Pitch f/x — Under the Hood with Josh Johnson
May as well start this monster of a post off with a bang and slag a Hall-of-Fame baseball writer: has anyone else noticed that Bob Elliott constantly spices up his articles with highly-controversial statements from ‘veteran evaluators’ who sound a lot more like they’re coming from an old Blue Jays fan, or maybe, you know, himself, than they do anything that a real scout would say? From today’s Sun:
“I like the trade, I like Buehrle and Johnson, but they’re a couple of No. 3s for me,” said one veteran evaluator. If you’re going for it — and it appears by everything they’ve done to date, that they are — they need someone else.”
“They really don’t have a dominant No. 1, a Dave Stieb, Jack Morris, Juan Guzman, Pat Hentgen or Roy Halladay.”
While I’m also of the mind that the Jays’ rotation has not been solidified this offseason as much as most people think, calling Josh Johnson a third starter (whatever that means, anyway) demands an explanation. The only way that statement makes any sense at all is if you think he now has diminished stuff due to his arm injuries, know nothing about him except his ERA last year, or are making argument that a #1 who is injured half the time is the same thing as a #3.
Because after labouring through the first two months of last season (really his first six starts — remember that number!) Johnson essentially returned to his career numbers, which made him the clear #1 the Blue Jays were counting on when they made the trade (although he might not be quite at the dizzying heights of *snort*Jack Morris during his time with the Jays, or *chortle* Juan Guzman). With such a history of arm problems, Johnson could equally well boom or best — but there’s no reason to think he has settled into Buehrle-style solid mediocrity.
Anyway, we just have to trust that the Jays are still haunted by the name Mike Sirotka and have done their due diligence up the wazoo about his physical state…but let’s look at what pitch f/x has to say about Johnson’s 2013 and his prospects going forward. To begin, here’s how the man himself saw his 2012 season:
“I’d say maybe the last 15 starts, I felt so much better than before,” Johnson said. “I was kind of fighting myself, fighting my body, trying to do this or that, maybe trying to find a little bit more velocity. But once I relaxed and just trusted myself, it just kind of came out.
“I don’t know if I was throwing any harder or anything like that. But you could tell with the depth that I had on my slider and my curve ball, and the location of my fastball got much, much better.”
It’s the “trying to find a little bit more velocity” that pops out for me here, because if we isolate his four-seam fastball, that is indeed the case. Trust me for one second here — basically every healthy mature pitcher sees his velocity subtly but steadily increase throughout the season. But Johnson’s average fastball velocity flew up over the first couple of months, and then declined for the rest of the season as he became more effective.
[Edit: Ok, that's a little Mickey Mouse so here's pitch-by-pitch instead of game-by-game, with a rolling average of 5 in black that drops about 3mph through the heart of the season]
Things start to look really scary when you compare his velocity to his previous years. Even at his peak in 2012, Johnson was only back up to where he was in 2011 before he got injured, and then went in the wrong direction (the start of 2009 is missing in the following graph because pitch f/x wasn’t entirely set up yet).
If that doesn’t scare you, it should. As soon as a power pitcher known for his 95 mph heater and a killer slider starts talking about ‘hitting his spots’ and not being concerned about his velocity…run. Anyone remember B.J. Ryan? Seem Tim Lincecum lately? You can talk heart and location and pitching all day but strikeouts matter. And unless you’re a control pitcher to begin with, losing 2-3 mph on your fastball without anything to compensate for it is obviously going to affect your K rate in some way.
But wait…all is not lost, because for some reason last season Johnson’s K numbers DID steadily progress to the point where they were right in line with his old self.
So what gives? Did he find exceptional control at the expense of velocity? I don’t think so. Here’s how often his fastball was thrown in the zone as the season went on:
Obviously being in the zone is not the final word on fastball control, so let’s try another stat that I made up — the % of pitches that were “paint”, i.e. within a few (in this case, 2) inches of the border of the strike zone. I know, I know…I’m lumping in 3-0 fastballs with pitches that actually matter, but it’s not like Johnson became some control artist on the outer half when he started backing off on his velocity — if anything, other that a few crazy games late in the season, he was throwing less paint than when he was trying to throw his fastball harder.
[Edit: I take that back. If you take a rolling average of paint pitch-by-pitch, it does show a minor improvement in his ability to paint over the season, with low stretches in April and July when he was getting shelled.]
