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Josh Johnson's historical significance

6/22/2010

Greg Cote on a fantastic streak:

    ... [W]hat Josh Johnson is doing for the Marlins right now -- eight consecutive starts giving up zero runs or one run -- deserves more attention than it is getting.

    Consider: That rare, hallowed and near-mythical pitching feat, the perfect game, has been accomplished 18 times since 1900. Johnson's streak since then has been accomplished eight times.

    The only two men with more than eight consecutive gems have been Bob Gibson with 11 in pitching-dominated 1968, the surreal year when his ERA was 1.12; and Jack Coombs with 10 one century ago, in 1910. Fans drove Model T Fords to Coombs' games. The Titanic hadn't sunk yet; it was still being built.

    Johnson's ERA of 0.62 during the streak has put his season ERA at 1.80. He is 8-2 despite losing four wins to the Marlins' exploding bullpen. His record is 30-8 since returning from surgery in summer 2008.

But is Johnson the new Jack Coombs ... or the new Josh Gibson?

Right: Neither. Josh Johnson is Josh Johnson.

Since returning to the rotation in 2008, in each season Johnson's

  • strikeout rate has gone up,

  • his walk rate has gone down,

  • his home-run rate has gone down, and

  • his ground-ball rate has gone up.

OK, so I made that last bit up. Johnson's ground-ball rate has hovered right around 50 percent in each of these last three seasons. What's really improved this season is Johnson's percentage of fly balls that have turned into home runs this season, which is probably the single best explanation for Johnson's drastic ERA improvement this season.

Can he keep it up?

No. I hate to rain on the parade, but Johnson's 1.80 ERA is just as illusory as Ubaldo Jimenez's 1.15 ERA (though less illusory than Jaime Garcia's 1.53 ERA). Like almost every player who's doing something historic, Johnson has benefited from more than his fair share of good luck. But he does seem to be getting better every year. While last year he was probably one of the five or six best pitchers in the National League, this year he's probably one of the three or four best.

And he's only 26 years old. We'll probably never see another streak like this from Johnson again. But that doesn't necessarily mean that we've seen his best.