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Athletics 2014 season review: Jim Johnson, $10M dumpster fire

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Who do you call when the fireman is the one lighting the blaze?
Who do you call when the fireman is the one lighting the blaze?
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Here it is, folks. This is the one you've been waiting for. It's time for the roast of ol' No. 45. No, not backup catcher Bryan Anderson, who wore that number at the end of the season. I mean everyone's favorite villain, Jim Johnson.

Player profile

Name: Jim Johnson, aka Booooooo
Position: RHP, "relief" (what's the opposite of relief?)
Stats: 38 games, 7.14 ERA, 40⅓ innings, 28 Ks, 23 BB, 60 hits
WAR: negative-1.3 bWAR, negative-0.6 fWAR
How he got here: Emerged from your worst nightmare
How he really got here: Acquired from Baltimore Orioles prior to 2014
2014 Salary: $10 million in legal U.S. currency
2015 Status: Demoted to the National League (specifically, Braves)
2015 Salary: $1.6 million (still too much)

Season summary

But little [Beane], you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

Those words were written by Robert Burns of FOX Sports in August*, after news broke that the Oakland Athletics had released Jim Johnson and the millions left on his ill-fated contract. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's start at the beginning.

* no they weren't

***

Entering 2014, the A's had a fairly complete roster and money left to spend. With no obviously attainable external upgrades available at second base, they decided to spend big on a closer to replace their departed All-Star, Grant Balfour. Another All-Star, Jim Johnson, was set for a big payday in arbitration, and the Orioles didn't want to be the ones to give it to him. All they asked in exchange was Jemile Weeks, who the A's had already given up on -- even with the disaster that the middle infield became in 2014, I still don't think Weeks would have gotten a call if he'd been in Sacramento. The deal was done, and the A's had their new closer.

Johnson ended up signing for $10 million. Nobody pretended like that wasn't a huge overpay, but there's no such thing as a bad one-year contract. The second-guessing grew stronger when Balfour signed a two-year deal with the Rays for only $2 million more (2yr/$12M), but none of it would matter if Johnson had a good year. The next day, the A's picked up Luke Gregerson in a trade, and suddenly the pen looked stacked.

The logic was sound. Beane was wasting money, but it wasn't money that could be saved for later anyway and at least he was throwing it at quality in an area of the roster that was open for improvement. A shiny, expensive bullpen is supposed to be the hood ornament on your fully loaded Mercedes of a roster, the last thing you spend on after everything else has been addressed, and that was basically the case here. Even though Johnson had his own red flags, his downside seemed to be "solid middle reliever who can go multiple innings." Those can still cost $5 million or more. And if he kept Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle from racking up saves before hitting arbitration, then he could indirectly keep their future salaries from escalating like his had.

I got the chance to meet Johnson at FanFest before the season, as he was one of the players who was available for the BlogFest that Nico and I attend each year with our fellow Internet writers. He seemed like a nice enough guy, supremely confident in his abilities and more interested in proving himself on the field than talking about it. I asked him what kind of intimidation factor he brings, like angry walkup music or a crazy beard, and he asked me something along the lines of "Why don't you step in the box and find out?" I answered, "I'd love to! When?" He said something about the backfields of spring training, but sadly I never did take my hacks against him. Still, Nico and I both left that room liking the guy. That was my last happy memory of Jim Johnson.

***

He made his Oakland debut on Opening Day, March 31. Right then, you knew it wasn't going to end well. The A's were working on a streak of nine straight Opening Day losses, and it seemed inevitable that they'd reach an even 10 in a row. He entered to start the ninth, retired only one of the five batters he faced, and got tagged with the 2-0 loss. In his second outing, he entered with a 4-3 lead to start the ninth, and he managed to retire only two out of seven batters; he gave up three runs, blew the save, and took the 6-4 loss. Two games into his A's career, and he was 0-2 with a 45.00 ERA and a blown save -- shockingly, it proved to be his only blown save of the season.

Johnson momentarily settled down and even earned a save, but in his fifth outing of the season he exploded again. He had a 4-2 lead entering the ninth, and the only out he recorded among five batters came on a botched sac bunt. However, he was pulled before he had the chance to fully blow it, and Dan Otero entered with the bases loaded, one out, and a one-run lead. Otero allowed a sac fly, which is reasonable enough, but that meant he was tagged with the blown save while Johnson was credited with a hold, which is supposed to be a good thing to signify a job successfully done. Sometimes baseball stats can be real assholes.

We were only a week into the season, and the A's were already taking a break from their brand-new $10 million toy in favor of a closer-by-committee. I argued at the time that his hiatus should be temporary, that he just needed to settle down and get a couple 1-2-3 innings under his belt to find his groove. It just never happened, though. The hits kept on coming. The walks slowed down for a while, but then they came back with a vengeance. He kept the ball in the park until June, but then gave up five dingers in his final 15 games. He made 38 appearances for the A's, and he escaped only four of them without allowing a baserunner. He allowed at least one run 22 times.

Johnson did find his way into a few more high-leverage spots through early May, picking up another save, another hold, and a few wins. But he just never showed enough consistency to earn back his permanent late-inning role. His timeline can be summed up using the titles of some AN posts:

- Time to close the book on Jim Johnson? (link)
- Jim Johnson out as Athletics' closer (link)
- It's time for Jim Johnson to close again (link)
- Time to make Jim Johnson the Athletics' long man (link)
- Twitter apoplectic over Jim Johnson's latest meltdown (link)
- Jim Johnson DFA; Evan Scribner recalled (link)

(Also summed up: Alex needs to get more creative with his story titles.)