Enough charts, time for a table! In pitch f/x terms, “Breaklength” is the maximum distance a pitch deviates from a straight line from hand to glove. I think of it as the size of the ‘bend’ in a fastball, or the ‘loop’ in a Curve. ‘Pfz’ is how much a pitch resists the pull of gravity, and correlates to the ‘explosiveness’, ‘hop’, ‘giddy-up’, or whatever you want to call how much a 4-seamer seems to ‘rise’.
|Josh Johnson’s 4-Seam Fastball|
|Year||MPH||Breaklength||Pfz||In Zone %||Miss %||On Fringe%|
Again, scary stuff. Johnson has lost an inch and a half of fastball ‘hop’ and batters are swinging through his fastball half as often as they did a couple of years ago. You can make the argument that he is moving towards a more accurate, moving fastball, but that does sound a lot more like a decent number three than the top-of-the-rotation stalwart the Jays need.
Ok, onto the next part of his self-evaluation — did his breaking stuff show improved ‘depth’ and pick up the K-slack?
First let’s look at his signature pitch, the slider. Unfortunately, results against a single off-speed pitch can be highly deceiving because so much is based on context. If you have lost fastball control, it might look like your slider has fallen apart, because you never get to throw it in 2-strike counts where a hitter has to defend the plate. Or, if your fastball velocity is down, guys don’t have to cheat to catch up to it so they don’t bite early on your slider.
But anyway, the graphs below are my case that although he did manage to locate his slider where it belongs out of the zone more often, it wasn’t any more effective in terms of swings-and-misses. Opposing batters got far fewer hits off it, but I think that equates to fewer hung sliders, and not ‘increased depth’ that would help with punchouts. Swing and miss rates correlate directly to K% (without the fluctuation, basically), and for Johnson’s slider they actually declined in the second half last year.
Compared to previous seasons, here’s how his slider matches up:
|Josh Johnson’s Slider|
|Year||MPH||Breaklength||PFX||PFZ||Miss %||In Zone|
The PFX/PFZ numbers are interesting — he has traded about a half-inch of sideways movement for a half-inch of drop. As I manage to work into every single post these days, that seems to be a bad thing. Sliders seem to be more effective when they cut straight sideways instead of sinking and bending, more like a cutter than a curveball.
And that seems to have an effect on how he is using it — as a chase pitch rather than a hard-to-hit potential strike. While the overall miss % has risen, that’s only because the number of them thrown in the strike zone has plummeted (@#$@#$ context!). Taking only sliders that were thrown for strikes, Johnson’s Miss % has fallen sharply: 27%/26%/14%/21%. While he is using it in a more conventionally recommended way, it is not as fast, not as hard, not as nasty. And he seems to know it.
I hope you’re ready for some good news, because I sure as hell was at this point. Since Johnson only really started throwing it last year, there’s not a lot to compare Johnson’s curve to, but here we go:
|Josh Johnson’s Curve|
|Year||MPH||Breaklength||PFX||PFZ||Miss %||In Zone|
A 42% miss % on a curve is pretty darn good for a third pitch. Even in 2011, just having it lead Chipper Jones to remark: “Oh, OK, he’s got a curveball now…I hope he doesn’t throw that too many more times.”
But now the kicker — here’s Johnson’s K’s per game in 2012 broken down by pitch type:
See the flatline over the first six starts on his curve, after which point it was just as important a strikeout pitch as his slider? Yeah, having an 6.61 ERA and a .359 BAVG against might lead you to trying something new…now take a look at the % of curveballs Johnson threw as the season progressed:
AHA! So THAT’S how he managed to keep his K’s up when all of his other pitches seem to be less effective. I know these graphs are ugly and unscientific, but there’s more to the story than him throwing his curveball 14% of the time or whatever it was over the entire year. What started as a completely non-existent offering was making up more than 20% of his pitches by the end of the year. That’s ridiculously high — Buehrle has a nice floater, and he threw it 11% of the time last year. Gio Gonzalez uses it as his only breaking pitch and he’s only at 21%.
Josh Johnson used to be able to get away with throwing two plus-plus pitches and a show-me change. After a series of arm problems, he’s just not that dominating power pitcher any more. Half a dozen starts into last season, that became obvious to him and/or his coaches, and he started using a pitch in strikeout situations that he had only tinkered with in the past. It worked amazingly well for him, and he started to get more and more confidence with it as the season went on until he was just as effective as he used to be when his repertoire was much more nasty, but predictable. It saved his year, and possibly his career — and what we get to see in Toronto is the first complete season of him with a full repertoire. Excited again?
POSTSCRIPT: Ok, I’ve been really sick the last few days so I didn’t even read the rest of the quotes from Johnson where he talked to the media about his curve, hence why I’m so excited to have ‘stumbled’ upon the fact that it was a revelation last year. It sounds like John Buck might have been the one to recognize it as a plus offering and prod him into throwing it more and more as the season went on:
This was my first full season to pitch with it and to throw it that much. I was learning the whole year. Good thing I had John Buck back there because he helped me out tremendously. Whenever I was in doubt he would put it down, kind of gave me that re-assurance that this is the right pitch, let’s throw it. So I could (learn) how to throw it and when, where to throw it, things like that.