Keeping the ball down and away allows him to draw many groundballs, but the pitch has been nearly useless drawing whiffs. The offspeed pitch is thus used when he’s looking for contact, similar to the situations you’d see a sinker thrown.
The last pitch in Johnson’s arsenal is the sinker, which he only throws 5% of the time. At 93.2 mph, the two-seam averages a 224 degree spin angle and 2,323 RPM. The high spin rotation forces the pitch to have above average vertical movement, while also maintaining the expected horizontal movement. Although he only has a 3.4% whiff rate, he’s more importantly maintained a 52.0% groundball rate, a 16.0% flyball rate, but also another high 28.0% line drive rate.
Above, you’ll see the exaggerated range of vertical movement for his two-seam fastball. Keep in mind that many of the pitches above 10 inches vertically are likely misclassified four-seam, but the pitches below are definetly sinkers, which have kept strong movement into right handed pitchers and maintaining above average vertical movement. Johnson doesn’t use the sinker as a primary fastball, likely because the typical sinking action is very weak. For this reason, it appears he only breaks it out when looking for a double play, or attempting to have a quick at bat.
The locations to right handed hitters are mostly down in the zone. Against lefties, they range from down and away, to up and in. Again, Johnson is looking for contact, so it makes sense that the pitches are mostly in the strikezone.
Although he’s never pitched in Yankee Stadium, one can speculate that his groundball and strikeout rates would bode well in the small ballpark. The line drive rate is atypical however, and at 24.9%, it’s fair to worry that the shoulder issues have caused some issue. If you trust that Josh Johnson can stay healthy over the next year and a half, he’s as good as any available starting pitcher, but it’s a fair opinion to be wary of guy that’s lacked consistency. In the end, it all depends on the asking price, and with the Marlins in a firesale, and under the time contraints of a deadline, they may part with him at a discount.