The Marlins pulled ace Josh Johnson after five innings and 89 pitches for the second start in a row last night versus the Washington Nationals. In JJ’s previous start, also versus the Nats, Johnson finished the fifth inning with 82 pitches but was also pulled. Some thought there was injury involved, but the team has said it’s nothing of the sort, and other than some longer than usual counts, I don’t think so either. JJ’s start two starts back versus the Nats was uncharacteristic, but last night’s game was solid JJ. He struggled a bit more with his command, hence issuing a rather high four walks. However, he also struck out eight Nationals, inducing 10 whiffs in the process. Of the ten balls in play, JJ kept it six on the ground and did not allow a line drive (according to Retrosheet), although he did let through an Adam Dunn homer. It was one of JJ’s more mediocre starts, but it was still a damn good one.
No, JJ was not injured or ineffective. In fact, it appears the Marlins have begun the plan to prevent him from getting injured or ineffective.
“[Eighty nine] pitches in five innings, at this stage in the season, you have to keep an eye on him,” [Marlins manager Fredi] Gonzalez said. “It’s a concern, and the guy has over 188 innings and has never done it coming off surgery. You have to be aware of those situations.”
Yes, it appears that the Marlins have made Johnson’s new pitch count limit around 80 pitches. It seems like they’re still trying to get him into the fifth inning to line him up for a win. Fredi Gonzalez mentions that Johnson had never gone up this many innings and never done it after surgery, all of which are very true. If you’re a big fan of the Verducci Effect, named after Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci, you’d agree that a combination of having pitched way more than 30 innings more than the previous year and having been out much of that previous year with Tommy John surgery would constitute a major pitching risk the following year.
But from the way speaks about it, you’d think he isn’t bothered at all.
The Marlins’ ace was consistently between 95-97 mph on his fastball throughout his entire outing. And even though he’s already surpassed his previous career-high of 157 innings in 2006 by 31 1/3 frames, Johnson said his arm “feels great.”
And he wanted to be out there.
“Absolutely I want to be out there,” said Johnson, who pitched 87 1/3 Major League innings coming off Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery last year. “That’s just the competitor I am, but there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s nothing I’m going to say that’s going to change their mind.
“I understand where they’re coming from, but at the same time, I want to be out there. If we lose the game, I want it to be on me. Not to go to the bullpen that early. But there’s just nothing I can do about it.”
Obviously, he’s not going to say to the media, “Yeah, I’m tired, they should pull me, because I don’t think I can compete and help the team at this stage in the season.” That would sound extremely odd. My guess is that Johnson is extremely competitive and wants to be out there helping his team, especially given that the club is in the back end of a playoff race, however one-sided that race probably is.
It’s an interesting situation for the Marlins coaching staff and front office. With 21 games back, Johnson is likely in line for another four starts after last night’s. Those are four possible wins for the Marlins that Johnson can provide, and if the team wants to stay in contention, they’ll need every win they can get. Obviously, Johnson gives us the best chance for victory.
However, at the same time, the Marlins should be careful with Johnson’s workload. Outside of Hanley Ramirez, JJ is the franchise’s most prominent player, and I’m certain the team is thinking about a deal to at least buy out his arbitration years along with perhaps two of his free agent seasons. If the club is indeed thinking about an extension, it would obviously be in the best interest of both parties involved for Johnson to be careful this season and temper his work.
The Marlins are in this sort of predicament because the Marlins are on the very fringes of the playoff race. Coolstandings.com as of today has the Marlins at a 5% chance of winning the division and a 1.2% chance of winning the Wild Card. That’s only 6.1% of their chances, but given what has previously occurred in the NL East in terms of division races, most fans figure even 5.5 games back is perfectly possible. So the Fish have a miniscule chance at winning a playoff spot in a realistic sense, but from a fan’s perspective the team is still well in the race, especially since the team has the Philadelphia Phillies for six games during the remaining 21 games. The Marlins brass does not want to disappoint by showing that they’ve given up on the season, even though realistically they could. However, they also don’t want to risk Johnson’s health. Which is more important?
The answer, of course, is Johnson. The team has said before that if the club was close (and I presume that would mean around two or three back) the club would go all out with their staff. But the odds are pretty slim for the Marlins, and the team still needs to focus on the future, as terrible as that may sound to the fans. But if the Fish really are interested in getting Johnson to stay with the team for another four years, it will be extremely important that he recovers fully from surgery and remains as healthy as he’s appeared this season. It’s a must that the team limit his innings; as painful as losses like last night’s were, it would be infinitely more painful if we lost Johnson for a year after inking him to a potential deal.