When the Toronto Blue Jays traded for Josh Johnson this past winter, in the monster deal that also brought them Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck, the perceived risk as it applied to Johnson was one of health, not efficacy.
Since his debut with the Marlins in 2005, Johnson had been one of the better pitchers in baseball, when he'd been physically able to pitch. Whether it was his 140 ERA+ in 2006, earning fourth place in Rookie of the Year voting, or his NL-best 2.30 ERA in 2010, Johnson largely had dominated when he took the mound. Even in 2012, when he wasn't quite the pitcher he had been, velocity-wise, Johnson still managed a respectable 3.81 ERA, right in line with his peripherals.
Keeping Johnson healthy enough to take his regular turn in the rotation has been the challenge. He has made 30 starts just twice in seven seasons, with an array of ailments keeping him out for parts of his other five campaigns. Last year was one of those healthy seasons, though, so the Blue Jays could be excused for their optimism regarding Johnson.
So, what to make of this 2013 season? Though he missed May with a triceps injury, he's on track to make around 26-27 starts, but his numbers are absolutely rotten, with a 6.60 ERA in 15 starts. If you're into records, his is an unsightly 1-8. And it isn't getting better lately, it's getting worse; over his last four outings, he has posted a 14.06 ERA, and he got knocked out in the third inning on Thursday night.
"I was pitiful," Johnson said back on July 22. "It's the only way I could put it. I didn't even battle them. Everything was in the middle of the plate."
But the numbers don't really support that. In fact, the underlying numbers suggest something very different: that Josh Johnson is performing exactly the same in 2013 as he was in 2012. His xFIP in 2012 was 3.73. His xFIP in 2013 is 3.65.
Let's start with the basics. If Johnson were having command issues, the first place that would manifest itself would be a spike in his walk rate. Conversely, if he were leaving the ball over the middle of the plate, than all those hits would be coming on pitches that previously were balls, and his walk rate would decline.
Well, Johnson's walk rate is basically static. It was 3.1 per nine last year, 3.3 per nine this year. The breakdown by pitch doesn't argue for this, either. He's throwing his four-seamer, his sinker, his curve and his slider for strikes, each one approximately as often as he ever did. Only his changeup has been significantly more strike-bound than in 2012, but he's thrown it less than three percent of the time this season.
If Johnson were simply leaving all his pitches over the middle of the plate, or if his velocity had dropped, opposing hitters would be likely to miss those pitches less frequently, leading to a drop in his strikeout rate. But the velocity on each of his pitches is the same this year as last year, and Johnson's strikeout rate is actually up, significantly, from 2012. At 9.2 per nine this year, he's well above his 7.8 per nine from last year, and he's even a tick ahead of his career-best 2010 pace of 9.1 per nine. As it stands, power pitcher Josh Johnson is striking out more batters per nine innings than at any other point in his career.
Ah, but the contact hitters are making, that's been significantly different in a pair of outcomes. He's giving up many more hits, and he's giving up so many home runs.
Last year, in 191 1/3 innings, Johnson gave up 180 hits. This season, in 76 1/3 innings, he has already given up 100 hits. Put another way, at that 2013 pace, given the same number of innings as last season, Johnson will end up allowing 251 hits. Since 2000, the only pitcher to allow that many hits in so few innings was Livan Hernandez, who threw, charitably, about 10 miles per hour slower than Johnson does.
But again, the process doesn't match the results here. Johnson's line-drive rate last season was 23.6 percent, on balls put in play against him. This year, it is 23.9 percent, virtually identical. He's allowing slightly fewer grounders, and slightly more fly balls -- which should suppress BABIP, not hyper-inflate it. The Blue Jays are ranked near the bottom in defensive efficiency this season, but so, too, were the 2012 Marlins.
As for home runs, he has already allowed 15 in 2013, one more than the 14 he allowed in 2012, though in just under 39 percent of the innings. That's an absurd increase, but again, his fly balls are only up approximately one percent on in-play outcomes over 2012.
What has skyrocketed is his rate of fly balls that became home runs, which jumped from 8.4 percent last season, right around his career rate of 8.2 percent, to 19.0 percent this season. When absolutely none of the components going into his pitching have changed, it's hard to see this as anything other than a statistical fluke.
Johnson did go from one of the worst home-run-hitting environments in 2012, playing for the Marlins, to one of the best in 2013, playing in the Rogers Centre. But even that is odd: The Rogers Centre was middle-of-the-road for home runs last year, and it has ranged between fourth and 18th for each season over the past decade. Could that really account for Johnson's entire lost season?
As for the Blue Jays, and Johnson himself, they haven't just shrugged off this horrific season. They are utterly distraught.
"He's a good guy, and you feel for guys like that," Toronto manager John Gibbons said of Johnson after Thursday night's start. "He's had a lot of success at this level, and he's at rock-bottom right now."
And Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker described Johnson's year in triage terms: "There were a couple of small adjustments we made tonight that obviously didn't help too much. At this point, we're trying to figure out how to get him through the rest of the season."
Meanwhile, Johnson himself seemed surprised that his process Thursday night led to another beating.
"I'll come back and watch some video and do whatever I can to get back," Johnson said. "The worst part is doing this to my bullpen and my teammates. I felt like I made some pretty good pitches, but they were hitting the ball all over the place."
The closer you look, the more it seems like Johnson is making some pretty good pitches. But it isn't working, and he's right: they are hitting the ball all over the place. But if nothing changes, some team can sign Johnson, who will be a free agent, this winter and get a solid bounce back candidate. That is, assuming he stays healthy.