Jim Johnson And The Fallen Closers Club
For Oakland A’s demoted closer Jim Johnson, WAR is hell. Specifically, his -0.9 WAR in what’s been a hard-to-watch collapse by the man who led the American League with 50 saves last season with the Baltimore Orioles.
In the past two decades, no pitcher has led his league in saves one season and followed that up with a worse WAR than Johnson is currently sporting.
In the offseason, the A’s front office left some people scratching their heads when the small-budget team traded for Johnson and his $10 million contract despite having young, cheap potential closers Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Dan Otero already on the roster.
Johnson stumbled right out of the gate with Oakland, coughing up five runs on five hits with three walks and no strikeouts in just one inning of work over the first two games of the season.
Fast forward to the All-Star break and Doolittle is confidently running away with the closer gig for the first-place A’s and Johnson is a mere shadow of his former self.
Johnson may be the A’s higest paid pitcher, but his 6.18 ERA, .337 BAA and 55 hits allowed in just 39.1 innings now have him relegated to infrequent, low-leverage middle relief work. From 2011 through 2013, Johnson’s sub-3.00 ERAs flew below FIPs that hovered over 3.00. But this season his ERA has gone in the other direction, inflating to a brutal 6.18 which is far above an equally-brutal 4.99 FIP. A lot of that can be pinned on a walk rate, home run rate and batting average on balls in play that have all spiked over last season.
The man who racked up 101 saves the past two seasons with Baltimore has become the weakest link on Oakland’s pitching staff, a far cry from what the front office was expecting when they acquired Johnson to replace Grant Balfour.
Per Baseball Reference, over the past 20 years there are just three closers who have gone from leading a league in saves one year to posting a negative WAR in their next campaign. Here’s a quick look at the current members of the Fallen Closers Club:
- Todd Worrell‘s -0.8 WAR in 1997 after leading the National League in saves with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1996 is currently the worst campaign in the ignominious annals of the Fallen Closers Club. Worrell followed up a 44 save season in 1996 with 35 saves in 1997 but his ERA swelled from 3.03 to 5.28 and he was hammered for seven more home runs than the year before in what turned out to be the 37-year-old’s final go around in the bigs.
- Joe Borowski is hot on Worrell’s scuffed heels with a -0.7 WAR in 2008 after leading the American League in saves with the Cleveland Indians in 2007. Borowski arguably wasn’t even all that good when he racked up 45 saves for Cleveland in ’07 because the glorified counting stat came along with an ugly -0.4 WAR. Borowski’s subpar followup to his 2007 campaign came in his age 37 season, which also happened to be his last in the majors.
- The final man on this list of fallen closers is Armando Benitez. In 2004, Benitez tied Jason Isringhausen with 47 saves for the Florida Marlins. The next year, Benitez posted a -0.1 WAR for the San Francisco Giants as his ERA and WHIP exploded from 1.29 and 0.82 to 4.50 and 1.37 in his age 32 season. Benitez never broke the 20-save barrier again after 2004 and he was out of the league after 2008.
Right now it looks like Johnson’s rapid fall from grace could take him from the closer’s role on Opening Day to the unemployment line after the All-Star break. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser recently speculated that Johnson’s place on the A’s roster may be in jeopardy now that Drew Pomeranz is off the disabled list and attempting to round back into form in Triple A.
This certainly isn’t the way Johnson imagined his free agent walk year would play out. He entered the season coming off two consecutive successful campaigns in Baltimore with the opportunity to be a key player on a winning team in Oakland before cashing in as a free agent in the off-season.
Did that one brutal inning to start this season ruin Johnson for the year? Did all the passionate booing from some of the fans in Oakland get in his head? Has the A’s relatively pedestrian infield defense been killing a reliever who lives and dies on the success of his sinker generating ground outs? Who knows.
The one thing that’s perfectly clear is that Johnson and his $10 million salary are a sunk cost for Oakland at this point and parting ways is probably the best move for everyone involved. The A’s would be free to use Johnson’s roster spot on someone who may be more likely to make a positive contribution to their playoff push and Johnson would be able to get a fresh start somewhere else.
At 31, Johnson is still relatively young with impressive velocity for a sinker-baller and the overvalued “Proven Closer” pedigree that should help him earn another shot at the closer gig somewhere down the line. If things break right, Johnson can rebuild enough value over the last 2 1/2 months of the season with a new team to enter free agency as an intriguing buy-low option for ball clubs in the market for a veteran reliever with upside.
Then again, if Johnson’s struggles last through the end of the season he could end up stealing Worrell’s crown as the king of the Fallen Closers Club.