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Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Jim Johnson, 2013's least valuable player

By David Schoenfield

Jim Johnson led the American League in saves a year ago.

Jim Johnson leads the American League in saves in 2013.

These are not the same thing.

In 2012, Johnson was the leader of the Orioles' brilliant bullpen, that 'pen that helped the Orioles go 16-2 in extra-inning games, an all-time best 29-9 in one-run games and lose only one game all season they led going into the ninth inning (75-1).

In 2013, Johnson has been a disaster and his second blown save in as many games on Wednesday eventually led to a third straight brutal loss for the Orioles, 5-4 to the Diamondbacks in 14 innings. On Monday, the bullpen surrendered go-ahead runs in the bottom of the eighth and bottom of the ninth, Arizona winning on Adam Eaton's walk-off home run off Darren O'Day; on Tuesday, Johnson gave up a game-tying home run to Paul Goldschmidt in the ninth and then Goldschmidt won it with a home run off T.J. McFarland; Wednesday, Gerardo Parra doubled off Johnson and Aaron Hill singled him home with one out (sandwiched around an intentional walk to Goldschmidt) and the Diamondbacks pushed across the winning run off Bud Norris, who began the 14th by walking Parra and Martin Prado.
Jim Johnson
Jim Johnson, who had 101 saves over the past two seasons for the Orioles, was traded to Oakland on Monday.

Johnson has 39 saves but now has nine blown saves. We expect our closers to be perfect and those are unfair expectations, but blowing nine saves is unacceptable for a team with playoff aspirations. Even more damaging are the results of those blown saves: The Orioles have lost eight of the games, with Johnson losing five (he's lost two other games he entered when the score was tied). Some blown saves are the one-run variety where the game is merely tied and the offense bails out the closer, but five of Johnson's blown leads have been of the ugly variety, thus all the losses. The Orioles have now lost nine games they led heading into the ninth -- the major league average is fewer than three. Considering their bullpen is 20-18 overall and Johnson is 3-7, you can make an argument that no player has hurt his team as much as Johnson.

Some of the blame has to go to Buck Showalter. Closers are notoriously hot and cold with short shelf lives and the manager has to know when to make a change; the Dodgers' surge, for example, began when Kenley Jansen replaced Brandon League. Don Mattingly wasn't about to let a mediocre reliever continue blowing leads. As ESPN Insider Mike Petriello wrote last week, the proven closer myth is starting to die off anyway.

When Johnson blew four saves in a six-appearance span in May, Showalter decided to stick with him. For a spell, it looked like the right move as Johnson did run off 12 straight save conversions after that and allowed just one run over 14 appearances. But now he's fallen on bad times again with blown saves in three straight appearances and Showalter will have to make a decision.

For now, it looks like Johnson is still the guy. "Am I going to sit Adam Jones because he had a rough day today?" Showalter said after the game. "I as a manager can't live in that world. We've got a lot of pieces in the chain that have to work and every club does. And I'll be the first guy to make adjustments if they need to be made, but there's a lot of things that we've got to shore up besides that."

Showalter can claim that's the case, but if the Orioles had average results from Johnson -- three lost games in the ninth instead of nine -- they'd be 71-49 instead of 65-55 ... and tied for the AL East lead instead of trailing the Red Sox by 6 games. They've been a good team for eight innings, a terrible team for one.

You often live and die with your closer. The Orioles lived the playoff life a season ago with Johnson, but this year's club is dying because of him.