On April 12, the Orioles made arguably their most productive move of the season, regardless of whether or not they had any idea it would work out that way. They optioned infielder Scott Moore to the minors and recalled 24-yr old pitcher Jim Johnson. Johnson, a starter in the minor leagues, had made two “audition” starts for the Orioles in 2006 and 2007, racking up the undesirable line of 5 IP, 12 H, 10 ER, 5 BB, 1 K. His minor league numbers suggested he was better than that and, since making his 2008 debut on April 13, he has been a key component on an its-surprising-they-aren’t-thirty-games-under-.500 team.
Johnson also stakes claim as the highest-ranked reliever with both a 1.85 WPA/LI and 2.15 REW. Relative to context-neutral wins and wins based on shifts in run expectancy, there has not been a more productive relief pitcher to this date. His overall numbers this year: 43 G, 57.1 IP, 34 H, 24 BB, 30 K. He has also surrendered 12 earned runs on the year, four of which came in one outing in the last couple of weeks.
His 3.30 FIP suggests an ERA of 1.88 has not necessarily been born out of his controllable skillset and, amongst relievers with at least 40.0 IP, his ERA-FIP differential ranks tenth in baseball. The higher FIP is also a direct result of his low strikeout rates and relatively high walk rates. While giving out 3.77 free passes every nine innings won’t lose a reliever his job, especially when comparing him to his peers, the 4.71 K/9 is, at least right now, a bit of a red flag. Looking at the same group of relievers with forty or more innings tossed, his K/9 is the fifth lowest, as is his K/BB. Due to only 34 hits allowed, though, his WHIP is currently a tremendous 1.01.
The question should then become, well, if he doesn’t strike anyone out and his walk rate isn’t that impressive, how has he managed to produce an extremely respectable 3.30 FIP? The answer: he has not given up a home run yet this year. In 43 games, not one ball has left the yard in fair territory after sailing from his hand to the batter’s box. In fact, he is the only reliever with forty or more innings not to serve up a gopher ball this year.
In the minors he had decent but not overwhelming numbers, but his 93-94 mph fastball and 78 mph curveball combination has definitely more than gotten the job done to this point in his first full year in the big leagues. He has only given up, as mentioned, 34 hits this year but his BABIP is a ridiculously low .205. Either Jim Johnson is going to emerge as the elitest of relievers or this is going to regress from here on out. His strand rate of 78% is high but nowhere near the likes of Joe Nathan and his companions atop the leaderboard.
He isn’t allowing a ton of baserunners primarily because balls put in play haven’t been falling in for hits as much. If/when that regresses we can expect the BABIP and WHIP to rise. Though his strand rate isn’t ridiculously high, it is well above average and, if sustainable, will help prevent some of these “new” baserunners from scoring. Regardless, even if or when his numbers do worsen, it won’t mask how effective he has been this year or make us forget that at the end of July he was one of baseball’s most effective relievers. It will take another year or two to know his true talent level but that does not take anything away from his productivity.