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July 19, 2011

BP Unfiltered

Jim Johnson As A Starter?

by R.J. Anderson

Lost in the weekend shuffle was a note from Jeff Zrebiec:

The Orioles have long debated whether setup man Jim Johnson, who came up through their system as a starter, should move to the rotation, but that dialogue has heated up the past couple of weeks to the point where it may be not a matter of if, but when.

Trying Johnson in the rotation presents a more creative and potentially rewarding experience than throwing around cash in the free agent market in hopes of landing a starting pitcher. Teams like the Rangers and Cardinals have benefited from moving C.J. Wilson, Alexi Ogando, and Kyle McClellan to the rotation lately, so the Orioles would not be treading on new ground. Still, moving a reliever to the rotation isn’t a guarantee to work. There are things, like violent deliveries and a dearth of quality pitches, that just will not work over extended outings.

The first aspect you have to look at with Johnson is whether his stuff can play up multiple times through the order, holds up from a quality perspective, and if he has enough to get out batters of both hands. PITCHf/x data has Johnson tossing a fastball at an average speed of 94 miles per hour since the beginning of the 2008 season. The pitch has good sink, as illustrated in his impressive groundball rates that have sat about 50 percent dating back throughout his big league career.

To complement the fastball, Johnson has a curveball and changeup. On paper, that gives Johnson enough weaponry to win battles with batters of either hand. Such an assertion is backed in the stats, as Johnson’s career OPS versus lefties and righties are nearly identical (LHB: 682, RHB: 685) in nearly the same amount of exposure (righties have 29 more plate appearances against him).

The arsenal is only part of the pitcher’s framework that has to be approved before considering a move to the rotation. The body and delivery is another. Johnson isn’t a pitcher with a gimmick windup, however he is a pitcher with a history of arm issues. In 2010 alone, he missed more than 100 days due to a sprained UCL. Before that, he missed time due to right forearm and shoulder issues. The video below contains a few pitches, thus giving a reinforcement to the stuff comments and a look at Johnson’s delivery:

The last big hurdle is deciding whether Johnson is a good enough reliever to think he could withstand a statistical decline yet still prove valuable. The Rule of 17 generates some basic translations that provide a baseline expectations for what a pitcher moving into a new role can expect. The components are simple. A reliever moving to the rotation should expect his earned run average to increase by a run, his strikeout rate to dip by 17 percent, his walk rate to remain static, his home run per contacted plate appearance rate to increase by 17 percent, and his batting average on balls in play to increase by 17 points. Like so:






RP (Career)





SP (Proj.)





Those peripherals are most similar to pitchers like Jo-Jo Reyes, Dustin Moseley, and Jason Marquis. A trio of unsexy names, but consider that a 4.42 earned run average would give Johnson the second-best earned run average amongst Orioles starters—and that’s only if you still count Zach Britton. The usual disclaimers still apply: Johnson could outpitch the baseline; the cascading effects of trying to replace Johnson in the pen; the opportunity cost of Johnson taking a rotation spot instead of a younger starter and on and on and on. It's just hard to think the downside associated with having Johnson start exceeds the upside.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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Premium Article Future Shock: Monday-M... (07/18)
<< Previous Column
BP Unfiltered: The Pap... (07/19)
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BP Unfiltered: PECOTA,... (07/19)
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