Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Brian Johnson.
The Question: Can Brian Johnson get back to his 2015 form?
The Red Sox had three first round picks in 2012, with two of them coming after losing Jonathan Papelbon to free agency. Brian Johnson was the middle selection of the three, and has easily emerged as the best among him, Deven Marrero and Pat Light. He’s never had a huge ceiling, and the only top-100 list he’s appeared on was Baseball Prospectus’ when he was ranked the 82nd best prospect in baseball prior to the 2015 season. At that point, he was coming off a dominant season with Double-A Portland. That season, he spent the year putting up really solid numbers in Triple-A Pawtucket and earned himself one lackluster start with the big-league club.
Johnson took a big step back in 2016, though. His numbers fell off across the board, and he had his own personal issues that he had to sort out. Undoubtedly, those issues were a part of his poor performance. Looking ahead to 2017, he’ll certainly start the year back in Pawtucket and looking for a fresh start. The ideal plan was for him to be in the rotation by now, but the 26-year-old is going to have to prove he’s still the same guy he was in 2015 before he can even be the highest starter on the depth chart outside of the six major-league arms.
The former Florida Gator made 19 starts, all in the minors, over the 2016 season. Four of those were rehab starts coming in the GCL and NY Penn League, so we’ll focus on his 15 starts with Pawtucket. Those 14 starts were not great, which is immediately noticeable when you see his 4.09 ERA. Remember, he had already been through the league and had a 3.60 ERA in 19 starts.
The first thing that jumps out after his ERA was his lack of strikeout stuff. Johnson set down only 6.3 Triple-A batters per nine innings, his lowest rate of any stint in his career that lasted at least five outings. Again, he’d already been through the league and struck out 8.4 batters per nine during that time. One would hope he’d have increased his ratio after coming back from his time off, but the rate was actually 5.3 per nine during that eight start run.
Of course, Johnson has never really been known for his strikeout stuff. He’s never had big swing and miss in his game, and he doesn’t possess that one true putaway offering. No, the lefty has built his prospect status on the back of his command, and that fell off in 2016 as well. We’ll start with the control part of it, because that was especially concerning. He walked an Ubaldo-esque 4.2 free passes per nine. The previous year, he had walked just three batters per nine, and his career rate was around that same level. The good news is most of the damage was done before he took his time off, as his rate fell down to 2.9 after returning in late July.
In addition to the control he’s boasted over the course of his career, Johnson has also been solid at limiting hard contact. Since being drafted, he’s never allowed more than 0.6 home runs per nine, and has a minor-league career home run rate of 0.5. That would be even lower if it weren’t for the 1.1 HR/9 he posted with Pawtucket this year. The biggest issue was his inability to keep the ball on the ground. While he’s typically settled in with a ground ball rate just under 50 percent, Johnson allowed grounders just 36 percent of the time in Pawtucket last season. This was another issue that didn’t go away in the second half, as he allowed 1.2 home runs per nine and induced grounders just 35 percent of the time.
Of course, all of this needs the proper context of his personal issues. Johnson was dealing with anxiety last year, and anyone who’s dealt with that knows how much of an effect that can have. It would affect anyone, never mind a prospect for one of the most scrutinized organizations in sports. These issues began to manifest physically as well, even causing numbness in his throwing arm. By all accounts, he’s gotten the proper help, which is a big relief both as baseball fans and people who want Red Sox players (and, hopefully, everyone) to live happily and comfortably.
Keeping in mind how large of an effect severe anxiety can have, it could be fair to call 2016 a lost season. There’s no way of knowing how much will carry over into next year, and it’s one of the things I’ll be watching most closely this spring. If Johnson looks like he’s keeping the ball down, hitting his spots and is inducing ground balls, that would be a huge boost for the Red Sox rotation depth. They would be able to possibly shift Roenis Elias to the bullpen without having to rely solely on the consistently inconsistent Henry Owens and utterly uninspiring Kyle Kendrick. Baseball isn’t the biggest worry for Johnson in 2017, but an added bonus to personal peace for him could be better results on the mound.