Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE
The Miami Marlins were expecting a lot of the team's starting pitcher rotation, and those expectations began with a bounce back by Josh Johnson. Johnson pitched worse than he has since his rookie year, but he made up for it with a healthy season.
The Miami Marlins' disappointments in 2012 came primarily from the failures of the position players who under-performed their projections from before the season. But the pitchers on the team are not fully without fault, and one of those pitchers who did not meet expectations was Josh Johnson, the team's ace. Johnson was supposed to be an anchor of the staff who may suffer an injury, and the injury aspect thankfully never came around. However, Johnson also struggled to meet the level of production from before his shoulder injury in 2011.
|Josh Johnson||191 1/3||20.7||8.2||3.81||3.40||3.8||3.1|
For a typical number two to number four starter in the majors, this season would be a very good one, but for Johnson this was a clear disappointment. A number of problems crept up on him unexpectedly and hung around for much of the season. His fastball velocity was clearly down this year compared to years past, and there is reason to believe that this led to most of the problems he experienced this year. After three consecutive seasons hanging out at around 94.5 mph on average for his fastball, Johnson lost 1.5 mph on the pitch and subsequently pitched a bit worse across the board, with the drop in performance corresponding to the level of velocity loss.
Johnson's strikeouts fell to their lowest point since his rookie year in 2006. Oddly, hitters made less contact against Johnson this season compared to his injury-shortened 2011, which makes the case of the disappearing strikeouts in 2012 a lot more challenging.
It is likely that hitters were hitting fewer foul balls this season against Johnson than in years past, and thus the contact was leading to fewer strikes and more balls in play. The result is that the strikeouts would fall despite at worst identical swing-and-miss stuff in 2012 compared to 2011.
Johnson's strikeout rate taking a dive is the most concerning aspect of his decline in 2012, but it is not the only one. His walk rate also went up compared to his elite years in 2009 and 2010. In addition, he had major problems with balls in play at the start of the year, as he was allowing a batting average of over .400 on balls in play in April. During the season, he forced a steady decline in BABIP, and indeed for the remainder of the year, his BABIP was an above-average .278. Still, the damage had been done and his ERA never dipped below 3.73 this season despite a solid return to decent play the rest of the year.
But as bad as Johnson had been, there were still quite a few positives to detail from the 2012 year. At the top of the list is the fact that he was able to remain healthy the entire year. Johnson made 31 starts and pitched 191 1/3 innings in 2012, both the second-highest marks in his career. With the exception of his final start of the year, Johnson made an appearance every five games as expected for the entire season, and for a player who missed more than two-thirds of the 2011 season with an unspecified shoulder injury. Despite Johnson's supposed struggles, he was still able to last about the same amount of time in each of his starts this year as he has throughout his career, as he matched his career 6.2 innings per start mark in 2012. He only fell about an out per outing short of his three-year mark of 6.5 innings per start from 2009 to 2011.
One interesting and enjoyable aspect of Johnson's season is his continued use of the curveball, his latest weapon. At its current usage, Johnson's curveball was his most productive pitch this season, and it has been good enough to begin phasing out his previously effective changeup. The curveball has been successful at getting called strikes and whiffs against left-handers, and when combined with Johnson's unusually effective slider against lefties, it led to a slightly higher strikeout rate and better FIP against lefties than righties in 2012.
It was not as if Johnson performed poorly all season. For many pitchers, this would be at least a successful season, and his performance beyond April (3.54 ERA, 3.52 FIP) was that of a perfectly decent second or third starter on a team. But for the Marlins, Johnson's play was a solid disappointment because, before the season, the team was expecting a 4.5- to five-win season from their ace-level pitcher. It is very possible that Johnson's loss of velocity in 2012 permanently decreased his talent level down to closer to a 3.5-win pitcher. Given the projection versus the actual results, it appears the team lost at least one win from Johnson compared to his expectations coming into the season.
The Marlins have a number of questions this offseason, and one of them definitely involves Johnson's future. Can the team count on him to anchor the top of the rotation, or has the velocity drop of 2012 killed his chances of being an ace-caliber pitcher? This is something for them to decide.