Monday, 4 November 2013

Could The Josh Johnson Era Be Coming To An End In Toronto?

Today's 5:00 EST deadline for the Blue Jays to extend Josh Johnson a $14.1 million qualifying offer has come and gone without the team making the decision to do so, and I've got to say I'm more surprised with this than I was with any of their decisions regarding contract options. Perhaps I shouldn't have been, with the season Johnson had and with Jon Heyman having tweeted days ago that a qualifying offer was "unlikely", but I was all the same. 

What to do with Johnson had been one of the most divisive topics among Blue Jays fans and armchair GMs since he was acquired from Miami last December. During the off-season and early in the 2013 campaign, the question was whether to try to re-sign him to a multi-year deal as soon as possible or to let him play out the year and either re-sign him or extend a qualifying offer at the end of the season. The thinking was that Johnson would be getting multiple years, so if the Jays couldn't lock him up, the next best thing would be to qualify him and take the draft pick compensation should he sign elsewhere.  Somewhere along the rocky road that was Johnson's 2013, however, the comfort that draft pick compensation offered turned to dread that, if qualified, Johnson would most likely just accept it in hopes of rebuilding his decimated value and pursuing a multi-year contract for 2015 and beyond. Johnson's inability to stay healthy had surely cost him that lucrative deal, and now fans were worried that the Blue Jays could end up with $14 million of potentially scarce payroll resources tied up in Johnson's rotation worst 6.20 ERA.

Now, at the risk of being labelled some sort of Johnson apologist (not that it would be the first time), I feel compelled to point out that, as bad as most of JJ's sixteen starts were, there are also some signs that he deserved better. Defense independent metrics like him a whole lot more than the traditional stats do. His FIP is a much better but still mediocre 4.62, and his xFIP, which regresses his sky high  18.5% HR/FB rate back to league average, is a very serviceable 3.58. He was still striking out 21.6% of the batters he faced while walking just 7.8%, both of which are above average rates. Now I'm sure there are a number of readers rolling their eyes and muttering about stats-geeks, but I'm not trying to absolve Johnson of his season. His results were dreadful, but he did some things fairly well, and the things that he did worst (i.e. allowing hits on balls in play, home runs on balls in the air, and base runners to score once on base) are some of the things pitchers seem to have the least control over and which tend to regress most heavily back to average. Basically, I was hopeful that there was enough strength in some his peripheral numbers, and that his weakest ones were those that have a tendency to regress to average that, if his surgery to remove bone spurs and loose bodies in his elbow was successful, he would be a candidate for a bounce back season. 

The thing is, if the injury was the issue in 2013, it seems reasonable to expect that it would affect him equally in all situations, but that wasn't the case. Instead Jays fans were treated to Dr. Jekyll with the bases empty, and and had to suffer through Mr. Hyde as soon as he put a man on. With the bases empty Johnson allowed opposing batters to hit .240/.297/.398 for a .307 wOBA. With men on base, he allowed a .374/.446/.608 line for a .448 wOBA. Now, pretty much all pitchers are worse with men on base than with the bases empty. We know this to be true, but Johnson's split was insane. By wOBA, with the bases empty, opposition batters were Gregor Blanco. With men on, they were just a few points behind Miguel Cabrera's league leading .455 wOBA, a comfortable 25 points ahead of second place Mike Trout. Yikes. 

I just don't see why, if the injury was the problem all along, it would only be an issue when he was pitching out of the stretch. I will confess to a complete and utter lack of medical knowledge that might provide me some special insight here, but that doesn't make a whole heck of a lot of sense to me. 

So maybe in the end this will turn out to be the correct move on the part of the Blue Jays. Maybe they'll re-sign him him to a contract that better reflects the amount of risk they'd be assuming and win big if he bounces back, or at the very least don't lose as big if he doesn't. Although, the certainty of being able to retain him has value, but how many millions of dollars worth is open to debate. Maybe he leaves (now without draft pick compensation, I might add), is lousy and injured elsewhere and is out of baseball by 2015. Still, I can't shake the part of me that feels Josh Johnson has a lot more left to offer than we saw this past season, and that we may end up watching him show it somewhere else, leaving us to wonder what might have been.

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