Jim Johnson’s 2017 season perhaps is the best example of the struggles the Atlanta Braves had with their bullpen. Coming into the season, the bullpen looked like it would be a potential strength with Johnson playing a major role, but things went south quickly.
What were the expectations?
Johnson was a pleasant surprise for the Braves in 2016 and signed a two-year extension to remain with the club on the final day of the regular season. He entered 2017 as the team’s closer and looked like a safe bet to at the very least occupy a late inning role in the back half of the team’s bullpen.
That is certainly how things started but it isn’t the way that they ended.
Jim Johnson 2017 Projections/Stats
|Jim Johnson (ZiPs)||4||4||3.90||64||62.3||8.37||2.60||3.60||0.4|
|Jim Johnson (Steamer)||3||3||3.53||65||65.0||8.42||3.28||3.48||0.5|
|Jim Johnson (Actual)||6||3||5.56||61||56.2||9.69||3.97||4.22||0.2|
Johnson’s season began well enough as he allowed just one earned run over his first seven innings (six appearances). He allowed four runs in just 1.2 innings in back-to-back outings before settling down and working a solid May where he allowed just three earned runs in 13 appearances.
Warning signs began to surface in June as his ERA jumped to 4.15 for the month but he was able to maintain a solid 2.54 FIP and a 3.46 xFIP. July was more of the same with a few more rough outings mixed in. Still, despite a dip in reliability, there was a bit of trade buzz that surrounded Johnson at the deadline which led me to tweet this from the Talking Chop account on July 28.
Jim Johnson has a 4.10 ERA but a 2.53 FIP and a 3.23 xFIP. Also 10.80 K/9. Worth 1.2 fWAR— Talking Chop (@TalkingChop) July 28, 2017
He hasn't been as bad as you think
Yeah… probably not my best work considering that he had been trending downward for a couple of weeks but the statement isn’t completely untrue. (It was completely true at the time. Johnson got worse, but at the time of the tweet he was one of the better relievers through that part of the 2017 season. - Ivan) However, Johnson showed that he didn’t care much about the state of my Twitter mentions going forward and proceeded to fall off the cliff over the next month.
Just saying that he posted a 16.71 ERA in August doesn’t really do his struggles justice. From my unfortunate tweet on July 28 through the end of August, Johnson allowed 14 earned runs over his next 8.1 innings (12 appearances). If that doesn’t do the trick, then notice from my Tweet above that Johnson was at that time worth 1.2 fWAR but finished the season at just 0.2.
What was at the root of Johnson’s struggles? This may be over simplifying it but more walks and more home runs. His walk rate jumped from 2.78 per nine in 2016 all the way to 3.97 this season. His home run rate had an even more dramatic spike jumping from 0.42 in 2016 all the way to 1.27. It’s hard to point out some specific entry point or impetus for his collapse, as pretty much every stat got considerably worse across the board. The big thing is that he just got more hittable -- you can compare the two charts here (first three months) and here (last three months) to understand the difference. Hitters used to swing through some of the pitches on the black, but as he got worse, those whiffs became contact. On top of that, Johnson had great success limiting contact on pitches below the knees -- for the first three months, no one made contact on one of those cruel low-and-away or low-and-in pitches that was way off the plate. But, that eroded as well, rendering him pretty ineffective at getting outs. The cause of this is less clear - a mechanical change, a lack of deception/tipping his pitches, reduced tunneling ability -- it requires more research and understanding to be sure. But that he collapsed and did so epically is inarguable.
Johnson is under contract for $5 million in 2018 and while many fans may be ready to see the Braves dump him, that seems unlikely at this point. Still, there is no sugarcoating Johnson’s struggles. By the end of the season he looked completely broken with zero confidence.
If there is anything that is going in his favor it is that he has rebounded from similar struggles in the past. After enjoying a solid stint to start his career with the Orioles, Johnson posted a 7.09 ERA in 54 games between Detroit and Oakland in 2014. He bounced back the next season with the Braves before imploding again after being traded to the Dodgers, though that implosion was itself caused by just four bad outings to start his Dodgers tenure, after which he went back to being pretty much the same pitcher he had been..
Johnson’s contract status dictates that he get another shot in Spring Training. If he struggles, then Atlanta may be forced to eat his contract but it looks like we haven’t seen the last of Johnson in a Braves uniform.