Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Brian Johnson.
2019 in one sentence
Brian Johnson was unable to serve as even decent rotation depth in a year when the Red Sox desperately needed it.
Look, I like Brian Johnson. He has gone through hell just to get to where he is in his career, and he’s done it with nothing but professionalism. I say this because, well, I don’t have a lot of nice things to say about his performance in 2019 and it felt borderline mean just taking notes to prep for this post. I had to balance it out a little. The fact is, though, there just really wasn’t a whole lot of positive in his season and I will readily admit that this entire section is something of a stretch.
For example, my first note here is that he was good against lefties. That is real! The southpaw was money in same-handedness situations, holding his left-handed opponents to a line of just .232/.295/.393 for a .293 wOBA. His strikeout rate was solid, although still below average, at just under 18 percent and his walk rate fell way down to eight percent. Most importantly, he wasn’t crushed like he was against righties (we’ll get to that later), allowing a batting average on balls in play of just .267 and only one home run. That’s all good! Of course, the kicker here is that the sample was extremely small, as Johnson faced only 62 lefties all year. He did very well against those 62, though!
Continuing with the theme of reaching, my next note was “fastball?” I wrote a question mark in my notes because it didn’t seem real! For one thing, Johnson’s fastball is not a very impressive pitch on the surface. He is your prototypical soft-tosser who needs his secondaries to succeed. That his fastball was his most effective pitch in 2019 tells you what you need to know about his season. That said, he did get his whiff rate (per Baseball Savant) over 21 percent on the pitch, up from 18.6 percent in 2018. Furthermore, his expected wOBA on the offering was just .315, which is a very solid mark. Unfortunately, the results didn’t hold form there, as the actual wOBA was all the up at .397.
My final note here was Fenway, which really falls under the same category as the first note in that it was a good albeit small-sample-size split. When Johnson was able to pitch at home, though, he was much more effective. In the friendly confines the lefty pitched to a 3.68 ERA while limiting opponents to a .282 wOBA. Unfortunately, these outings only made up 14 2⁄3 innings, or just 36 percent of his total innings on the year.
So, as you astute readers may have figured out by now, Johnson didn’t have a very successful season. Over his 40 1⁄3 innings in 2019, he pitched to an ugly 6.02 ERA with an only-slightly-better 5.35 FIP and an almost-impossibly-bad 8.05 DRA. After adjusting for park effects, Johnson was 25 percent worse than league-average by ERA, 17 percent worse by FIP and 67 percent worse by DRA. It’s not what you want.
You can point in a number of different directions if you are searching for that one thing that really made his year go off the rails, but I think I have to start with those secondaries I mentioned above. Remember when I mentioned that he is at his best when his fastball isn’t his best pitch? Well, his secondaries were unfortunately ineffective in 2019. When he is at his best, Johnson’s best offering is his curveball. In 2018 he had a 24 percent whiff rate and an expected wOBA of .277 along with a .281 actual wOBA. In 2019, those numbers were 22 percent, .351 and .434. Similarly, the expected and actual wOBAs on his slider went from .304 and .321, respectively, in 2018 to .341 and .331 in 2019. The big difference was simply a lack of chases.
That lack of chases brings us to another candidate for Johnson’s biggest issue: The walks. Another part of not being able to blow fastballs by guys is that, generally, you have to be a control pitcher. That has described Johnson throughout his professional career. He hasn’t been elite here, to be fair, but he’s generally been good enough to survive without big strikeout numbers. This year, the control cratered. The lefty walked just under 12 percent of his opponents in 2019, a three percentage point increase from 2018 and 3.4 percentage points higher than the league-average this past year. Again, this was largely due to not getting chases on pitches out of the zone. As a pitcher who throws non-fastballs 63 percent of the time (at least he did in 2019), by design a lot of pitches are going to end up out of the zone. If opponents aren’t biting, you’re either going to walk a bunch of guys or start throwing fat breaking balls in the zone that will get crushed. Johnson experienced both of these scenarios.
There are a lot of other directions I can go from here, but I’m only going to highlight two more areas out of mercy for Johnson. The first is how he was against righties. I mentioned his numbers against lefties, which were very solid, and I mentioned his overall numbers, which were not so solid. I have faith you are smart enough to figure out what the difference had to have been. To say Johnson was roughed up by righties would be an understatement. Righties hit a Bonds-ian .357/.446/.607 against Johnson for a .433 wOBA. Want some context? I have some context. Among players with at least 130 plate appearances (righties had 131 plate appearances against Johnson), only Mike Trout and Christian Yelich bested that wOBA. Want some more context? I have some more context. Among the 432 pitchers who recorded at least 60 outs against righties (Johnson recorded 76), only three allowed higher wOBAs. It’s not great!
Finally, there is the health part of all of this. I mentioned at the very top here that Johnson has dealt with hell to get where he is, and a big part of that has been due to injury. Not all of those injuries have even been baseball-related, which was the case here as well. The lefty missed a significant chunk of time this year with what was originally just described as a “non-baseball medical issue” and later revealed to be an intestinal issue. He also missed time earlier in the year with elbow inflammation. It’s reasonable to believe these ailments and the resulting time missed — he threw only 14 innings in the first half of the year — played a role in his struggles throughout the year, though it’s impossible to quantify just how much of an effect they had.
The Big Question
Before this past season started, it was fair to wonder whether or not Johnson was going to make it through the season on the roster. He was solid in 2018, but there were some cracks showing and he was out of minor-league options. It wasn’t unreasonable to envision them needing his roster spot for someone else. He did, of course, make it through the year, but I wouldn’t say it was because of his versatility as much as it was just because they were so desperate for any sort of pitching. We’ll give this one a half-yes.
Johnson once again finds himself on the roster bubble, although things are more precarious this year. Not only is he coming off a much worse season, but the Red Sox also have guys like Ryan Weber, Hector Velázquez, Mike Shawaryn and Denyi Reyes on the 40-man who can serve as rotation depth and/or swing men. All of them have options remaining, too. That doesn’t even mention possibilities that do not currently hold a 40-man spot like Tanner Houck, Kyle Hart and potentially Bryan Mata in a best-care scenario. Johnson is not yet arbitration-eligible, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he is taken off the roster by the time Opening Day rolls around.