I Guess We’ll Need To Talk About Jim Johnson

I'm writing this post basically as an excuse to show awesome O's uniforms. (via)

I’m writing this post basically as an excuse to show awesome O’s uniforms. (via)

Every year, I say to myself, “I’m not going to write a post every time a national writer says the Dodgers are merely talking about or interested in a player.” Every team checks on every player; every winter, we hear dozens of connections between team and player that never ever turn into anything, and even that’s only the very small percentage of such conversations that actually get out to the public.

Every year I say that, and then every year one of those tidbits — like, say, Ken Rosenthal saying the Orioles are attempting to trade closer Jim Johnson and that the Dodgers are “in the mix” earlier today — spawns legions of fans who are convinced that the interest is basically a done deal. Oh, and that it’s stupid, despite not knowing any of the actual details, and so I find myself writing a post about that player anyway so I can simply direct people to it rather than replying to 200 different tweets.

This is how we find ourselves talking about the 30-year-old Johnson today, and he’s scary both because he’s expected to make something around $10 million in his final year of arbitration and because he’s a prime example of a decent reliever blown up into something more because of SAVEZ. Johnson has 101 saves over the last two years, more than any reliever in baseball, and making him one of just two relievers in history with back-to-back 50 save seasons. (Eric Gagne in 2002-03 being the other.)

So you can already imagine the furor: “traditional fans” overrate Johnson beyond belief, “advanced fans” probably go too far the other way in underrating him because of the saves, and half of Dodger fans are convinced this means another year where Kenley Jansen has to fight his way back to the ninth, because Ned Colletti seems like exactly the type of guy to be enamored with saves.

With the understanding that a mere mention in a Rosenthal tweet isn’t enough to suggest there’s more than a 10% chance of this happening, let’s at least look at Johnson (who will apparently be tendered by the O’s, though there’s a great argument to be made he shouldn’t be). There’s this: jokey saves aside, he’s a reasonably effective pitcher. We know that ERA for relievers isn’t ideal, but you can’t really fake your way to 2.70 over 230 innings over the last three years. Unsurprisingly, his FIP over that time is in the 3.30 range, which again: not bad. By comparison, Ronald Belisario‘s last two years are a 3.24 ERA and a similar FIP, and Johnson comes without a lot of Belisario’s uncertainty.

So to say that “Johnson is awful,” well, that’s just not true. But he is pretty overrated because of the saves, since the closest comparables via ERA & FIP over the last three years¬†are Tyler Clippard, Luke Gregerson, and Joe Smith. Those are all good relievers, but Johnson misses the fewest bats, even with his 2013 uptick, and even the $5m yearly that Smith just got to sign with the Angels seemed high, which should tell you a lot about the idea of $10m or more for Johnson. (Again: savez!)

What this all means is that Johnson is a good reliever, one who would be valuable on just about any team in the bigs, including the Dodgers… and one who should absolutely not be making anywhere near $10m annually. Now maybe the Dodgers really, truly, do not care about the numbers on their payroll in any fashion whatsoever, but I don’t believe that to be true — not when the team reportedly wanted Nick Punto back, but not badly enough to match the $2.75 million he got from Oakland. If the Dodgers want Johnson, then wait to see if the O’s really do tender him.

If the Dodgers and Orioles truly are discussing a trade for Johnson, fine, but he’s so overpriced that it would only be reasonable if it were a complete salary dump by Baltimore. (That is, when I wouldn’t even really want to pay the guy $10m if that’s all there were to it, there had better not be talent going back the other way as well.) Considering how highly Dan Duquette seems to value his “top closer in the game,” I don’t imagine that’s how it would play out. And that’s why nothing is likely to occur… and that’s why I realize I’ve just turned three of Rosenthal’s words into about 730 of mine.