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Have the Orioles seen enough of Jim Johnson?

Patrick Smith

This showed up yesterday, shortly after the Orioles lost another to the Diamondbacks:

Just so you know, this is one of those things that makes sense only if you're paying way too much attention to my Twitter feed. Because I posted this Tuesday night:

Jordan was just fooling around; when he dispatched his missive, he didn't need an update. He knew the Orioles had just lost another one-run game, dropping their record to 14-21 in minimum-margin affairs.

In isolation, that's not a crazy figure at all. The Phillies are also 14-21 in one-run games, and the Angels and Cubs have fared even worse. But the Orioles' 14-21 doesn't get to be considered in isolation. The Orioles' 14-21 must be considered in relation to their 29-9 record in one-run games last year, and it must be considered in light of so many non-random explanations for that 29-9 record last year.

Which is about all I'm going to say about that, because you've heard it all before. Instead, I would like to write about a related subject: the (apparent) decline and fall of Orioles closer Jim Johnson.

Wednesday, Johnson suffered his ninth blown save of the season. Last year, Johnson blew only two saves all season long (and then another in October).

This hardly seems possible! How could someone blow just two saves in one season, and nine (so far!) in another? If you give any credence to Twitter, there's at least a semi-popular opinion that it's time for the Orioles to find themselves another closer. At this point, just about anyone will do. After going for a whole month without allowing a single run, Johnson has blown each of his last three save opportunities. Which, if you're following the team with any emotion, must seem pretty terrible.

I do feel compelled to point out, though, that Jim Johnson is the same pitcher today that he was a year ago. He's throwing the same pitches at the same speeds as last season and -- here's the thing, especially -- his statistical profile, leaving aside his save percentage -- is no different than what anyone might reasonably expect.

In a fundamental sense, pitchers control three things: strikeouts, walks, and (to a lesser degree) home runs. The Jim Johnson who's missed by Orioles fans is the Jim Johnson who pitched so well in 2010 and '11.

In those seasons, Johnson allowed 0.5 home runs per nine innings. This season, he has allowed four home runs. If he'd allowed three home runs, he would have allowed 0.5 home runs per nine innings. He's exactly one homer away from being exactly the same.

In those seasons, Johnson walked 2.0 batters per nine innings, and struck out 5.6 per nine. This season, his walks are up some, but so are his strikeouts. In those seasons, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 2.75, and this season it's 2.41. Is that a significant difference? No, it's not significant at all. Give Johnson just two more strikeouts and two fewer walks -- that is, a few pitches called differently here or there -- and his strikeout-to-walk ratio would actually be better this season than in those seasons.

Basically, what's happened is that the odds have caught up with Jim Johnson, and passed him. He's not a high-strikeout pitcher, but for two seasons it didn't matter because he somehow limited the hitters to sub-.270 batting averages on balls in play, which led to ERA's better than we might have expected.

Those nine blown saves? Johnson's been unlucky, and so have the Orioles. Good pitchers will occasionally make it through an entire season with only two or three or four blown saves, and good pitchers will occasionally blow eight or nine or ten saves. What's odd about Johnson is that he's hit both extremes in consecutive seasons. But there's nothing else that's particularly extraordinary about him.

None of which means he should be trusted with one-run leads in the ninth inning. But it's not like Showalter's got a bunch of other great candidates. Darren O'Day has posted brilliant strikeout-to-walk ratios since joining the O's, but the right-handed sidearmer is somewhat vulnerable to left-handed power hitters. The only obvious candidate is Tommy Hunter, who's thrived since shifting to the bullpen this season. But Hunter's not been a big strikeout pitcher, and might be subject to the same vagaries as Johnson. And even if Hunter takes over in the ninth, Johnson's still going to pitch important innings because the O's aren't blessed with many top-shelf righty relievers.*

* Addendum: Francisco Rodriguez is another candidate for the job. He's given up four home runs in nine innings since joining the O's, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio is outstanding this season.

Sometimes you make a move because you have to make a move. So don't be shocked if Buck Showalter makes a move. But who's assigned the closer's duties won't determine the fate of the Orioles over the next seven weeks. Their fate will rest upon the shoulders of the guys in the lineup, and the pitchers pitching the most innings.

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