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2018 in Review: Brian Johnson

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A look back at the versatile lefty’s year.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Brian Johnson.

The Season in a Sentence

Brian Johnson certainly isn’t the most exciting pitcher but he once again proved to be valuable depth as he put up solid numbers in a flexible role.

The Positives

We tend to think of versatility more when we talk about position players, with guys like Ben Zobrist paving the way and Brock Holt filling the hometown role of playing all over the diamond. Marwin Gonzalez is going to be a good test case for how valuable that versatility can be on the open market. Position players simply have more positions at which they can show off their versatility, but don’t discount what a versatile pitcher can provide as well. Brian Johnson was an example of this as someone who seamlessly was able to bounce back and forth between the rotation and bullpen all year. He wasn’t great in either role and probably wouldn’t have had a spot on this roster at any one spot, but it’s much easier said than done bouncing around the depth chart as a pitcher, particularly when there was little warning as was the case with Johnson this year. Overall, the southpaw made 13 starts and 25 relief appearances — about half of a full workload for each spot — and he was similarly productive in both roles. As a starter, he pitched to a 4.15 ERA while allowing an .803 OPS while out of the bullpen he pitched to a 4.19 ERA while allowing a .723 OPS.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Beyond the versatility, well, these positives are often relative to expectations, and for Johnson we don’t expect a lot of strikeouts. The lefty is more of a pitch-to-contact kind of pitcher without any single overwhelming pitch. When he’s at his best his curveball can be filthy, but mostly it just keeps hitters off-balance and results in weak contact. This year, however, the southpaw set a career-high with just under eight strikeouts per nine innings. Now, some of this surely has to do with the increasing strikeout rates around the league, but Johnson deserves credit. He got more swings and misses than any other point in his career, with most of the increase coming on pitches out of the zone. Again, it comes down to his curveball, and opponents couldn’t lay off. That is the key offering for him if he is going to succeed long-term in this league.

Admittedly, you have to look somewhat deep at some other splits to find more positives for the 27-year-old. For one thing, Johnson was able to pitch very well against left-handed hitters this year, which was valuable as someone who came out of the bullpen half the time. It goes without saying that these kind of matchup strengths can help in shorter stints, particularly on a Red Sox team without a true left-handed reliever on the roster. Lefties hit just .218/.288/.376 against Johnson this year. On top of that, the southpaw had a big stretch in the middle of summer that was hugely valuable to this team. June through the end of July was easily the best stretch of the year for Johnson, as he pitched to a 1.91 ERA while allowing a .642 OPS over 33 innings. Of course, as was the case all year he evenly split his work out of the bullpen and the rotation. The start of the stretch was all bullpen work with nine innings in relief over five appearances before he entered the rotation and made five starts with a sub-2.00 ERA. Things started to fall off after that, but those summer months are often crucial and often forgotten, and Johnson came up big.

The Negatives

Johnson certainly had some big moments, but ultimately his overall stat line is anywhere from average to straight-up bad depending on your metric of choice. By the end of the year he had pitched to a 4.17 ERA (93 ERA-), a 4.68 FIP (112 FIP-) and a 6.16 DRA (138 DRA-). Most of the issues here come down to command issues, as Johnson gave up too many free passes and too much hard contact. Pitchers with big stuff that miss bats can get away with some command issues, but as someone who allows a decent amount of balls in play, Johnson needs to work around the edges. In 2018, he walked about 3.5 batters per nine innings and 1.4 homers per nine. Both of those numbers are far too high for a pitcher like him, and on the home run portion he may be well served with a move out of the American League East and their hitter-friendly parks.

Beyond the general command issues that really hung over all of his struggles in 2018, there were a few more specific areas in which the lefty struggled this past year. For one thing, Johnson had a really rough end of the year and left the season on the wrong impression. He had that hot streak in June and July, but after that he had a rough time to end the season. Over the final two months of 2018, the former first round pick pitched to a 5.26 ERA over 39 13 innings (largely out of the rotation) and allowed an .858 OPS. Again, a lot of the issues came down to walks and home runs.

Additionally, Johnson struggled in the most important situations, which isn’t ideal when half the season is spent in the bullpen. Johnson allowed a .991 OPS in high-leverage spots, an .839 OPS with two outs, an .884 OPS with runners on base, an .865 OPS with runners in scoring position and a .979 OPS with two outs and runners in scoring position. On the flip side, he also struggled against right-handed hitters. This is obviously not ideal for someone who starts half the time, as you can’t allow opponents to just stack their lineup against you. While Johnson was good against lefties, righties posted an .810 OPS against him with 13 homers in 323 plate appearances.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Big Question

What is Brian Johnson’s role?

If you remember correctly, there was no guarantee Johnson was going to make it through the entire season on the Red Sox roster. He had no defined role and, more importantly, no minor-league options. As it turns out, they found a role for the lefty and that role was whatever is needed. To Johnson’s credit, he was willing and able to pitch in all sorts of roles, and for all of the issues he came out average in terms of runs allowed in both roles. As I mentioned above, this is an underrated and important job for a major-league club.

The Year Ahead

Johnson is, of course, still going to be out of minor-league options in 2019, so questions about his ability to stick on the roster will last for possibly a whole nother year. Take this with a grain of salt because I said this a few times in 2018, but I think he moves on this year, likely before Opening Day. Assuming the Red Sox add another starter this winter, and I’d be surprised if they don’t, they’ll have Steven Wright and Hector Velazquez and starting depth options on the major-league roster. Additionally, guys like William Cuevas, Chandler Shepherd and Mike Shawaryn will be in Triple-A, along with some other names further down and any other potential MiLB signings. I think that squeezes Johnson out, and he’ll latch on as a back-of-the-rotation starter on a bad team at some point in 2019.