Jim Johnson has had a rough start to his stint with the Oakland Athletics, compliling an 0-2 record and a 18.90 ERA in 5 games and 3.1 IP. In the media, Johnson has said he doesn’t know what’s wrong and wishes he had some answers. The answer is simple. He’s throwing too many balls, getting behind in the count and hitters are jumping on him.
Command is tricky. A pitcher wants the baseball to move in order to deceive the batter, but move to where it still is considered a strike, or where it is swung at and missed. Jim Johnson doesn’t have swing and miss “stuff”. He is a sinker ball pitcher, which means he relies on contact to get outs most of the time. If his command is off and he falls behind in the count, then his pitches are left in better hitting zones and he ends up getting rocked.
Before we go too deep into Jim Johnson, let’s talk about who the A’s gave up to get him: Jemile Weeks. Weeks had a coming out party in 2011, batting .303 with 22 steals and 8 triples. In 2012 the party was over. The balloons had deflated, the music turned to a hush. Party metaphors. He batted .221 with 16 steals and 8 triples. The bigger problem seemed to be his attitude. The Athletics sent Jemile to Triple-A in late August of 2012 after acquiring Stephen Drew. After the demotion, Weeks shrugged it off as though it were not a big deal. There isn’t a transcript of what he said, but the general feel of the interview rubbed A’s fans the wrong way.
In 2013, Jemile stayed in Triple-A until September when rosters expanded, getting only 9 plate appearances in the green and gold. In the offseason, the A’s traded Weeks to the Baltimore Orioles for an established closer/heart-attack machine in Jim Johnson. Johnson had just finished off seasons of 51 and 50 saves in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Weeks was set to toil in Sacramento for another year.
When it comes down to evaluating the trade, the fact that the A’s got anything for Weeks is moderately surprising, seeing that he didn’t appear to be in their future plans in Oakland. Getting someone of Johnson’s acclaim makes the trade a win, no matter what role he is currently in.
Yes, Jim Johnson makes $10MM this season, but if Lew Wolff was willing to pay that, then so be it. Where else could the A’s have spent that? On Stephen Drew, again? There is a reason he is still a free agent, and it has everything to do with his asking price and the draft pick the team that signs him has to give up. Signing Kendrys Morales to be a full-time DH? The A’s have too many platoons in play and too many players to keep fresh to waste a roster spot on a full-time DH. Starting pitching? These guys are doing just fine so far. The bullpen is staying rested, and will be ready if the starters begin to falter.
If Jim Johnson can teach the trio of Dan Otero, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle a little about the closing approach and make them even better, then the money is well spent. Johnson is only signed for this season. Cook and Doolittle are arbitration-eligible in 2015, and Otero in 2016. All 3 are under club control for the next few seasons. If Johnson is able to help these 3 players, the A’s will be set for long-term success. Signing Morales or Drew would have been a short-term move, while also hindering another player’s development. Management spent wisely.
So let the A’s spend $10MM on someone who should be closing games, but for now is on mop-up duty. He still has plenty of time this season to prove himself and reclaim the job he is getting paid to do. I’d rather have someone with a proven track record who may be a little rusty and pricey but has the ability to improve, than a player who couldn’t adjust to the league once the league had adjusted to him.