By Tommy Rancel //
It is hard to be 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, and go unnoticed in any walk of life. It is even harder to be that large, in addition to being a highly successful athlete in a major city, and still go unnoticed. However, Josh Johnson of the Florida Marlins is all of the above, and barely generates a buzz on the national landscape.
The Marlins’ right-hander has been one of the National League’s best-kept secrets for a few years now. But in 2010 he is on the verge of breaking out. Johnson won 12 games as a 22-year-old rookie in 2006. Unfortunately, Tommy John surgery wiped out nearly all of his 2007 and 2008 seasons. Since his return, Johnson has been fantastic. Peter Gammons notes that since his full-time return in July of 2008, Johnson is 30-8 with a sub 3.00 ERA.
After going 15-5 last year, the Marlins rewarded their ace with a four-year contract worth $39 million. Looking at his 2010 season to date, there is no doubt they are glad they got the deal done when they did.
In 15 starts, Johnson is 8-3 with a 1.80 ERA. He has 98 strikeouts and just 26 walks in 100 innings. His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), which measures home runs allowed, walks, and strikeouts, is an NL-best 2.56 – better than Ubaldo Jimenez, Roy Halladay, and Tim Lincecum.
Speaking of Jimenez, Johnson has 10 more strikeouts, 10 fewer walks, and has surrendered just one more home run than Jimenez, despite less than a two-inning gap between the two aces. Jimenez has grabbed the national spotlight – and deservedly so – but outside of wins and ERA – two metrics that rely heavily on outside factors – Johnson has been just as good, if not better.
Currently, Johnson is doing something not even Jimenez has been able to accomplish. In fact, it has only occurred a handful of times in major league history. Greg Cote (via Rob Neyer) tells us that Johnson’s recent string of eight straight starts with one run or less allowed is just the eighth such streak in MLB history. During that stretch, Johnson is 5-1 with a 0.63 ERA.
Beyond the microscopic ERA, and the pace for 17-19 wins, Johnson is having a career year in several other categories. Going back to FIP metrics, Johnson is striking out more batters than ever, while walking fewer and allowing fewer balls to leave the yard.
His strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) rate of 8.82 is a half-strikeout better than last season – his previous career best of 8.20. His walks per nine innings (BB/9) rate of 2.34 represent a career low. He has allowed just four home runs in 100 innings, which puts his HR/9 (home runs per nine innings) rate at just 0.36, another career best.
Despite the stellar marks in numerous categories, we know better than to completely take some of these metrics at face value. The strikeouts and walks are what they are, but in most cases, a low ERA is likely a product of defense and luck. Luck is also sometimes a factor in the number of home runs a pitcher allows.
It is true Johnson has been somewhat “lucky,” but not enough to discredit his fantastic start as anything but that. Johnson’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .270 is a bit lower than the league average (.302). If he regresses toward his career number of .301, he will allow more base runners, and in turn have a greater chance of giving up more runs.
In conjunction with BABIP, Johnson has stranded nearly 83% of his base runners (LOB%). The league average is around 71%. Career wise, Johnson owns an LOB% of 75.9. Again, there may be some regression here, but nothing too overwhelming. That said, in either case, even slight regression would raise his ERA.
As mentioned, Johnson’s HR/9 is 0.36. The league average is near 1.0. On the other hand, Johnson might not see much regression here. He has always maintained a lower than normal home run rate as evidenced in his career 0.62 HR/9. A key factor is the number of flyballs allowed, and the number that actually leave the park. We’ve talked about the value of groundballs before: More groundballs mean fewer chances for home runs to fly out of the yard. Johnson’s current groundball rate of 48.5% is nearly elite. For his career, just 7.6% of flyballs hit against him have gone for home runs. This year that number is down to 4.7%. Once more, you can expect some regression, but not much.
With a mid-90s fastball, and a slider that induces a whiff 16% of the time, there is plenty to like about Johnson. Add in the groundballs and the lack of extremely lucky batted ball data, and you have one of the best pitchers in baseball. If you already have Johnson, enjoy. If you don’t, he’s worth a big trade offer.
For more on Josh Johnson and other under the radar stars, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.