On Tuesday night, with his Baltimore Orioles tied 2-2 at home with the New York Yankees in the 10th inning, Jim Johnson came to the mound and threw a scoreless inning. Then he went back to the dugout, Nate McLouth stepped up to the plate, Vidal Nuno gave him something to hit, and for the first time in a week, the Orioles won.
Before last Tuesday, that would’ve been unremarkable — for weeks, months even, talking heads had been anointing Johnson as the “best closer in baseball,” which is always a dangerous mantle for someone not named Mariano Rivera to wear for very long. A week ago, of course, that talk subsided for the time being when for the first time in 36 save attempts (dating back to last year), Jim Johnson blew one.
Then he blew another one. And a third on Monday. And suddenly there was a whole lot of concern in Baltimore and beyond about Jim Johnson and his job security; a lot of talk about whether or not newly-minted shutdown reliever Brian Matusz should take over his job. None of that was really serious of course, at least not at this point. No manager is so insane he’d make such a change based on three bad appearances, as poor as they were, and especially not one so conservative with his pitchers as Buck Showalter.
The thing with Johnson is that he’s not as good as 35 saves in a row looks, nor is he as bad as 3 blown saves in a row looks. He’s always relied on bad contact and keeping balls in play on the ground rather than striking batters out, which is somewhat mystifying when you look at his velocity and the movement he can put on his fastball — my personal theory from watching him the past few years is that as a sinkerball pitcher, sometimes he seems to have problems throwing anything in the upper half of the strike zone, and when he elevates a fastball he elevates it so high that the batter can immediately lay off of it for a ball. Normally that’s not too much of a big deal, unless he loses his feel for the lower part of the zone and starts spiking the ball into the dirt like he has the past three games.
Regardless of the specific “why,” it’s more likely than not that the spike in his strikeout rate at the beginning of this season is an outlier rather than a light going on or a switch being flipped — the volatility of relievers works its magic just as surely on their peripherals as it does on their ERAs. And as the cooler heads in and around Baltimore have said during Johnson’s down stretch — and as that excitable section of the Orioles fanbase crying to the heavens for someone, anyone to save them from this plague upon their mound had to know somewhere past their rage, justified as it was when it led to another humiliating defeat at the hands of the Yankees a few days ago — Jim Johnson, like a whole bunch of late inning guys in baseball, isn’t as good as he looks when he’s good, and isn’t as bad as he looks when he’s bad.