That second-to-last link refers to the game on July 23, against the Astros. The A's were cruising with a 9-2 lead, and Johnson came in for the eighth inning to seal the blowout. His play-by-play:

Single
Single
Double
Single
(Error-5)
(Lineout)
Single
Single

Eight batters, and he retired one of them. Five of the hits were on line drives, so it wasn't just a nightmare of lucky bounces. Five runs scored, cutting the lead to 9-7; he had turned a mop-up outing against a bad team into a save situation. Oakland held on to win, but it was the last time Johnson pitched for the A's. If you can't trust a reliever to hold a seven-run lead against Houston, then what purpose does he serve? He was designated for assignment, released, and picked up by the Detroit Tigers, for whom he continued to pitch poorly for 16 more games.

Jim Johnson Bruce Banner crop

To fully understand just how bad Johnson was, you have to reach back into the record books. His 7.14 ERA was the 16th-worst single-season mark in Athletics franchise history (minimum 40 innings), going back to Philadelphia. It was sixth-worst in Oakland history, behind a surprisingly fun list of names: Willie Adams (1997), Todd Van Poppel (1996), Rick Langford (1986), current pitching coach Curt Young (1985), and Dana Eveland (2009).

But wait! Most of those seasons came during eras of higher offense. To get the full effect, you have to look at ERA+ to see how the pitcher compared with his contemporaries. And that's when it hits you. Johnson's ERA+ of 52 was out-sucked by only three pitchers in A's history, and they were all old-timey Philly pitchers from 1940 and earlier. If you look at only Oakland hurlers, Johnson's 2014 season was tied for the worst ERA+ in 47 years of baseball. Who was he tied with? Shockingly, a 20-year-old Vida Blue, who was godawful in 42 frames in 1969. Vida can have a pass, though, considering that two years later he won a Cy Young and then followed that up with three straight World Series rings.

***

So, there you go. By one fairly relevant measure, Johnson was the worst pitcher in Oakland A's history. He really was that bad. If you want to pile on a bit, he also had the second-worst rate of hits per nine innings in A's franchise history (13.4), behind only Dana Eveland's 44 wretched innings in 2009. If you must find a silver lining, at least the A's didn't miss an opportunity with Balfour, who also fell apart in Tampa Bay and posted an ERA+ of 76.

If all of that wasn't dark enough for you, Johnson also brought out the worst in many of us A's fans. It didn't take long for him to start getting booed by his own home crowd, and it got worse and worse as he failed and failed to get better. Things hit a boiling point at a charity food drive at the Coliseum when Johnson's wife, Elizabeth, was booed and heckled by A's fans. It's already questionable enough to boo your own player at home, though I wouldn't begrudge anyone the right to speak his or her mind and I can understand lashing out when an expensive addition turns so utterly sour. But taking it out on his family is just unacceptable in every way. Fortunately, our own Jeremy F. Koo swooped in and turned lemons into lemonade by using the incident to raise awareness for the charity at hand, the Alameda County Food Bank, and his efforts led to nearly $6,000 in donations from the AN community in one day. It was an awesome end to an unfortunate story.

Even the best-laid plans often go askew, and this was one of those times. Acquiring Johnson was cheap and made sense, paying him wasn't prohibitive, and his track record was excellent. And then, for no real reason, he just completely lost it, both in ways you might have predicted (lots of hits) and in ways you never would have guessed (lots of walks). Instead of being an overpriced luxury, he became literally the worst pitcher in club history, so bad that fans booed not only him but his wife. But relievers notoriously have short memories, and nobody gets to Johnson's position without knowing how to get back on the horse and move on from failure. He'll be back at it in 2015, trying to recapture his old form, while A's fans are left haunted by memories of the past and scarred at the thought of paying top prices for relievers in the future. Look sharp, Tyler Clippard.

Here's Burns to take us the rest of the way:

Still you are blessed, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!

2014 season grade, relative to expectations: F ... Perhaps you didn't hear me before. He made $10 million, and he posted the worst ERA+ in Oakland A's history. I would give him a G if I could, but F is the worst grade.

2014 season grade, overall: F ... Including his time with the Tigers, Johnson's overall ERA+ of 54 was also the lowest in MLB last season, minimum 50 innings. So, you can make a strong argument that he was the worst pitcher in baseball in 2014.

Video highlights

Here's Jim Johnson facing the New York Knights in a key situation. Skip to 2:53 for the result of the at-bat.

Here he is trying to hold on for the save against the Racine Belles.

OK, for real though. Johnson did in fact notch two actual saves in 2014, and strangely they both came against the Mariners. Here is video proof of one of them.

Good lord, man, even that one should have been a double in the gap if not for having arguably the best defensive center fielder in the world tracking it down for you.

***

Something can be a good idea and still turn out horribly. Acquiring Johnson was one of those things. He seems like a fantastic human being and I think all of Athletics Nation wishes him the best in Atlanta and in life in general. But, holy Toledo, that was tough to watch. Now let's never speak of him again.