Jim Johnson is a unique closer. He doesn’t overpower hitters with upper 90s fastballs, instead he makes his fielders work by forcing ground ball outs with a hard sinker.
At the end of April, Orioles fans witnessed what happened when a hard throwing relief pitcher lost his command. Pedro Strop went into a tailspin and put runners on base via walks and hit batsmen. Over his last two outings, Johnson has suffered the same fate due to a lack of control.
JJ threw 32 pitches and recorded just one out in the top of the ninth against the Rays on Saturday. He surrendered three hits and was charged with five earned runs, a blown save and his fourth loss of the season. I watched the implosion on TV, read some horribly dumb tweets about it and then watched it again several hours later on MLB.tv.
Just like his blown save on May 14 against the Padres, Johnson struggled to hit Matt Wieters‘s target behind the plate. The PITCHf/x data over at BrooksBaseball.net reveals inconsistencies in Johnson’s release point. If you look at some of his saves earlier this season, Johnson finds a common area to let go of the ball in his delivery. He was all of out whack on Saturday.
Luke Jackson over at BaltimoreSportsandLife.com took some screenshots of the balls that Kelly Johnson, Desmond Jennings and Matt Joyce put into play and credited the Rays hitters for making good contact on quality pitches. Jackson chalked up Johnson’s night to “baseball” and just getting beat by the opposition.
I respectfully disagree.
Kelly Johnson did put a good swing on Jim’s fifth pitch of the at-bat. But Jim Johnson left it belt-high on the outer part of the plate. I’m sure if you asked JJ, he’d tell you that pitch was supposed to be lower in the zone.
After walking the next two batters, Johnson left his fifth pitch against Desmond Jennings up and inside for a single that loaded the bases. His release point on that particularly pitch was higher than we’re used to seeing.
Then Matt Joyce really frustrated the O’s closer when he hit one of his few good sinkers to right center and drove in two.
I can’t chalk up JJ’s blown save to quality hitting by the Rays when I watched him throw numerous pitches in the dirt and keep his sinker up high in the strike zone. Anytime Johnson throws less than half of his pitches for strikes, you know there’s a problem.
Command remains the issue for Johnson and until he finds that consistent release point again, he’ll be knocked around by hitters who don’t mind pitches up in the zone (all of them).