If you were offered a 30 year old starting pitcher who posted a 6.20 ERA in only 81.1 innings in 2013 thanks to an injury that cut his season short, you probably wouldn’t be in a rush to track down your checkbook. If I told you he’s only thrown more than 160 innings three times in eight major league seasons, you’d probably stop looking for it all together. That’s not the kind of player who makes you run home to pour over Baseball-Reference.
When you’re thinking about making a big offer to a free agent the kinds of warning signs you’re looking for are pretty clear. Will he be 30 or older when the season starts? Does he have a long injury history? Is he coming off a bad season? Is he a pitcher? If you answer yes, to some or all of those questions, you probably want to pass. Unless it’s this year and the player you’re talking about is Josh Johnson.
The Toronto Blue Jays decided not to make Johnson the qualifying offer this week, meaning that they think he isn’t likely to get an offer worth more than $14 million this offseason. They believe his value has fallen such that no team is willing to offer him two years or a one year deal with big salary. The Jays know his current medical condition better than anyone and are certainly capable of reading the market. Josh Johnson isn’t going to get a big contract this offseason. He’s looking at a one year deal with a base salary around $7 or $8 million with some potential to earn more through incentives.
That’s what the market looks like for Johnson and that’s the kind of risk you should take every chance you get. The Pirates took that risk last year by betting on the frequently injured Francisco Liriano and it paid off. Whoever takes the leap and signs Johnson will be glad they did.
No one is going to argue that Johnson pitched well in 2013, but he had a much higher BABIP (.356) and HR/FB% (18.5) than his career norms. Certainly some of that came from lesser stuff due to the injury, but those are two statistics we know to be very fluid in smaller samples and much less predictive going forward. Johnson’s Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) came in at a healthy 3.58 in 2013 despite the struggles. He wasn’t a star by any means, but the problems aren’t as troubling as they appear at first especially when you look at his strikeout and walk rates.
If you’re signing Johnson this offseason you’re signing him based on what you’ve seen him do in the past. In 2009 and 2010, few pitchers were better than Johnson as he accumulated 11.6 fWAR in 392.2 innings. The only pitchers who were better were named Verlander, Greinke, Lee, Halladay, Jimenez, Hernandez, and Lincecum.
Johnson was also excellent in 60 innings in 2011 before missing time with shoulder inflammation and he had a very strong 2012 campaign in which he put up 3.5 fWAR over 191.1 innings. Despite missing more than half the season in both 2011 and 2013, over the last five seasons only 18 pitchers have been worth more WAR and they all threw far more innings than Johnson.
Johnson’s fragility is important, but when he’s been on the field he’s been a valuable asset. It’s possible 2013 was the beginning of the end, but it’s also possible it was a blip due to injury. He’s lost some heat on the fastball, but he was very effective in 2012 and isn’t that far removed from some elite seasons.
The upside is clearly there for Johnson and when you think through the possibilities, signing him makes a ton of sense for just about any team besides the Tigers and Rays. If Johnson completely flames out and has nothing left in the tank, you burned through $7 million. That’s a loss, but one that almost every team can absorb given the potential benefits.
A contending team might find themselves with a healthy Johnson or even a Johnson who offers 100 good innings. Finding great starting pitching is very difficult and the cost of a win on the free agent market is somewhere between $5 and $7 million depending on how you make those calculations. If Johnson could even offer a team a win or two of value, he’d be worth it and there’s a decent chance he could be much better. He’s been a 3.5 WAR pitcher as recently as 2012 and was a 5-6 win pitcher just a couple of years prior.
But this isn’t just the kind of player a contending team like the Orioles or Rangers should consider. Teams without playoff dreams should be in on Johnson as well because a healthy and productive Johnson would be a hugely valuable trade chip in July. The risk with Johnson is that he isn’t able to stay healthy, but if you run him out there for 80 or 90 innings early in the season and he’s in good shape, he starts to look more like a 3.0 WAR pitcher to desperate general managers and he could really fetch a nice return for a team working through a rebuilding process.
The concern about Johnson is that he’s going to shatter at the drop of a resin bag, but his market is clearly depressed enough that the financial risk is minimal and the potential payoff is huge. Johnson could be a strong number two for a contender or a trade chip for a team looking to restock. The worst case scenario is obvious, but even very conservative projections expect him to be worth several million dollars next season.
Since Moneyball came out more than a decade ago the fad among baseball analysts has been to try and uncover the next big market inefficiency. Signing broken down starters who are still reasonably young is one of those inefficiencies. Johnson’s probably never going to be an ace again, but one bad year and a few big injuries have led to a serious undervaluation. Josh Johnson doesn’t deserve to get the Zack Greinke contract, but he’s also much better than the contract he’s about to sign.