Billy Beane consistently proves to us that he doesn’t chase losses when he gambles. General managers are, as a rule, betting men, but the best ones remove emotion from their wagers. Vegas survives on emotional men and women chasing bad money. Beane decided to release Jim Johnson, a very recently dominant closer. In a cold and calculated fashion, they cut ties, though the A’s still will pay Johnson the remainder of his $10 million salary.
Why did Beane do it? And is Johnson worth the risk for a more emotionally charged GM willing to bet on the come?
If you examine Johnson’s 2014 numbers alone, the answer is certainly no, even if he pitches for free. His ground-ball percentage is at its lowest and line-drive percentage at its highest since 2010, a shortened season of work that could conceivably be tossed as a small sample.
If you’re looking for good news, the average velocity of his most oft-used pitch, the two-seam fastball, is about where it was last season at this time. Of course, all that tells us is his arm is moving fast. It doesn’t describe to us what’s happening in his dome. Our lack of knowledge here is a concern because the brain often inhibits the body’s ability to throw strikes at will. Johnson’s walk rate has never been close to as high as it is currently. We are rendered fishermen to see if Johnson has become mentally and subsequently mechanically unglued.
Let’s throw out some bait.
Travel back to 1921. Johnson is one of only two men since then who can claim a walk percentage higher than 10.0% after three or more straight seasons of less than 6.3%, with at least 35 games of relief in each season. (The other? Bill Henry from 1963-1966).
Essentially, the level of control Johnson has lost, for a man who unequivocally once had it, is nearly unheard of.
All things being equal, the best clubhouse personalities have the longest rope while they’re struggling to figure things out. Emotionally, it is more difficult to release, trade or otherwise get rid of a nice guy. All things are not equal, however, and the unemotional GM must bring a chilly scientific approach to examining the many variables involved in evaluating talent.
In the case of Johnson, the numbers leave little room for doubt. Since Johnson’s new inability to pump a strike at will is almost unprecedented in baseball, Oakland needed to open up the study a little bit to decide if this was a temporary or permanent problem.
Largest BB% increase in season following a 5-season span where BB% was 6.1% or less (since 1921):
Reliever (5-season span)
Following season BB%
Jim Johnson (2009-13)
Released during 2014 season
Willie Hernandez (1983-87)
Final season: 1989
Dan Quisenberry (1981-85)
Released: 1988; final season: 1990
Rod Beck (1994-98)
Traded during 1999 season; final season: 2004
Dennis Eckersley (1989-93)
Traded after 1995 season; final season: 1998
Looking through the information, the A’s would have deduced that, unfortunately for Johnson, other relievers with similar struggles haven’t been able to regain that control quickly.
Clearly, this information doesn’t preclude Johnson from reducing his walk rate in the future. If he can, he’ll be a valuable piece of a bullpen again, but Oakland didn’t think it would happen quickly enough. The data is compelling enough to make a tough decision and designate Johnson for assignment.
So what about the GM out there betting on the come with Johnson?
Wagers on horses with the longest odds have made folks rich before, at least temporarily.