Heath Bell isn’t the only big name pitcher struggling for the Marlins.
Josh Johnson missed the final four months of last season with a shoulder injury and has looked nothing like his old self early on this year, leading manager Ozzie Guillen to worry that the Marlins ace is still hurting.
Last night Johnson failed to make it out of the third inning against the Padres, allowing six runs while recording just one strikeout in the shortest start of his career. Before the injury last season Johnson was nearly unhittable with a 1.64 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 60 innings, but he now has a 6.61 ERA through six starts along with a career-low 7.4 strikeouts per nine frames.
Asked about Johnson’s status, Guillen told Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald:
I just wonder if he’s not feeling good. He says he feels good, but his stuff is not there. A lot of bad pitches. I think right now what is killing him is he does not have any command with his pitches.
Johnson brushed aside thoughts of an injury, saying simply that “when you throw the ball over the middle of the plate, you’re going to get hit.” However, in looking at his radar gun readings it’s easy to see a decline in raw stuff. Johnson has averaged 92.6 miles per hour with his fastball this year, which is well above-average velocity … and a significant dropoff from his average of 94.9 mph in 2010 and 93.8 mph in 2011.
“Work fast and throw strikes” has long been the top conventional wisdom for those preaching pitching success. The “work fast” part of that has increasingly gone by the wayside, however, as pitchers take more and more time to throw pitches in an effort to max out their effort and, thus, their velocity with each pitch.
Now, as Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer reports, the “throw strikes” part of it is going out of style too:
Pitchers are throwing fewer pitches inside the strike zone than ever previously recorded . . . A decade ago, more than half of all pitches ended up in the strike zone. Today, that rate has fallen below 47 percent.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Most notable among them, Lindbergh says, being pitchers’ increasing reliance on curves, sliders and splitters as primary pitches, with said pitches not being in the zone by design. Lindbergh doesn’t mention it, but I’d guess that an increased emphasis on catchers’ framing plays a role too, with teams increasingly selecting for catchers who can turn balls that are actually out of the zone into strikes. If you have one of those beasts, why bother throwing something directly over the plate?
There is an unintended downside to all of this: a lack of action. As Lindbergh notes — and as you’ve not doubt noticed while watching games — there are more walks and strikeouts, there is more weak contact from guys chasing bad pitches and, as a result, games and at bats are going longer.
As always, such insights are interesting. As is so often the case these days, however, such insights serve as an unpleasant reminder of why the on-field product is so unsatisfying in so many ways in recent years.