A big year for Josh Johnson
If former Marlin can pitch like an ace in Toronto, a lucrative payout awaits
Josh Johnson's 6-foot-7-inch frame gives him a distinct advantage over hitters who are unaccustomed to seeing such a tall pitcher consistently pop the catcher's mitt with mid-90s fastballs at the knees or below.
But the intimidation factor ends the moment he walks off the mound. Johnson is serene enough to fly above the turbulence and find silver linings where others may not, for reasons that have everything to do with his demeanor and absolutely nothing to do with his height. Give the guy a little family time, a nice set of golf clubs and a reasonably healthy right shoulder, and he's sure to be in his element.
Johnson had a right to be shocked and/or disappointed when the Miami Marlins sent him to Toronto in a November trade that nearly blew up the Internet. He had been a part of the organization since Stan Meek, the Marlins' savvy scouting director, plucked him out of a Tulsa, Okla., high school in the fourth round of the 2002 draft. Nothing lasts forever in baseball -- particularly in owner Jeffrey Loria's domain -- but Johnson had reason to believe he might remain a Marlin at least until free agency beckoned.
Then came Nov. 13, and the initial reports of a deal that generated so much anger and negative fallout, you needed a cleanup crew to sweep up all the hurt feelings.
Mark Buehrle issued a statement accusing the Marlins of lying to him on "multiple occasions." Jose Reyes said Loria suggested that he buy a house in Miami four days before the trade. Giancarlo Stanton vented his outrage on Twitter, and a newspaper poll of South Florida sports fans gave Loria a 6 percent approval rating. Some observers wondered how he fared that well.
Johnson? His mind was reeling for the better part of, well, dinner.
"I was shocked at first, of course," Johnson said. "But after about an hour or two of being shocked, I was excited just to get a fresh start and go somewhere I've heard nothing but great things about. It's all been true so far. Everyone here has been amazing."
As Johnson prepares to make his second start of the season Thursday afternoon against Detroit, the buzz that he generated in spring training heralds big things. Lots of scouts, executives and media members who watched him dominate hitters in Dunedin, Fla., are labeling him a stealth American League Cy Young Award candidate.
The optimism goes beyond Johnson's 0.77 WHIP, 23 strikeouts in 20 innings and .164 batting average against in Grapefruit League play. He has an air of confidence reminiscent of when he was healthy and at the height of his powers as a two-time All-Star and former National League ERA leader. The only reason for pause is Johnson's medical history, which includes a Tommy John surgery in 2007 and shoulder issues that forced him to miss most of the 2011 season.
"I know this is an overused phrase, but he was lights-out when we saw him," said a talent evaluator for a team that played the Jays in spring training. "If he's healthy again it makes you think, 'Wow, he's going to have a real good year.'
"Unfortunately, the health issues are always in the back of your mind. But you can't deny his stuff."
It's a big year for the Blue Jays, who are off to a slow start after loading up in pursuit of their first playoff appearance since 1993, and a potentially momentous season for Johnson, who is one of the last men standing after a series of high-profile signings for prominent starting pitchers.
Recent events have made it clear that a lucrative payout awaits Johnson if he can approximate his peak form. Since last April, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Adam Wainwright, Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander have all signed contract extensions with payouts ranging from $97.5 million at the low end (Wainwright) to $180 million at the high end (Verlander). In addition, Zack Greinke snagged a $147 million deal with the Dodgers as a free agent last winter, and Anibal Sanchez, Johnson's former Marlins teammate, re-signed with Detroit for $80 million.
With Tim Lincecum, Gavin Floyd, Matt Garza, Jason Hammel and Ricky Nolasco the other main 30-and-under options on the market, Johnson has a chance to be the marquee attraction of the winter. But if his pulse quickens at the thought of a nine-figure deal, he doesn't show it. Johnson has had a few conversations with his agent, Matt Sosnick, about his pending free agency. But he's generally on the receiving rather than the giving end of the calls.
"Something will come up on my phone and I'll look at it, see the [contract] number and think, 'Good for him, he deserves it,'" Johnson said. "I don't go over it and look at the incentives or whatever else is involved. Then I'll get a call from Matt and he'll say, 'Did you see that?' And I'll tell him, 'Yes, I saw that.'"
If Johnson's shoulder issues in Miami taught him one thing, it's the importance of adjusting on the fly. His average fastball velocity peaked at 95 mph three or four years ago and now settles in closer to 93 mph. Johnson doesn't spend much time fretting about his radar-gun readings, but he does try to maintain as big a differential as possible between his heater and his off-speed stuff to keep hitters off balance.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, hitters swung and missed at Johnson's fastball only 13 percent of the time last year, compared to 20 percent during the 2009-2011 seasons. In the quest for a new weapon, Johnson began integrating a curveball into the mix more often in 2012. The curve clocks in at an average of 79 mph compared to 87-88 for his slider and changeup, so it's an effective means of messing with a hitter's timing.
Mechanically, Johnson's main objective is staying tall and using his height to maximum advantage. That wasn't the case in 2012, when his breaking ball was more side-to-side, and in his words, "Everything was flat." When Johnson comes over the top with 10 inches of mound beneath his spikes, it's not a comfortable sensation for opposing hitters.
"I've faced him, and you only see half the baseball," said Toronto pitcher R.A. Dickey, who went 0-for-4 against Johnson at the plate while with the Mets. "He really leverages the ball downhill, probably as good as anybody in the league.
"Just follow the physics of it. The more severe the angle, the more I have to compute as a hitter where the ball is going to end up and how I'm going to get the barrel to it. Just logically, a pitcher can use his height, and he does a great job of that."
Johnson's first start in a Toronto uniform was only so-so. He allowed nine hits in six innings against Boston, but two errors by second baseman Emilio Bonifacio helped drive up his pitch count. Johnson threw 63 fastballs, 17 sliders, 13 curves and four changeups, so AL hitters are about to learn they better be prepared for anything.
Johnson inadvertently earned a few brownie points with Blue Jays fans recently when it came to light that his father is a native of Canada. Al Johnson was born and raised in Calgary, and told Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun that he grew up watching the Calgary Stampede rodeo and was particularly fond of the chuck wagon races.
Josh Johnson, the youngest of Al and Bonnie's five sons, is looking forward to sampling Toronto's restaurant scene with his wife, Heidi, and making the occasional foray to the golf course, where he carries a 2.7 handicap. More important, he hopes to contribute in a race and make the first postseason appearance of his career. When Johnson claims he has no intention of letting his free-agent "walk" year dominate his thoughts, the sense of calm in his voice makes it easy to believe him.
"For me, it's just business as usual," Johnson said. "If I go out and do my job and do what I'm supposed to do, things will take care of themselves. That's all I can worry about."
He'll let his agent sweat the details. If Toronto is going to be just a one-year pit stop in his career, he might as well enjoy the experience while it lasts.