UPDATE: Since this article was first published, Jim Johnson made an appearance for Toledo on Friday night. This triple tweet from John Wagner of the Toledo blade tells the story:
Welp, shaky 9th for Johnson. 24 pitches, 15 strikes, 1 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, WP, 1 K. FB 93-94 mph, sinker 89, curve 79-81 mph (1 of 2).— JWagnerBlade (@jwagnerblade) August 16, 2014
Johnson missed around strike zone early, gave up 1B to Lindor. K's Ramsey, hit-run 1B by Aguilar on 3-1 pitch, GO scored run. (2 of 2)— JWagnerBlade (@jwagnerblade) August 16, 2014
Long story short: Johnson struggled w/ command of FB around strike zone, got swing-misses on curve (but it wasn't close to zone). #Tigers— JWagnerBlade (@jwagnerblade) August 16, 2014
What will the Tigers do next?
Desperate times call for desperate measures
The Detroit News is reporting that the Tigers are planning to recall banished Oakland A’s closer Jim Johnson to the major leagues after he makes one more appearance in Toledo. This should come as no shock, since Tigers’ President and General Manager Dave Dombrowski told reporters when the Tigers signed Johnson "we’re not signing him to pitch in Toledo."
The move is the latest in a series of desperate attempts by the club to find help for a beleaguered bullpen that ranks 13th out of 15 teams in the American league with an ERA of 4.39. The Tigers have called up six relief pitchers who have made their major league debut this season and three more who have less than a full season of experience in the big leagues.
In fact, so desperate are the Tigers to find relief, that they were prepared to call up Johnson even sooner than he would have liked. Manager Brad Ausmus told Chris McCoskey of the Detroit News:
"At Jim’s request, he wanted another outing (in Toledo)," manager Brad Ausmus said. "It’s a good sign because he understands the big picture. Most guys are in a rush to get back to the major leagues, but he has the right mindset," Ausmus said. "He wants to be ready to come back, not rushing to come back."
But is it a good sign that the club is rushing Johnson to the majors? Do the Tigers understand the big picture? As poorly as the club’s bullpen has fared this season, it seems like a fair question to ask.
After three scoreless innings in Toledo, the Tigers have seen enough. In 3 2/3 innings with the Mud Hens he has allowed two runs (one earned) on two hits with one walk and one strikeout. All the damage was done in his first appearance, lasting 2/3 of an inning.
More important than his numbers at the Triple-A level, the Tigers are hoping that Johnson can regain his command of the strike zone. Brad Ausmus sounded encouraged by reading his smart phone. The Detroit News reported:
"I texted one of our scouts who was at the game," Ausmus said. "He said yesterday was his best outing. He had good velocity and action down in the zone with his fastball and he got quick outs. "If he could return to form, he’d be a huge asset," Ausmus said. "He can pitch in a lot of different roles; at the back of the pen for sure, but he’s also spent time in the middle innings."
The Tigers signed Johnson after he cleared waivers and was released by the Oakland A’s on August 1st. Oakland signed Johnson to a one year, $10 million contract to replace Grant Balfour as their closer, but things quickly went south this season. By the time he was released, Johnson was arguably the worst relief pitcher in the American League, with an fWAR of 0.6 wins below replacement level, and an ERA of 7.14, also worst in the league among relief pitchers who have worked at least 25 innings.
Johnson led the American league with 101 saves between the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Fernando Rodney was a distant second with 85 saves. Johnson recorded 50 saves in consecutive seasons, averaging 70 innings per year. He was selected to the American League All-Star team in 2012, and finished seventh in the Cy Young voting, and 14th in the MVP voting that year.
At the time of his signing, the move appeared to be a very low risk, very high reward move by Detroit. The Tigers will have to pay him only a prorated portion of the major league minimum salary, while Oakland is on the hook for the balance of his contract. Really, the Tigers have nothing to lose, unless he implodes on the mound.
Johnson has worked 139 innings with an ERA of 2.72 and a WHIP of 1.15. He is not a big strikeout pitcher, but he doesn't walk many hitters, either. Johnson is an extreme ground ball pitcher, with a ground ball rate of 60.2 percent.
This season with Oakland, Johnson maintained a very steady ground ball rate, but his walk rate jumped to 5.14 batters per nine innings, and his home run rate more than doubled, to 1.14 per nine frames. That’s a deadly combination, especially for a non-strikeout pitcher.
With Joaquin Benoit, Jose Veras, and Drew Smyly gone, with Bruce Rondon, Luke Putkonen, Joakim Soria on the disabled list, and with all the rookies that have come and gone from the Tigers' bullpen this season, they can't be accused of not trying. The Tigers are hoping that he can regain his old form, and provide some relief to a bullpen that has seen a revolving door of problems all season long.