No matter what day it is, Marlins ace Josh Johnson is either actively working on a no-hitter, or plotting to throw one the next time out. On Sunday, Johnson took a no-hitter into the sixth inning for the third time already this season, and he has yet to allow a hit before the fourth in five starts. Batters have had 49 total plate appearances against Johnson through the first three innings, and they've gone 0-45 with four walks and 20 strikeouts.
Johnson's recent unhittability has started to get him a little more attention, which is probably long overdue. Ask people about the best starters in the National League and they'll rattle off names like Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Cliff Lee, Chris Carpenter, Clayton Kershaw, and so on and so forth. Which they should. Those are all fantastic pitchers. But few will name Johnson, despite everything he's done. Since 2006, 118 pitchers have thrown at least 500 Major League innings. Johnson's 2.99 ERA ranks fifth, and his 3.14 FIP - separating his performance from that of his defense - ranks second.
Since breaking into the league, Johnson has been a hard-throwing, 6'7 wood chipper of a man, quietly turnings bats into sawdust before a modest audience. And those who've been on to him have tried their damndest to get him more widespread respect. Johnson's been hidden away in Florida, but the statistical community has been aware of his success from the beginning, and it's argued in his favor. It's argued that Johnson deserves to be included as a member of the ultra-elite.
Based on his results, he does. Based on his results, Johnson is easily among the more underrated great players in the game today. But at the same time, there's a relatively unknown variable at play here that's been skewing his numbers.
For his entire Major League career, Josh Johnson has called Sun Life Stadium home. And Sun Life Stadium happens to have the highest strikeout park factor in baseball. Everybody should be familiar with the concept of park factors. It's easy to understand why Coors Field inflates home runs. It's easy to understand why Fenway Park inflates doubles. It isn't so easy to understand why Sun Life Stadium inflates strikeouts, but the evidence is there that it does, and that it does to a significant degree.
So as weird as it sounds, Johnson's strikeout rate has benefited greatly from his having spent half his games in Miami. Observe the following splits:
MLB Overall (2010 season)
Home: 19% strikeouts
Road: 18% strikeouts
Josh Johnson (career)
Home: 25% strikeouts
Road: 19% strikeouts
At home, Johnson has long been incredibly difficult to hit. On the road, his strikeout rate dips close to the league average. That's the biggest reason why the following split is the way it is:
Josh Johnson (career)
Home: 2.77 FIP
Road: 3.60 FIP
A 3.60 road FIP is by no means a bad road FIP, but at the same time, it isn't quite elite, and it's a big step down from what Johnson's been able to do in his own ballpark.
We're only dealing with an overall sample here of 699 innings, so it's too soon to draw big sweeping conclusions, as Johnson's numbers may still need more time to stabilize. But based on the evidence we have, I think it's fair to say that many of the same people who've long been calling Josh Johnson vastly underrated have been overrating him to some degree by failing to take into consideration how he's taken advantage of his home environment.
Josh Johnson is most definitely an underrated young pitcher. I don't think there's any questioning the notion that his playing in Florida has been an obstacle to his getting the attention his results would warrant. But elite? I'm not yet convinced. The ability's all there, but I'll need to see him show it in more than one ballpark.