What to do about Jim Johnson?

Greg Fiume

Ain't no slump like a closer's slump.

Baseball players have slumps and hot streaks. It's what they do. But when a closer has a slump, to a greater degree than any other player on a team's roster, it provokes hand-wringing, profanity, existential crises, calls for demotion (not necessarily in that order) -- the biggest gamut of shortsightedness that baseball fandom has to offer. The closer, by definition, is under a microsope for every pitch he throws. The manager saves him for some of the team's highest-leverage situations, the moments where everyone is watching, and more than any other time in a baseball game, one guy's bad day can lose a team a game.

Which brings us to the horrible stretch Jim Johnson is having. After breaking the Orioles franchise record for consecutive save conversions, Johnson simply imploded. There is no kind way to look at his numbers since then. Four blown saves against one save conversion (as well as another clean inning in a tie ballgame). His ERA in that span is 23.40, and it's raised his season ERA from 0.95 to 5.25. By all indications from watching a game or two, Johnson appears to be healthy (his velocity is fine), but his movement and location are a mess. Flat pitches staying up in the strike zone tend to yield bad results in the major leagues. Johnson has never been the prototypical strikeout artist anyway -- he pitches to contact -- so if that contact gets tougher, it's gonna get ugly (and it has).

The hand-wringers are rightly pointing out that, if Johnson converts those four saves, the Orioles are sitting in first in the AL East, rather than 3 games out (as of the end of Monday's play). If a hitter goes 0-for-an-entire-week, it's annoying (Ryan Flaherty, Steve Pearce, J.J. Hardy, and Nick Markakis have all had or nearly had such miserable stretches this year). If a starter has two or three consecutive clunkers, it's cause for concern (and again, several Orioles starters have done exactly that). But no one draws down ire quite as quickly as a closer.

In terms of baseball history, the closer is a relatively recent and fairly goofy invention. Saves are a strange statistic that don't always accurately reflect the highest-leverage work in a game. Many closers come up as failed starters with nothing but a live arm, some goofy facial hair and a loud entrance song, and many of them are here and gone before fans can even get to know them. This all leads to a lot of the more statistically-oriented and/or cynical baseball fans out there saying that managers should simply ride the hot hand, not worry about designating a "closer" and go about their business. And yet every time a manager goes with a committee approach, they seem to end up back with a "closer" in short order, as soon as someone emerges who's capable of taking on the job.

The thing is, you can probably make a good argument to just plug Darren O'Day (or even Tommy Hunter, if you're feeling frisky) into the closer's role, until Johnson "cleans his ish up" (as Adam Jones might say). O'Day and Hunter have been just fine lately, and maybe Johnson could just use some rest or low-leverage situations to get his head right, the way you might give a hitter a few off days or invent a fake injury for a starter when they struggle. None of those moves would be seen in baseball as a lack of confidence in a player, and yet for a closer it would be.

The myth that being a "closer" requires a special kind of mental toughness seems to have become sacrosanct in baseball lore. To be sure, there is some supporting evidence - baseball is littered with successful middle relievers with power arms who fail as closers repeatedly (Carlos Marmol, anyone?). But taking this myth to its extreme, concluding that even a temporary demotion is tantamount to an insult to a player's raw ability, has become just as silly as it is sacred. Most teams don't get a Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman. They just don't.

Why is it that no one would bat an eye if Adam Jones or Chris Davis -- the most valuable players on the Orioles roster by far -- took a couple days off after a rough stretch, maybe putting in some pinch-hitting, but if Darren O'Day picks up a handful of saves, we're suddenly questioning Johnson's very mettle as a ballplayer? It doesn't have to be this way. Maybe Buck Showalter could use an explanation just like this to explain his decision to Johnson, put Johnson into medium-leverage eighth-inning situations for a while, and do what's best for the club overall. It doesn't mean Johnson's losing his job forever, or lacking in toughness -- it just means he needs to work on some things.

As humans, we've overcome a lot of unfounded beliefs. The medical use of leeches. Flat-earthers. The idea that Bud Light is beer. Maybe the brightest minds in baseball can get over the notion that a couple off-weeks for a closer aren't the end of the world, or his career.

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