So here's the life of a middle school teacher. In my Homeroom of 22 8th grade boys, I step outside with one of them to explain why it's problematic to slap his friend on the butt with a ruler. Apparently, there are times when a group of 21 boys spontaneously decide it's necessary and helpful to all yell "PENIS!!!" in unison. Evidently it's even funnier if the teacher happens to walk back into the room at this exact moment.
All of which is to say that I'm still having a better week than Jim Johnson, who has begun his season getting booed by his own fans in each of his two appearances. Fans have every right to boo, be it their own players or the opposing team's players. However, while I advocate booing your own player for a lack of hustle I do not condone booing a preponderance of belt-high sinkers. Why?
One of the purposes of booing is to motivate players to try harder. When a player jogs to 1B on a pop-fly, I want them not only to hear my displeasure but I also want them to try harder. Anyone who is jogging up the 1B line can run harder. When a player is trying too hard I don't want them to "try harder". I want them to play better, which is what I am silently wishing for Jim Johnson to start doing.
The main point of this post is my "eyeball report" on Johnson. I don't think the big issue for him is going to be infield defense, because while he had an excellent defense behind him in Baltimore he will also have one in Oakland for most of the 9th innings he takes on. Donaldson, Punto, Sogard, Barton is a solid quartet to handle what Johnson hopes, and intends, will be a flurry of not-blistered ground balls.
What concerns me about Johnson is that I see a pitcher with a razor-thin margin for error with his location. When he sinks pitches below the knees, he relies on batters to expand the strike zone and so far he has not inspired batters to chase his pitches far and wide. When his pitches are above the knees, despite their 93-94 MPH velocity they are simply flat and very hittable.
This is actually a bit surprising because while we know that sinker ball pitchers cannot thrive when they get the ball up, generally we are talking about velocity in the 88-92 MPH range. You would think that any fastball thrown 94 MPH would be hard to square up, but with Johnson this simply does not appear to be the case.
As a result, when he can pour sinker after sinker knee high he is going to be very effective. Even when they know it's coming, batters are going to pound the ball into the ground for routine outs again and again. But just as Tommy Milone, with his 87MPH fastball, has to be right on the edges of the strike zone with a razor-thin margin for error, I worry that Johnson has to be constantly "right at the knees," with too little margin for missing on any other plane.
I don't know if Johnson is capable of mixing in a 4-seamer at 94MPH, one that would be similar in velocity but would be more difficult to hit when up in the strike zone (compared to an "oops-flat" sinker). But as it stands, while he's a quality closer who will succeed a lot more often than not, one of the problems with not being a "swing-and-miss" closer is that you generally have less margin for error. And that's what I'm seeing right now with Johnson.