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May 15, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Josh Johnson

by Marc Normandin

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It would be a pity if anything were wrong with Josh Johnson's shoulder after the start he's had this year. The 25-year-old has not had a chance to show us what he is capable of, as he has thrown just over 100 innings the past two seasons combined as he tried to recover from various injuries, and since he was working his way back during that time, we have only had glimpses of his potential.

Now, however, Johnson is at long last healthy, and we have been given a peek at what this 6'7", 230-pound right-hander can do. (Manager Fredi Gonzalez claims that last nights' early exit was more precautionary than anything, on a night where Johnson wasn't feeling it.) He's just as dominating as his size suggests he might be as he stands on the mound and stares the opposition down.

Johnson is essentially a three-pitch hurler, with a four-seam fastball, a slider, and a changeup. He uses the slider as his off-speed pitch most of the time, and his changeup sees very little use relative to the other two offerings. Let's take a look at his last three starts (not including last night's early exit) to see what kind of movement he has on his two primary pitches.

A little explanation of what you will see on these graphs is in order. The movement charts graph both horizontal and vertical movement against both right-handers and left-handers, and are seen from the catcher's point of view. For horizontal movement, a pitch at "0" is straight, "-5" means five inches inside to right-handers, and "5" means five inches inside to lefties. For vertical pitches, the break of the pitch is measured, but not in the way you would imagine. Sky Kalkman wrote up a useful reference earlier this year that you can check for more detail, but in short, the movement graphs "represent change in location due to spin, not absolute location. Change in location compares a pitch's actual final location at the front of the plate to where physics equations would have expected it to end up given no spin at all (and no knuckling effects)."

graph

A fastball in double digits on the vertical side has some hard movement, and Johnson is up near 15 inches with some of his fastballs. He also has a lot of horizontal movement against right-handers, which is part of the reason for his success. It's difficult to hit a 95 mph fastball for any kind of power if it's bearing in on you while dropping and the location is on-considering Johnson was unintentionally walking 1.1 batters per nine before last night's five-walk performance, and just 2.7 per nine last year, it's probably safe to say that locating is something he does well.

graph

Johnson threw 61 sliders during this three-start stretch, with 27 of those coming against left-handers. Against righties, the pitch moves away from them, while he uses it to bear in on lefties inside, as he does with his fastball against right-handers. In addition to the slider, Johnson also uses his changeup against lefties, with 14 of the 19 he threw during these 21 1/3 innings coming against southpaws.

What these graphs do not show is his velocity; as Kalkman wrote in the piece linked above, these movement charts assume that velocity is the same. Johnson is averaging 95 mph on his fastball, so imagine the kind of movement he's getting on that pitch. There are a few other aspects worth noting: Johnson has never thrown that hard that consistently during his major league career, as last year's 93.5 mph effort was the highest average fastball velocity of his career. Also, as a 6'7" pitcher with natural sink, that kind of movement mixed with that kind of speed means that he is able to induce plenty of ground balls. His 2.1 G/F ratio is the furthest from the average that he's been while in the majors (discounting his 15 2/3-inning stint in 2007), and also the first time he's induced ground balls on over 50 percent of balls in play (55.2 percent).

Johnson has been tinkering with the speed on his slider this year, as he tries to use it more like an off-speed pitch rather than something moving at fastball velocity with break. During his first start, he threw his slider 21 times, with speeds between 81.8 and 88.9 mph (which, hilariously enough unless you're a Nationals fan, was faster than the average fastball speed of his opponent that night, Scott Olsen). He threw 23 sliders in his next start against the Mets, with velocities between 81.4 and 87.5 mph. It was the same deal in his next start, with one actually coming in just under 80 mph. He's kept that up throughout the young season, bouncing between the low and high 80s as well as everywhere in between, and it has made his slider an effective second weapon to use alongside his improved fastball, especially against left-handers (.273/.351/.387 against lefties from 2006-2008, and .225/.254/.261 against them this year in 117 plate appearances).

Knowing all of this, it's easy to conclude that Johnson is as good as his numbers show. He's walked just 1.8 batters per nine, and that includes his awful performance last night. He's whiffing 7.7 per nine, which is very good but not incredible, until you remember how many grounders he is inducing in concert with that figure. Due to the uptick in velocity and his increase in grounders, he's giving up slightly fewer home runs (0.5 per nine) and just a 7.3 home-run per fly-ball rate. Opponents are swinging at more pitches out of the zone against Johnson than ever before, and even though the contact is up by about nine percentage points on those pitches, the results have been to Johnson's benefit rather than the opposition's. He's also continuing what he started last year, and attacking hitters earlier in the count-he's throwing first-pitch strikes 63 percent of the time, well above the average, and it's proven effective, helping him to get hitters to chase his stuff after putting them in an early hole.

He has posted a .297 BABIP thus far, which is in line with his batted-ball data, though the defense behind him isn't that great, so I wouldn't be shocked if he ended up unlucky on that front. Using FIP, we see that Johnson should be around the 2.91 mark; it's higher than his current ERA by 0.41 runs, but it's still a number under 3.00. Remember, Johnson is just 25 years old, and he's healthy to start the season for the first time in years. It should be no real surprise that he's coming into his own, and, considering the data we've looked at today, there should be no reason why we can't expect him to be one of the better pitchers in the National League.

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