Johnson adjusts repertoire for bounce-back season
Former ace looks to make a home in Toronto with new approach to pitching
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The 2012 season didn't go exactly as planned for Josh Johnson, but there's hope that in the end he'll become a better pitcher because of it.
Toronto's right-hander experienced a drop in velocity last year, which prompted a change in the way he approached hitters. The days of simply overpowering opposing batters came to an end and was replaced with a more balanced attack.
Johnson now enters his first season in Toronto with a better understanding of how to keep hitters off balance by utilizing an improved arsenal, which now includes a polished curveball.
"I learned how to pitch," said Johnson, who went 8-14 with a 3.81 ERA in 31 starts. "Sometimes I could get by with just throwing, blowing it by guys. Now I locate a lot better or slow him down to get the ball by him and miss bats."
Johnson threw a curveball when he was drafted by Miami in 2004, but the pitch was scrapped within a couple of years. The organization wanted him to focus on making the slider a lethal weapon, and for some reason felt it was necessary to take away the secondary offering.
That philosophy changed last season after his fastball struggled to regain its previous speed. Johnson averaged 95 mph on his fastball in 2009, but last year that dipped several notches to 92 mph, according to Fangraphs.
The drop in velocity wasn't entirely unexpected. Johnson suffered a shoulder injury the previous season, and by all accounts wasn't going to regain full strength until 2013. The hope is that the mid-90s fastball will return this year, but even if it doesn't, an improved curveball should go a long way to helping him become a more complete pitcher.
Johnson experimented with the pitch during Spring Training of 2012, but it wasn't until a third of the way through the season that it became a reliable option. He went on to throw the curve 15 percent of the time, and along the way it transitioned from a "show-me" pitch into a reliable strikeout weapon.
"I was out there and it would be good for one and then terrible for three, good for two, terrible for four, things like that," said Johnson, who is set to earn $13.75 million in the final year of his deal. "It was really inconsistent until about a third of the way through the season.
"All of a sudden I started throwing it for strikes and then I wouldn't use it enough. Then I started using it more, more, more and that's when I started getting the hang of it."
Toronto's blockbuster trade with Miami this offseason featured the likes of Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Emilio Bonifacio. Despite all of the high-end talent joining the Blue Jays, it was Johnson that sparked the initial dialogue and became the centerpiece of the deal.
The reason for general manager Alex Anthopoulos' interest was simple. Toronto lacked depth in the starting rotation, and following a disappointing season by Opening Day starter Ricky Romero, there was a need not only for someone who could eat a lot of innings, but also act as a potential front-line piece.
Johnson will start the year as the No. 4 starter, but in reality could be considered an ace on the majority of pitching staffs across Major League Baseball. The resume is impressive as he's a two-time All-Star, and in 2010 had the best ERA in the National League. Johnson has the ability to be not only good, but great, on the mound.
"We're counting on him, we need him," manager John Gibbons said of his 6-foot-7 hurler. "He's one of the top two or three pitchers in the game, reputation and what he accomplished. He's going to be good for us.
"He's always had the overpowering arm, he battled some health problems but we think it's behind him. When you're that size, he's intimidating, the ball gets on you a little bit quicker. He got there at a young age and he's had a lot of success. We just hope he's healthy and he comes in here and has a great year for us."
The health might be somewhat of a concern, but Johnson is now almost a year and a half removed from his previous shoulder issues. Despite the perceived reputation, the numbers actually show he has been somewhat of a workhorse in recent years.
Johnson won 15 games in 2009. That total dropped to 11 the following season, but as evidenced by a 2.30 ERA, the lack of victories had more to do with poor run support than anything else. It's true that '11 was somewhat of a write-off, but even with the shoulder not being 100 percent last season, he managed to post an ERA below 4.00.
The performance has always been there even if there has been an unfair stereotype surrounding his overall production.
"People always talk about me getting hurt," Johnson said. "I've thrown at least 180-something innings three of the last four years, so it's not terrible.
"I thought it was pretty terrible until I saw that, and I was like, 'Hey, it's not real bad.' But not where I want to be, [that is to] go out there and throw 200-plus innings, be out there every start. That's the main thing for me."