2011 Marlins Season Preview: Johnson, the ace


Now that the hitters are covered entirely, it is time for Marlin Maniac to transition into coverage of the pitchers on the team. The Marlins made a move this offseason to strengthen the rotation, but its primary strength remains in its ace, right-hander Josh Johnson.

Depth Chart

1. Josh Johnson

Johnson had another stellar year following his 2009 full-season return from Tommy John surgery. After posting 209 innings with a 3.23 ERA to go along with a 3.06 FIP in 2009, Johnson took it a step further in 2010, recording a 2.30 ERA that corresponded quite well with his 2.46 FIP. He achieved those numbers through a variety of means, starting first with his best strikeout rate of his career. Johnson struck out 25.0 percent of the batters he faced, a career high that continued a two-year trend of increased strikeout rates since his late-season return from the surgery in 2008. Along with that increase in strikeouts came a slight decrease in walks, down to 6.4 percent of batters faced, also the lowest rate of his career and also continuing a (slightly less pronounced) three-year trend. The trifecta of pitching excellence concluded with the lowest home run rate of Johnson’s career as well; he allowed only seven home runs in 183 2/3 innings, the lowest home run rate among qualified starters in all of baseball.

The strikeouts and walks were both excellent and mostly believable, though we would expect to see some regression going into 2011. However, the home runs do feel like a bit of an anomaly. Johnson posted a 3.15 xFIP (xFIP is calculated like FIP, accounting for strikeouts and walks, but uses fly balls as an estimate for the number of home runs that should have been allowed given the league average HR/FB rate), which still ranked him fourth among starters last season but was more than half a run higher than either his ERA or FIP. Some of that can be chalked up to good luck, especially when you consider Johnson’s success at preventing homers in Sun Life Stadium (2.2 percent HR/FB rate in 2010 at home), but some of it can also be contributed to skill as a pitcher. Since 2008, Johnson owns the fourth best HR/FB rate in baseball among starters with at least 400 innings at 6.5 percent, and he has posted marks below his previous career standard of around 9.0 percent each of the past two seasons. Other names among the list of leaders in that regard include some of the game’s best pitchers such as Cliff Lee, Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw, and Ubaldo Jimenez. That should not surprise anyone; when looking at the best pitchers in baseball, it would not surprise most fans to see that they excel in some method of preventing home runs on fly balls, likely due to their pitch location or raw stuff and movement. Johnson must be exhibiting some semblance of skill in preventing home runs that is not going to be captured by xFIP.

Having said that, we would expect more regression in terms of home runs than we would in the other categories, and the projection systems reflect that likelihood. Both ZiPS and PECOTA are projecting Johnson to allow around 0.5 home runs per nine innings, which represents a number closer to his three-year average rather than his 2010 season. To put that in persepctive, such a rate would have added almost three more home runs to Johnson’s tally in 2010, likely yielding a little less than four additional runs to the righty’s season total. Assuming they were all earned, those runs would have bumped Johnson’s ERA to 2.49 from 2.30. Combined with a slight regression in strikeouts and walks and we get this sort of projection for Johnson in 2011.

Projection: 190 IP, 5.9 WAR

This is based on my simple projection, but it matches what ZiPS appears to think of Johnson’s game. PECOTA is less optimistic, projecting a 3.27 ERA and a 3.36 FIP due to a slightly higher home run rate and an increased walk rate. Nevertheless, the projections are optimistic enough to claim that Johnson’s ERA should be between 2.87 and 3.30, which is more than believable given his three-year track ERA of 2.94; the distribution around that three-year number looks just about right.

However, my projection of 190 innings is the questionable aspect. Johnson is slated to be the ace of the staff and make the most starts on the team, but only once has Johnson surpassed the 200-inning barrier and made more than 30 starts in a season. In 2009, he began suffering from right shoulder soreness at the tail end of the season, and though he did not miss any starts, he also was less effective than he had previously shown. During 2010, apparently Johnson was struggling with a lower back strain from sometime in July into the end of the year. The combination of back problems and a reoccurrence of shoulder soreness forced the Marlins to shut Johnson down for the end of the season. Simply put, none of these signs bode well for Johnson putting up a full, healthy season on the mound, and it is almost certain that he will miss two to four starts in 2011 for various injuries.

Fantasy baseball fans have heard these concerns and have voiced them in their drafts. Despite Johnson’s elite status as one of the top five or six starters in the game, he has fallen in drafts because of concerns that he will miss significant time this season. Fantasy baseball nerds (and I use that term endearingly, as I too am one) are usually on top of their game in terms of injuries, and these concerns may be real. Marlins fans should be watching carefully during Spring Training and at the start of the 2011 season; much of Johnson’s problems that eventually led his Tommy John surgery began as inflammation, tenderness, or soreness in his elbow. Similarly, Anibal Sanchez‘s problems with his shoulder began early before the 2007 season with shoulder inflammation before eventually leading to his labrum surgery. These little signs could lead to big problems, and Marlins fans should be aware and cautiously optimistic about this situation heading into the 2011 season.