Jim Johnson eclipsed the 50 save mark this season and, as the only reliever in the majors to do so in 2012, also led the majors in saves. Now, 50 saves in a season is impressive to some degree, no? No. Well, yes, to some degree I suppose. It is really not quite as black and white as that. I mean, sure, JJ is only the eleventh reliever to do this in the span of baseball history, which should account for something, maybe? Now, of course adding the “in the span of baseball history” is what someone could use to make JJ’s feat all the more impressive, however, the specialist that is a baseball team’s closer did not really exist for the entire span of baseball history, and the stat itself was not even counted until 1969. As for the ten other relievers to do that, well they have all come in the last 22 years and, actually, six of those have been in the last decade, so it is getting slightly less exclusive.
Now JJ does join some good company on the 50 save season list. Mariano Rivera, Eric Gagne, Dennis Eckersley, Trevor Hoffman and John Smoltz to name a few. Of course Rod Beck, Randy Myers and Bobby Thigpen also adorn this list. Now the fact that, in theory, there are let’s say 15 closers who remain in the closer role for a full season every year, makes people think that the exclusivity of this club, means it is quite an accomplishment and should be spoken of as such. Basically it does not happen often and no reliever has been able to do it twice in their careers, therefore it is considered a great season and you could form an argument that way for all of these guys’ and now, for Jim Johnson’s season.
All year, and really still, no one really seems to know how the Orioles have been winning like they have. They outplayed their Pythagorean record (projected record based on runs scored and given up) by eleven games. Eleven! The next highest number of games of above their Pythagorean win-loss total were the Reds and Giants, both by six. When you look at the Orioles roster, their numbers, or really anything, it defies the odds. Not only did they play above their heads this season, but are headed to the ALDS and almost won the AL East, for crying out loud! Baseball pundits and afficianados scoured box scores and articles on the Os to see if they could find something, one thing, that could explain how in the heck they were getting the job done and all of sudden, BOOM! Sorry if I scared you there with the caps lock, but I was trying to be dramatic. So, BOOM! The Orioles are very good in one-run games, so it had to be the bullpen, of which Jim Johnson is the king!
With a 29-9 record in one-run games, no team in the majors was better than the Orioles in that department. So this is when everyone started jumping on the Jim Johnson praise committee. Now, I am not looking to trash JJ by any means, he had a very good season, but the way people are talking it is as if he has pitched one of the greatest relief seasons ever. I have even seen some writers and bloggers go as far as to say Johnson is deserving of a Cy Young vote, which I find to be a bit ludicrous. Just because he had 51 saves? Of the ten other 50 save seasons, only two won the Cy Young award. Now I understand that saying JJ deserves a vote, is not the same as saying he should win the award, but I still think even a Cy Young vote is a stretch. Closers in general, at least in my opinion, need to do a lot to garner Cy Young consideration.
Yes a closer does tend to come in a lot of high leverage, big time pressure, situations, which is why their role is considered so important for a team. The fact is many are just basing their praise of Jim Johnson primarily on that one counting stat, the save. Sure, that is really the stat for closers, and you cannot fault JJ for that, but is that really the best indicator of a closer? Yeah, I know what some of you are thinking, “How could saves, the main closer statistic, not be the biggest factor tied to a closer evaluation?” Well, I’ll tell ya, the stat itself is majorly flawed and, really, can you sit there and tell me Jim Johnson is actually a top five closer, just because he had more saves than anyone?
Yes Johnson had 51 saves, we have established this. This is an accomplishment, sure. But how great is it, really? First off, for a closer to get saves, they need opportunities. The Orioles used their bullpen a lot for a team that made the playoffs. In fact no other AL team used their bullpen more than the Os this season and of the other AL Playoff teams only the Yankees used more relievers than the league average and as a team, only the Reds and Brewers had more save opportunities than the Orioles. But we are looking at Jim Johnson, right? Right! So back to the 51 saves. How any other relievers, in the majors this season, even had 50 save opportunites? One. Fernando Rodney and he had 50 exactly. So no other team even gave a closer a chance to get 51 saves. Is that an accomplishment? That the Orioles rarely blew opponents out and Buck Showalter taxed their bullpen like nobody’s business? And hey, again, I am not trouncing on Jim Johnson, cause that is certainly not his fault and it is a testament to something that he did get all these opportunities, but should he get Cy Young vote for that? I think not. Then there is the other flaw in the saves statistic. The fact that there all different kinds of saves.
Protecting a 3-run lead or 1-run lead, still lands you a save. Obviously one is a bit more difficult than the other, but when all is said and done, they count the same. Now, actually this is where you could make the strongest case for JJ. He was 18-18 protecting 1-run leads, so, you know, pretty good. He was actually much worse when protecting larger leads. In 8 of those 36 other save opportunities he allowed at least one run to score, before shutting the door. Now, some will say, yeah, but he had the runs to spare and yeah, that is true, but does that make him an elite closer? Does that make his 2012 season great? Johnson’s season was just as unpredictable as that of his team’s and this is definitely why he is being so lauded as strong closer. But how strong is he really?
JJ does not strike out a ton of batters, which is very rare for a major league closer. His 5.37 K/9 is the worst amongst closers with ten or more save opportunities this season and he could quite possibly be the first closer in major league history to have 30 plus saves and have less strikeouts than saves. Now sure, that is not that big of thing if he is getting the job done and that number 51 shows that he has been. But generally in high leverage situations, you do not want the ball being put in play so much, especially when your team has the third worst UZR in the American League and the fifth worst UZR in the majors. But couple this with the fact the he walks almost two batters per nine innings and you have a K/BB rate that is not even amongst the top 60 for eligible relievers. To me, it seems like JJ cold be living on borrowed time with his success this season. Now you could say, “Oh yeah, but his ERA and WHIP were very good.” Okay, well let’s explore that.
His 2.49 ERA and 1.02 WHIP are darned good, that is for darned sure. These numbers were so good, that he was eleventh, amongst major league relievers who had ten or more save opportunities this season, in both categories. His ERA was also helped by a strong finish (.38 ERA since the end of July), but through the end of July his ERA was 3.63, which is not impressive for a guy you need to dominate and shut down the opposing team. So, even if you want to say he had good season numbers, it is safe to say that he was not that way all season. His ERA in July, by the way, was over 11. Ouch. His ERA also, of course, does not count the inhertited runners he would allow to score. JJ was not brought into the game much with men on base and probably with good reason. Of the eight runners Johnson inherited this season, he allowed six, yes SIX, to score! Now it’s a small sample size, that is definitely true, but by comparison, Fernando Rodney, who in my mind was far and away the best closer in the AL, allowed just two of his 18 inherited runners to cross the plate. And you have to think Buck Showalter may need Johnson to come in with guys on base in the playoffs and that could get dicey, certainly exposing the flaws in his closer.
So really, I have to say again, this is not to attack Jim Johnson in any way, shape or form. The point here was that everyone needs to slow their proverbial rolls, when discussing his body of work this season. What the Orioles have done is amazing, because it was completely unexpected and unexplainable, and the same can be said of Jim Johnson’s 51 saves if you want to look at it that way. Let us all just take a step back and put this in perspective though. Other than actual number of saves, for instance, Fernando Rodney has been vastly better than Jim Johnson, but without passing the 50 save mark or his team making the playoffs, Fernando will have to sit and watch all the praise being bestowed on JJ. Johnson deserves a kudos and a tip of the cap for sure, but let’s stop there and realize that his 2012 season is not quite as special or dominant as we’d all like to believe.