BALTIMORE -- When I covered an Orioles series back in May, I was struck by the shock from reporters who watched Jim Johnson blow a save, after converting 34 straight from the middle of 2012 into 2013. Fans gasped, the development was so unexpected. After all, Johnson saved 51 games for the playoff-bound Orioles last season, and pitched to a 2.49 ERA.
But when Johnson entered Wednesday night's game in a non-save situation, nobody was surprised when he allowed three straight hits and an inherited runner scored. Johnson had been automatic; now he's getting tagged with blame for an Orioles' season that has them four games out of the final wild card spot, while his season ERA is 3.51, more than a full run higher than last year.
Part of that blame is due to Johnson's position of closer, and the save stat that goes along with it. It's easy math to say that the O's are four back, Johnson's blown nine saves, therefore he's the reason they wouldn't be in the playoffs if the season ended today.
But the bigger picture, as it relates to Jim Johnson, is a lot more complicated than that. Johnson's xFIP is 3.82 in 2013, but last year it was 3.63, a negligible difference. His strikeouts are actually up significantly over 2012, 6.9 per nine innings, after checking in at 5.3 per nine in 2012. That's not only a jump, it's the best strikeout rate he's posted in any of his full major league seasons.
So what is Jim Johnson doing differently? What is he doing wrong? Or is he even doing anything different, and wrong, at all?
"Honestly, I don't pay attention," Johnson said about his 2013 numbers when we chatted at his locker prior to Thursday's game against the Rays. "I just know this year, I feel like I've had more baserunners due to walks than I've had in recent years. And that's -- if you give up a free pass, that's not what you want to do. You control 90-foot increments. If a guy earns it by getting a base hit, that's one thing."
Johnson's feeling is correct, with his walks up from 2.0 per nine last season to 2.7 this season. But even so, that's a total of about five walks all year separating this season from last season's pace. Still, unsurprisingly, over half of his 17 walks all this season have come in his nine blown saves, while he's walked just five in his 40 saves. So the walks are certainly a primary factor in his struggles. You'd think, though, that the elevated strikeout rate would help to cancel out the problem.
But according to Orioles pitching coach Bill Castro, there's more to it than just an elevated walk rate, something strikeouts can't fix.
"What I see is last year, he was getting a lot of early contact outs," Castro told me Thursday afternoon from the Orioles' dugout. "This year he's striking more people out, but he's also throwing more pitches per hitter. And he is a contact-type pitcher, a groundball-type pitcher."
Johnson echoed this sentiment, confirming that he hadn't set out to strike out more hitters: "Strikeouts aren't a strength of my game," Johnson put it simply. So this wasn't a conscious effort to change, and Johnson reiterated that he hadn't changed his process in any way.
Castro's theory is that Johnson may simply be trying too hard with his sinker.
"When you're a sinkerball pitcher, and you try to overthrow a little bit sometimes, the ball doesn't sink as much," Castro said. "So I've seen, at times, that he's overthrown a little bit. And other times, he's tried to make it sink. So instead of sinking naturally, the movement is running, instead of sinking. That's the difference between sinking late and a running fastball."
Castro also believes that could be the reason why hitters are swinging more at Johnson's pitches within the strike zone, while having greater success when they do. And his ground ball rate has gone down from 62 percent last season to 56 percent this season, while his fly balls, and home runs, are up.
"If the ball's on the ground, they're going to hit a little bit harder ground balls," Castro said. "More line drives, more fly balls that way, when the ball is running, instead of sinking late."
Interestingly, though, some other ways Castro identified for Johnson to get back to 2012 form, such as throwing more first pitch strikes, relying more on his sinker, and throwing fewer pitches per at-bat, aren't necessarily characteristic of his 2012 season. He's actually throwing his slider 85 percent of the time on the first pitch of at-bats this season, but threw it just 73 percent of the time, first pitch, in 2012. He threw his four-seamer more than ten percent of the time on first pitches last season, and hasn't thrown it once in that situation all season in 2013.
So when Castro says of Johnson, "In his mind it should be sinker first, and curve second, and changeup third," especially early on, it has been all season. Still, if anyone can help Johnson figure out how to succeed without strikeouts, it's Castro, who posted a 1.81 ERA in 1979 while striking out ten batters all season, thanks to a sinker/slider combo.
In the meantime, Johnson insists that little has changed from last season, other than the results.
"There were times last year, also, when I had terrible control," Johnson said. "But things just kind of worked out, so nobody noticed," he said, leaning forward conspiratorially.
Really, maybe that's just Johnson's way of saying what my colleague Jon Bernhardt did when I discussed Johnson with him last week. "Mostly the problem with Johnson though is that his performance last season wrote checks his true talent level can't cash," Bernhardt wrote.
Perhaps the Orioles should have known that, too, and had a plan for the end of games if Johnson regressed to what is still a perfectly usable reliever, just not the elite closer he was last year. There probably wasn't a way to replicate last season's 29-9 record in one-run games. But a better bullpen could well have slowed the descent all the way to 14-22.
Or as Buck Showalter put it on Wednesday night, after Johnson's latest struggle: "Every ground ball seems to find a hole, and every broken bat seems to find a spot in the outfield," Showalter said. "I don't like the word pressing, but I think Jimmy knows how much he's meant to our ball club, and how much we depend on him, and maybe that's more our fault than his."