I generally like to act as the voice of reason, both on this site and in life. I'd rather have a bit of patience and let things play out than rush into a decision based on insufficient or incomplete information. You could say that I'd rather ask questions first and shoot later. However, there are times when the small-sample data is too damning, and when the stakes of the decision are too high, for prudence to be the proper course of action. Sometimes, you need to act now to prevent things from getting out of control.
Jim Johnson's early-season struggles are one of those times for action. If one of your hitters is struggling, there are eight other guys to pick him up; you can keep playing him and let him ride it out. If one of your starting pitchers is struggling, you can always give him a quick hook and try to salvage the game. But if your closer is struggling, then each negative data point signifies a game in which he directly turned a win into a loss, because when a closer blows it in the ninth you often don't have time to recover.
Johnson has been terrible, and it hasn't been in ways that can be explained by batted-ball quirkiness. Here are his lines for the five games in which he's pitched:
He's already blown two saves (one of which was not officially credited to him because the mechanics of the save rule are even stupider than you realized), and lost another game that was tied when he entered. It's been an inauspicious start for a veteran closer on a new team.
Let me make one thing clear, though. I'm not worried because Johnson is going through a rough patch. He had two separate stretches last year in which he blew three straight save opportunities, and he still put together a good season overall. And I'm not worried because he's given up a bunch of hits (nine in 3⅓ innings), because we know that he's a pitch-to-contact guy and BABIP can be unpredictable.
No, the thing that worries me is those six walks. Those worry me for a couple reasons. The first is that they are unusual for him; over the last three years in Baltimore, he issued only 2.1 free passes per nine innings. He's supposed to be a control guy, and when a guy like that is wild then there's a good chance that there's something wrong -- whether that be an injury (unlikely, his velocity is fine), a mechanics problem, or a psychological issue.
The walks also worry me because they are the most unacceptable thing a closer can do. When you're coming in to protect a lead, the last thing you should be doing is giving the other team baserunners. The best closers are the ones who throw strikes and let batters go after the ball, whether that leads to grounders or whiffs. In the ninth inning, seemingly more so than any other time, you have to make the other team earn it.
Johnson is obviously not right at the moment. Not only is he struggling, but he's struggling in a way that is very uncharacteristic for him. His problems aren't the result of bad luck on batted balls, but rather the result of his inability to locate his pitches. So, what do you do with a closer who isn't pitching like himself?
Here's where my patient approach to decision-making comes in. It should be a given that Johnson simply cannot be called on for the next save situation. That would be an unacceptable move, because he has been by far the worst pitcher on the staff so far and you can't put that guy into the most important inning of the game. It might cost you another win, and it might cost you the morale of your other players when they see their hard work squandered. Johnson can't be trusted with the next late lead, and suggesting that isn't a knee-jerk reaction in any way. It's common sense.
But that doesn't mean that you close the book on him entirely. Three years of excellent performance, even with his nine blown save last year, are not washed away by five poor outings. Much as Ryan Cook is being eased back into the mix after returning from the disabled list, I would like to see Johnson eased back into things until he gets back on his feet. Because he will get back on his feet, mind you. The team just can't afford to let him blow three more games while he gets there.
Just show me a perfect inning. Get a 1-2-3 frame, maybe a strikeout and a couple of groundouts. Then do it again. Show me that he can string together a couple of good performances in the sixth or seventh innings, that he can avoid walking anyone for a week. That's not asking a lot, and it's not a panicky overreaction to the situation. Once he does that, get him back into the ninth and let him do the job he was brought here to do.
In the meantime, there are plenty of options to close out games. Sean Doolittle is the obvious choice, but Luke Gregerson could handle the role as well. However, I might go with Dan Otero. He keeps the walks down and (subjectively) just seems to have the cleanest innings. He closed in Sacramento last year before he came up, and he did a great job there. Plus, going with him would allow Doolittle and Gregerson to stay in their current roles, rather than shaking everything up and moving guys out of their comfort zones -- remember, everything other than Johnson is humming along quite nicely, and I'd rather not tinker with the bullpen machine any more than I have to.
We haven't seen much, but we've seen enough to know that a change needs to be made. It should be a temporary change, with the goal of returning to what we were supposed to currently have, but it needs to happen. The A's need to take better care of their next few ninth innings, and they need to get Jim Johnson back on track so that he can contribute for the next five months. Get him out of the ninth just long enough that you can trust him to get back in there.