Solving The Orioles Closer Controversy

Jim JohnsonJim Johnson leads the league in both saves (29) and in blown saves (6). On Friday, he blew one of his worst opportunities of the year as the Yankees walked off 3-2 winners after the Orioles entered the bottom of the ninth up 2-1 in the Bronx.

It hasn’t been an easy season for the 2012 saves leader. Johnson’s WHIP has jumped from 1.019 in 71 games in 2012 to 1.314 in 43 games in 2013. His K/BB ratio has dipped from 2.73 in 2012 compared to his 2.29 mark this season.

In watching Johnson this season, I assumed that he was throwing more pitches per appearance this season given his WHIP increase. Right now he’s throwing just slightly over one more pitch than he did in 2012: 14.39 pitches per appearance last year, 15.48 this season.

The stat that jumps off the page is the BABIP against Johnson. In 2012, he held hitters to a .252 BABIP, that has jumped to .310 this season. Part of the increased BABIP has to do with Johnson’s ground ball percentage falling this season. Last year 62.3 percent of his outs were recorded via the ground ball (a career high), that’s fallen to 54.2 percent. His GB/FB ratio has dipped from 2.93 to 2.13.

We’ve talked all season, both here on BSR and on our podcast, about Johnson being a pitch to contact pitcher. There’s so little room for error when you’re a guy that depends on ground balls. Now that he’s not getting them, the Orioles are faced with a unique challenge.

It’s my opinion that Johnson needs to a change, he shouldn’t be closing games for the Orioles for the time being. His pitch command has suffered confidence appears to be faltering as a result.

Everyone seems to have a different answer for the Orioles closer issue. Some folks have demanded that the Orioles call Brian Wilson, who has remained off the field after his second Tommy John surgery. If a team thought Wilson could help them, he’d be on a roster by now. Even Jose Valverde has been given chances this season.

Others have written that Kevin Gausman should get a shot to close and cited David Price‘s rookie season as the blue print. Price never closed in the regular season, in fact he only pitched in the eighth once before being given the ball in the postseason as the Rays’ hot hand. Price and Gausman had two completely different paths to the big leagues.

Tommy Hunter is probably next in line for the job, but I’d still rather see Buck Showalter go with a closer by committee for the time being. The closer’s role is an incredibly over rated one and one that I believe baseball pays entirely too much attention to. Go with the match ups for now and help Johnson get back his confidence.

 

Zach Wilt is the Founding Editor of BaltimoreSportsReport.com and host of the BSR Podcast. He's a loyal Orioles, Ravens and Capitals fan who is obsessed with baseball, loves traveling, In-N-Out Burger and Walt Disney World.

7 Comments

  1. TimM

    July 6, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    For the most part with Mariano Rivera being an exception and Papelbon while he was in Boston, year in and year out you cannot name most team’s closers, it least I cannot. So many teams go through changes with that role in the bullpen. It’s not like a team’s star position player who you know is going to be there a while like Adam Jones or Nick Markakis. It doesn’t seem to me that the position for closer is very secure at all around the league.

    Maybe there is a reason for it, here you have a pitcher who lead the league in saves with only few gaffs to show for it, as expendable as closers seem to be, that’s certainly nothing to scoff at. Yet this season it doesn’t quite feel so “automatic” when JJ takes the hill lately. I’m hoping that will change soon. The Orioles have proven that they can hang with every contending team they’ve faced this season. I just hope that the Orioles can put themselves in a position where saves are being blown, particularly on the road where they don’t get another 3 outs to bat with if they give up the lead in the 9th. You never know if you might wind up needing JJ in a series deciding game if the Orioles make the post-season again.

    Whatever it takes, I’d like to see JJ get back to form, but I will respect Showalter’s decision. Not that long ago, Orioles fans would be almost happy having this kind of predicament due to the Orioles being a contending team.

  2. Willo

    July 7, 2013 at 7:21 am

    Not for nothing but last year when JJ became the closer after Kevin Gregg imploded, most people that I talk sports to said that JJ would not last due to exactly what you stated…too much contact. Lets face it the guy was good and lucky in 2012. Prior to 2012, he had 21 saves in 6 seasons. We said it in May but with each save he accumulated it kinda dropped off the things to talk about. Guess what the old JJ resurfaced in 2013…trouble is the O’s were not looking at trends and therefore did not have a back up plan, so it is what it is. Rauch was a viable option who the O’s recently let go? Trouble is Buck believes in the 2012 JJ when the realty is the real guy might be the 2011 guy who has an above average sinker that puts the ball in play…unfortunately too often in 2013.

  3. spy

    July 7, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Let’s be honest , except for Papplebon , Rivera , Raditz and Eckersly the average fan can’t name many ‘stoppers’,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,Honestly if your stopper was consistently good he would be a starter , that’s why the turnover rate is so high,,,most of them are pretty good until the league gets it’s book on them then they tend to faulter,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,next man up , as they say………………

  4. birdbrain

    July 7, 2013 at 10:17 am

    Closers have a very short shelf life. The Mariano Riveras are the rare exception. Most blow their arm out or lose their effectiveness after 2 or 3 years. In 2010, these were the top closers in MLB Brian Wilson, Heath Bell, Francisco Cordero, Billy Wagner, Rafael Soriano,, Mariano Rivera, Jose Valverde, Matt Capps, Kevin Gregg, John Papelbon. How many are still effective 3 years later.

  5. Ben

    July 7, 2013 at 10:21 am

    More and more I’m seeing articles that claim a tie between BABIP and ground ball percentage, and many of them have the same massive, fundamental misunderstanding: ground balls lead to a HIGH BABIP, not a LOWER one. Hitters’ BABIP on fly balls is much lower than ground balls. Ground balls are difficult outs because they involve three steps: fielder fielding the ball, fielder throwing the ball, second fielder catching the ball.

    Now line drives have the highest BABIP, so if the tradeoff were ground balls for line drives, that would explain it. But that’s not totally the case. JJ’s line drive percentage is up, but so is his fly ball percentage. A four percent uptick in line drives accompanied by a four percent uptick in fly balls does not come anywhere remotely close to explaining a 60 percent uptick in BABIP. Most of that lies in simple regression. It was absurd for a guy who gets 60%+ ground balls to have a BABIP of .252. Johnson had the 32nd lowest BABIP in the majors last year (of pitchers with at least 50 innings), and only one of the pitchers ahead of him had a higher GB%. Look at the top groundball pitchers in MLB, and you will see BABIPs all over the place, with plenty sitting in the .280-.300 range and a number (like Zach Britton and his 60.8 FB%) over .300.

    So no, the lower GB% does not explain his struggles or his BABIP. The BABIP is just regression, which was inevitable and is why the ‘pitch to contact’ strategy is mostly a stupid one, especially for a reliever. It’s one thing for a starter to pound sinkers early in the count and try to get some outs while limiting big extra base hits (which is the real benefit of grounders…it’s not that they turn into outs, it’s that they don’t turn into extra bases). But a closer should strike people out and not walk people.

    Which brings us to the most obvious explanation for JJ’s struggles. He’s walking too many people.

    • Ravens2488

      July 7, 2013 at 5:13 pm

      WTF?

    • spy

      July 8, 2013 at 8:59 am

      Ben , you need to do something else,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,you are getting out of hand bro………………