Josh Johnson's MLB Career Burned Twice as Bright, But for Half as Long
Josh Johnson quietly had one of the best starts to a pitching career in baseball history. Unfortunately, that start was coupled with a disappointingly abrupt finish.
Johnson went under the knife facing a pitcher’s worst enemy three times: Tommy John surgery. He attempted a comeback every time, but on Thursday, he cut off his final bid to return to the majors and retired after a nine-year career that last saw him make a big league appearance in 2013.
It was a quiet exit for the best starting pitcher in Marlins franchise history.
By both main models of wins above replacement (WAR), Johnson -- who pitched eight of his nine seasons in Miami -- accumulated the best WAR of any Marlins starter. In relation to the second-best starter in WAR according to each model, his 20.9 fWAR ranks 3.2 wins better than Ricky Nolasco and his 25.4 bWAR ranks 8.3 wins better than Dontrelle Willis.
Johnson won back-to-back NL Rookie of the Month awards in May and June of 2006 while sporting a 1.89 ERA with a 20.8 percent strikeout rate over those 10 starts.
Not one year removed from top-100 prospect status, Johnson finished fourth in National League in Rookie of the Year voting. At the time, the Marlins had a borderline top 10 starting rotation and Johnson, then 22 years old, fit right into a talented young rotation with Willis, Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez -- none of whom were older than 24.
The right-hander had the best rookie season in the NL of any pitcher in 2006. His 140 ERA+ was 31 points better than the next best rookie, Clay Hensley. Unluckily for Johnson, this was same year a pair of Marlins middle infielders played their first full seasons in the bigs. Hanley Ramirez (the eventual 2006 NL Rookie of the Year) and Dan Uggla (who finished third) both overshadowed Johnson’s impressive campaign from inside his own clubhouse.
Ryan Zimmerman, who also exceeded his rookie limits in 2006, finished second, further overshadowing Johnson from within his own division.
His first surgery interrupted what would have been his second full year in 2007, after four starts. He returned midway through the 2008 season in July and pitched well, throwing 87.1 innings with a 3.61 ERA and 3.37 FIP.
A Healthy Josh Johnson is a Dominant Josh Johnson
The next two years, Johnson was the most consistent and healthiest he would ever be in his career. Never again was he be able to shoulder a full-season workload in consecutive seasons. He appeared in his only two All-Star games in 2009 and 2010, the latter of which proved to be the apex of his career.
That season, he took home the ERA title with a 2.30 mark in 28 starts, while also leading the league with a 2.41 FIP and 180 ERA+. Even though 2010 may have displayed his peak strikeout potential, it’s impossible to know whether or not he could have replicated it. He struck out exactly a quarter of all hitters he faced that season, the best for any major league starter. Only 18 other pitchers in baseball history have ever pitched to a 2.30 ERA or better with a 25% strikeout rate in a season.
Little did we know, it would be the second-to-last time Johnson could complete a full season of competition.
Take out his four-start 2005 September call-up from this equation for simplicity’s sake and Johnson threw 985.2 innings in eight seasons from 2006-13. Accounting for the average pitcher’s injuries and missed time, let’s say a pitcher, especially one of Johnson’s caliber, throws roughly 180 innings per season.
Had he hit that 180 average innings mark each of those eight seasons, he would have added another 417 strikeouts, bumping his total up to 1322. Since 1947, only 34 pitchers have surpassed that figure in their first eight seasons. While more are on the way, 10 of those are Hall of Famers.
Full Season Mastery
In his four full seasons -- which will be categorized as any season he pitched in at least 28 games -- Johnson's numbers spiked. Lest you think this is an attempt to trim the fat of Johnson’s sub-par seasons, those not shown below include 2008 when he went 7-1 and posted a 3.61 ERA, 3.37 FIP and 1.9 WAR in just 14 starts, and a 60.1-inning 2011 season in which he held opponents to a .183 batting average with a 1.64 ERA.
Bolded figures represent categories
in which he led all starting pitchers for that respective season.
When Johnson lasted a full year, he never posted an ERA below 3.81, a WHIP below 1.299 or a strikeout rate below 20 percent. In fact, he never posted a sub-20 percent K-rate in any season he threw more than 16 innings. The man missed bats from day one to his last outing. He posted a career-high 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings in his final MLB season of 2013.
For such an injury-prone player, the fact that he got better as long seasons wore on is baffling, only adding to the mystery of how good he could have been had he simply stayed healthy.
Brilliance Cut Short
Johnson was a phenomenal talent. When viewed within the scope of Marlins franchise history and in the greater context of the game, his dominance stands out.
Since baseball’s inception, 196 pitchers have tallied the 25.4 bWAR in their first eight seasons, but none did it in as quickly as Johnson. The next fewest innings it took any pitcher to accumulate 25.4 bWAR was Chris Sale’s 1,110, a full season’s worth of innings (193.1) more than Johnson.
Now compare his first eight years to those of every starter in history that matched or topped his 3.15 ERA in that span. Johnson’s 21.9 percent strikeout rate ranks 12th among the 252 pitchers who fit those criteria. His 133 ERA+ in his first eight seasons ranks as the 33rd best start to a career in history.
There have been 26 pitchers ever that, in a 180-inning-plus season, posted a 2.30 ERA while striking out 25 percent of all hitters as Johnson did during that brilliant 2010 season. He is one of only 11 pitchers to do so by the age of 26. The others include Pedro Martinez, Clayton Kershaw (who, of course, did it three times), Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and Jose Fernandez.
Not only was that 2010 season the fourth-to-last in Johnson’s career, it was only his sixth major league season and the second in which he made more than 25 starts. That mastery, with almost no experience in staying the course for a full year in the big leagues -- let alone posting one of the best seasons in history -- is a brief, yet revealing insight into just how good Johnson was and how good he could have been were he not constantly hampered by injuries.