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Josh Johnson Is A Padre, And I'm Okay With It

Padres sign a pitcher with a good pedigree coming off the worst season of his career. What can they look forward to?

J. Meric

There has been a lot of excitement lately about the signing of Josh Johnson. I do not want to tell anyone not to get excited, but I do want to to share some pros and cons about the Padres' latest signing. First the pros. Here are some Josh Johnson stat lines from 2009 and 2010:

Year Wins Losses ERA G GS IP FIP xFIP fWAR bWAR
2009 15 5 3.23 33 33 209 3.06 3.51 5.5 6.6
2010 11 6 2.30 28 28 183.2 2.41 3.36 6.1 7.2

Great stuff. Ace level performances. He was an All Star both seasons and finished 5th in the Cy Young voting in 2010. It is extremely unlikely the Padres are getting that Josh Johnson. One of the main things that will prevent the new signing from reaching those heights are injuries.

In 2010, he made his final start on September 4. He was shelved that season due to back pain. In 2011, he only made 9 starts because he had right shoulder inflammation that plagued him all year. In 2012, he stayed healthy, but there was a definite decline in his stuff (more on that later). In 2013, he spent time on the disabled list with a right triceps injury and inflammation in his elbow. When the season was over he had surgery on his right elbow to remove bone spurs. And all of this is just since his two great All Star seasons. Before that, in 2007, he had Tommy John surgery.

I always hesitate to call anyone injury prone, but Johnson's injury history is certainly lengthy. In some ways it reminds me of 2008 Padres signee and former All Star Randy Wolf, who needed to a healthy season to restart his career. He had that in San Diego. He was not very good with the Friars, but went on to have good performances in Houston, Los Angeles and Milwaukee. That anecdote gives us pause as well as hope.

The hope that he is an All Star level ace though should be packed away. Instead what may be the hope is a repeat of his 2012 season, his final one with the Marlins. That was the season I mentioned as showing a decline in his stuff. However, even with that it was not a bad one. Here are his 2012 and 2013 numbers side-by-side:

Year Wins Losses ERA G GS IP FIP xFIP fWAR bWAR
2012 8 14
3.81 31 31 191.1 3.40 3.73 3.5 3.3
2013 2
16 16
81.1 4.62 3.58 0.5

You see? Nothing about that 2012 line looks bad except all the losses accumulated playing on a bad Marlins team. He was able to pull off a season like that despite (when compared to 2009-2010 numbers) a drop in K% (strikeouts per batter faced), an increase in BB% (walks per batter faced), a drop in average fastball velocity (from about ~95 MPH to 92.8 MPH) and close to a 50% drop in the overall value of each of his pitches (fastball, slider, changeup). I included 2011 in the accompanying table for completeness' sake, but keep in mind he only made 9 starts that season:

Year K% BB% Avg Fastball Velocity (MPH) Fastball Value (Runs above avg) Slider Value Changeup Value
2009 22.3 6.8 94.9 20.3 9 4.7
2010 25 6.5 94.7 18.3 8.5 0.7
2011 23.9 8.6 94.0 9.1 7.7 0.8
2012 20.7 8.2 92.8 7.9 4.7 -4.6
2013 21.6 7.8 92.9 -12.6 -3.9 -4.6

Considering that 2012 was as close to a healthy season as Josh Johnson has seen in the last 3 years, it would seem to indicate that would be his best possible outcome for any future healthy seasons. His 2013 season was not a healthy one and involved elbow troubles which certainly would affect one's performance. So, it is reasonable to try to hand wave that major blip away and hope for something better. You can peruse the internets and find a couple of different places where people will do just that using statistics (look at that sexy xFIP) and anecdotes (it's a mechanical issue, totally fixable, just needs better coaching than the Jays had).

The next question is, does a 2012-like season provide value to the Padres? Why yes, it does. That 3.3 to 3.5 WAR season (or if you hate the WAR moniker you can say Wins+ like SBN's own Rob Neyer) would be extremely useful to the Padres. That would be more valuable than the top performers on the the 2011, 2012 and 2013 staffs. The last Padres pitcher to cross the 3 WAR threshold was Mat Latos (2011 by fWAR, 2010 by fWAR and bWAR). It's not an ace level, all star caliber performance (at least 40 pitchers reached 3 WAR last year), but it might just look like it on the Padres roster.

I have yet to mention the dollars involved here. One year, $8M. For comparison purposes, Ervin Santana was essentially a 3 WAR pitcher last season (as well as in 2006, 2010 and 2011) and had some down years as well (2012, 2009 and 2007). He cost the Kansas City Royals $12 million (plus the Angels paid an addition $1 million of his salary) and his looking for a multiyear contract. When you put Johnson's deal against that one, you can start to understand why some would call it a steal.

Here's hoping that the Padres beleaguered training staff can keep Johnson healthy and see the rotation upgrade that he has the potential to be.

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