Looking deeper into Jim Johnson's command issues

Jim Johnson's sixth blown save – which ties him with setup man James Russell of the Chicago Cubs for the major league lead – on Friday night in the Bronx was particularly painful to watch.

That's partially because Johnson did much of the damage to himself. He made a costly error on a routine sacrifice bunt. And he issued a four-pitch walk that tied the game.


Johnson was beating himself up after the game for the error. And that's typical Johnson. But, frankly, errors happen. Johnson's a good fielder; he made a mistake, really because he was trying to get the lead runner instead of concentrating on making the play and getting the sure out. The next 10 times Johnson's faced with that play, he'll probably get the out nine times, at least.

Unfortunately, you can't be so sure about him not repeating the other maddening part of his outing in Friday's 3-2 loss to the Yankees: not throwing strikes.


Johnson already has 14 walks this season in 43 games and 40 1/3 innings this year (yes, he's had that much usage; last year, when he converted 51 of 54 saves, he pitched in 68 2/3 innings and 71 games; but that's a point for another day).

Through all of last year, Johnson walked 15 batters. He's nearly matched that and we're not at the All-Star break yet.

The woes are a little more complicated than elevated walk totals, though. Johnson is most effective when he gets hitters chasing stuff outside of the strike zone, when he gets hitters to bite on his breaking stuff or his darting two-seamer and they roll over for groundouts.

But if the batter isn't on the defensive, Johnson, who doesn't throw as hard as most closers, is much more hittable.

And so, in essence, Johnson needs to attack and get ahead of hitters.  When he doesn't, he is much more apt to run into trouble.

On Friday night, Johnson faced six batters. Two bunted on the first pitch, so throw those plate appearances out because those hitters were trying to make outs. One was intentionally walked, so punt that one, too, because Johnson wasn't trying to throw a strike.

That leaves three other batters in the ninth. Johnson threw a first-pitch ball to all three. One walked; two singled; ballgame.

Heading into Friday, Johnson had started 67 plate appearances with a 1-0 count and 84 with a 0-1 count (18 put the ball in play on the first pitch). When Johnson was ahead 0-1, hitters had a .213 average and .298 on-base percentage against him. When he was down 1-0, they had a .291 average and .381 on-base percentage.


Last year, batters hit .209 with a .235 on-base percentage against Johnson after he was 0-1 in the count. But they hit an incomprehensible .198 with a .296 on-base last year when he was down 1-0.

Conclusion: He had better overall control last year and could still make hitters do what he wanted when he was down early. But that's not the case this year. Last year, Johnson went to a 2-0 count to 45 batters, and only 18 reached base (nine hits, nine walks). This year, he's done it 29 times already and 18 of those batters have reached base (10 hits, eight walks). So he's allowed as many base runners after 2-0 counts this year as he did in all of 2012.

It's a pretty simple concept for any pitcher, but even more so for Johnson given his repertoire and role. He needs to throw strikes early.   
"The thing with Jim is getting strike one is most important because once you get strike one, they're going to have to expand, try and swing at your tough pitches," said catcher Matt Wieters. "And, right now, they're just in hitters' counts when they can lay off those tough pitches. So strike one will be big for him, and he'll be ready to go."

I don't see manager Buck Showalter going away from Johnson in ninth-inning situations right now. He has too much faith/trust in his closer. And certainly, Johnson is trying to throw strikes.
   But if he continues to have trouble getting ahead, he's just not going to be as effective as he and the fans demand. Simple as that.

And that will lead to more games, and losses, like Friday night.