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The Orioles New Closer: Jim Johnson

The trade deadline has come and gone and while much more sexy trades have been made, I find it more than appropriate to investigate one of the biggest winners of the trade deadline: Jim Johnson, the new closer for the Orioles.

Johnson has enjoyed an effective, but quiet season with a 3.17 ERA and 2 saves. His peripheral numbers of a 6.4 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 are both quite solid, but not that impressive when you consider the fact that Johnson can reach the upper nineties with his fastball.   His pedestrian strikeout rate, for a reliever, was cause for him up until this past week to possibly be available in many AL only leagues and most, if not every, mixed league. Now, of course, he is on everyone's radars and if he is still somehow available he will likely cost you upwards of $30 in AL only leagues and at least into the teens in mixed competition.

If you are in the chase for your league title and are in a position where you need to chase saves, then you just have to pay the piper. For the rest of us who either not chasing saves or not in the hunt, we can take a bit more of a pause and consider what Johnson's long-term potential is and whether or not he is a viable long-term closer candidate.

As I mentioned above, this Endicott, NY native throws serious gas and has averaged over 94 mph this season, up a full mph from last year, and can touch the upper nineties. He also uses a curve and a changeup approximately 21|PERCENT| of the time.  The curve has long been considered a plus pitch and his changeup workable as well. The Major issue that separates him from becoming a better strikeout pitcher is the consistency of his two secondary pitches.
While Johnson may not be the strikeout pitcher typically preferred for closer-duties, he does do something else well that most power pitching strikeout machine relievers do not do well – throw ground-balls. Johnson has a career 1.9 GB/FB ratio and 54.9|PERCENT| groundball rate including a 51.4|PERCENT| mark this season. Note, however, that as he has improved his K/9 from a 5.0 last season, his GB/FB rates have fallen off as he has become less reliant on pitching to contact, but is still for the most part, a ground-ball pitcher who needs a good infield defense behind him.

My remaining concerns deal with a suppressed BABIP of .278 and a lob|PERCENT| of over 80|PERCENT|. Both are strong indicators of some level of regression to the mean as the season wears on, though I do tend to give strikeout pitchers some leeway in the former category and closers in the latter given the situations they come into  pitch.  In this situation, considering he is not a plus strikeout pitcher, he does not get as much leeway in my mind and that is compounded by the fact that he is a ground-ball pitcher as they, by their nature, tend to have higher BABIP's than fly-ball pitchers. Furthermore, related to his BABIP is his career 15.5|PERCENT| line drive rate. This is rather low when compared in contrast to other veteran pitchers, including top tier closers, and given his current level of strikeout skills, does not appear to be maintainable.

So overall, Johnson has a good arm and secondary stuff with potential. He has shown signs of improvement in terms of his velocity and his K/9 over the course of his first two full seasons in the Majors. At the same time certain indicators, as I have pointed out, raise questions about his ability to continue to be as effective as he has been this season without further improvement. Right now Johnson may be the best option the Orioles have to close, but unless he makes further improvements, he strikes me as more of a setup man. I would continue to keep an eye on former closer Chris Rayand recent call-up Kam Mickolio as well as long-term options to succeed him though as an aside,Danys Baezmight be a more likely short-term replacement, though not based on skill or talent, but on experience.