The Hidden Thrill And Risk Of Josh Johnson

Miami, FL, USA; Miami Marlins starting pitcher Josh Johnson (55) at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

So Josh Johnson is out there for the taking in advance of the trade deadline, kind of. There's something subtle working in his favor as an acquisition. There's something subtle that isn't.

Hello there! You are a baseball fan, or you are lost, or you are conducting research. In any case, you are aware of the fact that the non-waiver trade deadline is rapidly approaching (ed. note: now you are, at least). This is a time for fans to dream, and dream big -- fans of good teams, dreaming about impact acquisitions, and fans of bad teams, dreaming about massive prospect hauls. This is truly the best time of the year, if you're into national journalists publishing virtual ream after virtual ream of speculative bullshit.

On the subject of dreaming, we have the Miami Marlins. The disappointing Marlins have already traded Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante, Hanley Ramirez, and Randy Choate, and while the moves have been solid in a baseball sense, the public response has been "same old Marlins." The Marlins might not be done selling, and there's a prize piece left that's technically available:

All right, so at that asking price, Josh Johnson isn't any more available than the Rock of Gibraltar. There does exist in theory a price at which possession could be obtained, but in reality negotiations wouldn't get off the ground. Nobody has that much money. Even if somebody did have that much money, he wouldn't have amassed it by acting like a lunatic.

So the Marlins are dreaming. But a funny thing about asking prices is that they aren't static. Johnson's due to be a free agent at the end of next season. Someone might get aggressive, with Cole Hamels having re-signed with the Phillies and with Matt Garza probably not getting moved. There exists some possibility that Johnson could get traded in the next few days if the Marlins act a wee bit more reasonable, and so it's worth looking at Josh Johnson.

The headline hints at one thing you might not know about Josh Johnson that's good, and one thing you might not know about Josh Johnson that's bad. Firstly, are you aware of Josh Johnson? He's been with the Marlins his whole career so the answer might be no. The first thing anybody learns about Josh Johnson is that he's very good. He's posted a career 134 ERA+. Since 2009 he's at 141. The second thing anybody learns about Josh Johnson is the injuries. He's had Tommy John surgery. He missed most of last season with a shoulder problem. Since 2006, when he first emerged as a real big leaguer, he's started 132 games, hardly on par with, say, Justin Verlander's 218. Johnson is not an established workhorse.

But he's extraordinarily talented, and now let's dig a little deeper. Something Johnson has going in his favor is something about which we all tend to be skeptical. Johnson gets his strikeouts and limits his walks, but an area where Johnson has excelled is home-run prevention. For his career he's allowed just 0.6 home runs per nine innings, giving him something in common with Bob Gibson. Johnson's never allowed more than 14 home runs in a season. He's allowed 16 since 2010.

Let's go back to 2006 and isolate starting pitchers who have thrown at least 500 innings. We have 147 of them. Let's combine their fly balls and line drives allowed. Over that span, Johnson has allowed 4.2 percent home runs per ball in air. That's the best mark in the sample, tied with C.J. Wilson. The average is 6.5 percent.

Johnson's been good against righties -- he's a righty -- but where Johnson has been unbelievable is in keeping lefties in the yard. Let's look at the same stat, going back to 2008. Since 2008, Johnson has allowed 2.3 percent home runs per ball in air against left-handed hitters. That's baseball's best by a comfortable margin over Chris Carpenter, at 3.5 percent. The league average is 6.5 percent. Since 2008, Johnson has faced 1,434 left-handed hitters, and 11 of them have hit home runs.

By limiting dingers, Johnson is able to out-perform his strikeout/walk/grounder peripherals, or xFIP, if you're into that. How is Johnson so able to keep lefties in the yard? I don't know the answer to that, and I don't know how I would even begin to find out, but I made some .gifs of low breaking balls that I like to look at and that you might like to look at too:





Against lefties, Johnson throws his fastball all over the place. He throws his slider down and in, his curveball down, and his changeup down and away. His offspeed pitches tend to be low, and maybe that's the key, or maybe it isn't. What we know is that, for whatever reason, Johnson has done what he's done, and he's done it over a considerable sample size.

All right, that's something subtle in Johnson's favor. But now we have to look at something else. Johnson has only ever pitched for the Marlins, and the Marlins have only ever played in one home stadium, until this year, during the Johnson era. That home stadium, oddly, increased strikeout rate by a significant degree. What I'm getting at are Josh Johnson's home/road splits. You should look at Josh Johnson's home/road splits.

Career, Home

ERA: 2.89
FIP: 2.75
K%: 25.0%

Career, Road

ERA: 3.43
FIP: 3.56
K%: 18.8%

On average, pitchers are worse on the road than they are at home. Johnson has by no means been bad on the road. But his performance gap is bigger than most, and his strikeouts drop by a huge margin. We don't know much about Marlins Park yet, but just this year Johnson's at 24 percent strikeouts at home and 17 percent strikeouts on the road. Maybe that's a fluke, or maybe that's a continuation of the same phenomenon. There's a risk that a team acquiring Johnson wouldn't be getting the powerful strikeout arm it imagined.

Josh Johnson is a very good pitcher. The Marlins are aware of it, and indeed more aware than anybody else. A chunk of Johnson's success has come from his ability to limit home runs, a skill we usually don't believe in until a sample size is big enough. Johnson's is pretty big. A chunk of Johnson's success has come from his racking up the strikeouts at home, which might not carry over to a new home. Johnson's pitches aren't any different when he's in Florida or New York, but his results have been.

What do we know about Josh Johnson as a trade target? He'd be good, with error bars. It's on other teams to figure out how good, and how big the error bars might be, and there will either be a move or there won't. Everything is that simple if you just gloss over all of the complicated parts.

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