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Monday, May 16, 2011
What's so great about Josh Johnson?

By Mark Simon


The image on the left shows where Josh Johnson primarily throws breaking pitches to left-handed hitters. The image on the right shows where he primarily throws them to righties.


Marlins starter Josh Johnson enters today's start against the Mets with an 8-1 record and a 2.73 ERA against them.

And this season he's established himself as baseball's dominant pitcher, with a 3-1 mark and a 1.63 ERA, with four tough no-decisions through no fault of his own.

So what is it that makes Johnson so great? Check out the illustrations above.

Johnson has two different breaking pitches-- a curveball and a slider. For the purposes of this piece, let's lump both together.

The picture on the left shows where Johnson most frequently locates his breaking pitches to left-handed hitters in 2011. The image on the right shows where Johnson primarily locates them to right-handed hitters.

We've isolated just the areas with the greatest frequency and shaded them in red to make them easily distinguishable. That's not where every Johnson breaking pitch ends up ... but they end up there more often than not.

Watch Baseball Tonight any time Johnson pitches and you'll hear our announcers marvel at that pitch location. Those pitches are almost impossible and the numbers bear it out.

Righties and lefties have made 68 outs in at-bats that ended with a Johnson breaking pitch, and gotten just four base hits.

Hitters are missing on 40 percent of their swings against that pitch, a rate that puts Johnson among the best major league starters. They're also chasing pitches at a similar rate.

Johnson must know this. Our Pitch F/X data shows he ranks among the bottom five percent of major league pitchers at throwing his breaking ball in the strike zone. But it's too tantalizing to pass up.

When hitters do make contact, they don't hit the ball well. Johnson has induced 24 ground balls with his curve/slider combo. That has yielded a total of one base hit. And the only player to get that hit? It took the best hitter in baseball to do it-- Albert Pujols. That's a pretty good statement as to where Johnson is at this point in 2011. It will be a challenge for the Mets to overcome tonight.

For more on Johnson, check out this blog post from ESPN Stats & Info a few weeks ago.