Fish Cap: Johnson flirts with no-hitter, dazzles versus Braves


This relatively serene image of an easy-going 5-1 victory for the Florida Marlins over the Atlanta Braves does not highlight what turned out to be one of the more dominating pitching performances to start the season. Josh Johnson had a marvelous performance on the mound, going 7 1/3 innings and giving up a lone hit amidst nine strikeouts and one walk. He was five outs away from a complete-game no-hitter, but given his pitch count there was certainly question as to whether he would stick around throughout the entire game. Nevertheless, the fact that he gave up an otherwise meaningless double to Freddie Freeman in the eighth inning should not take away from how strong a performance he had last night.

Johnson, the dominator

Josh Johnson was at the top of his game last evening in every aspect. The nine strikeouts were no fluke; Johnson recorded a whopping 16 whiffs in his 109 pitches. Those 16 whiffs came out of 51 total swings, giving Johnson a very impressive 31.3 percent whiff rate for the game. The majority of swings and misses came off of his slider, as he recorded 12 whiffs out of 30 total sliders. Twenty of those 30 sliders were swung at, and 12 resulted in whiffs, meaning Johnson was making right-handers look foolish with his strikeout pitch. As is often the case with Johnson however, he was unafraid to throw a usually same-side dominant pitch to opposing lefties as well as righties. Johnson tossed 12 of his 30 sliders to left-handed batters, an almost even distribution which reflects the left-leaning Braves lineup. However, the success was still there, although a bit more muted for obvious reasons; Johnson got two called strikes and three swinging strikes among the 12 sliders thrown to the opposite-handed hitters.

Johnson’s location chart was certainly intriguing.

Johnson made a conscious effor to avoid the middle of the zone, primarily going there on the first pitch. Much of his work was done on the edges, and he did a very good job of picking his spots for the most part. There were a lot of in-zone swings and misses (seven by my count), meaning that even if Johnson was missing with his slider he was still fooling Braves hitters. The higher swinging strikes were undoubtedly due to his live fastball, which was averaging 93.5 mph throughout the evening.

The upshots of that graph, representing his fastball velocity, remained mostly static throughout the game. Despite the pitch count, Johnson did not appear to be tiring all that much. He was basically strong throughout the start, which is a great accomplishment given a good Braves lineup with a decent mix of lefty and righty hitters.

The curveball

This was an oddity to see on the pitch chart.

*Click to embiggen

At first blush, this does sort of look like a Pitch f/x classification issue. However, if you just based it on the pitch’s average speed and movement type, it does appear to be a curveball, something Johnson has not thrown but a handful of times in the majors. Add in the fact that Joe Frisaro reported that he did indeed throw a curve or five last night, and you have a potentially new weapon in the hands of Johnson. The early results on the curve were mixed; he got two called strikes and four balls on the pitch, leading to a positive run expectancy for hitters, but the details right now are not relevant. Essentially, Johnson was debuting the pitch to keep hitters guessing, and it may indeed have helped his other pitches. Now Johnson can work at multiple speeds, with his mid-90’s fastball complemented by two devastating mid 80’s pitches, his slider and changeup, and a high 70’s curve with completely different movement.

Should he stay in?

Had Johnson continued to dominate and carried the no-hitter into the ninth inning, should he have stayed in the game? It’s one of those things where a lot of factors are in play:

1) Is the high pitch count going to adversely affect Johnson in this game?

2) Is the high pitch count going to adversely affect the Marlins in this game?

3) Is the high pitch count going to adversely affect  Johnson after this game?

4) Is the history of getting a no-hitter on your own worth all of these potential problems?

It is up to the pitcher and the coaching staff to decide, but I do have my own opinions. I think it would have depended on how smoothly the Marlins handled the eighth inning. Johnson got away with seven pitches for the seventh inning, but would have thrown at least four for the eighth. If he went up to 120 pitches by the end of the eighth, I don’t think it would have been wise to send Johnson out. Generally, 120 pitches has been the upper limit of starters in recent years, though that may be due to more care being taken with regards to pitchers.

This decision would have been a difficult, if not impossible one to make. The pitcher definitely wants to go out there and finish the job and would never admit that he was fatigued when staring a potential no-hitter in the face. But the Marlins have to watch out for the short- and long-term effects of sending Johnson out again. In the short-term, it’s unlikely to affect the Fish in this particular game; they would have been up at least five runs with little risk of losing. The long-term health of Johnson would have been the question, and it’s a question I really couldn’t answer.

What do you Maniacs think? If Johnson had 120 pitches on him and the no-hitter was intact in the ninth, what would be your course of action? Tell me in the comments section!