Can Jim Johnson dominate again in 2013?

Can Jim Johnson dominate again in 2013?
November 15, 2012, 10:45 am
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Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Jim Johnson (43) pitches during the ninth inning of game three of the 2012 ALDS against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Yankees won 3-2 in twelve innings.

(Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE)

Jim Johnson had the best year any Orioles reliever ever had last season.

He was reliable, efficient and not very spectacular. Fifty-four times he had a chance to save a game, and he converted 51 of them. That’s awfully good.

In the three save opportunities Johnson blew, the Orioles eventually won two of them. Johnson won one.

So, 98.1 percent of the time the Orioles gave Johnson the ball with a lead, they won the game.

That will be nearly impossible to equal. Johnson accomplished this missing a week due to illness. There were three other save opportunities during his absence, and it’s possible he could have had 54.

Only eight times has a pitcher saved more than Johnson’s 51. All of those seasons were 1990 or later. Relief pitching has become a much more important part of the game.

One Cy Young voter actually placed Tampa Bay’s Fernando Rodney first on his ballot. Rodney may have had a better season than Johnson, but he wasn’t more valuable than David Price, Justin Verlander or Jered Weaver.

Johnson’ modest Cy Young numbers, one fourth-place vote and three fifth-place votes were probably justified, but still nice to see that people noticed.

Unlike Rodney or Jose Valverde, there are no histrionics with Johnson. No high wire act. He prefers to quickly retire his three batters in the ninth and then disappear.

On the rare occasions he fails, Johnson doesn’t disappear. After he had a nightmarish ninth inning against the Yankees in Game 1 of the Divisional Series, Johnson marched to his locker to answer questions. He didn’t have to do that often.

Manager Buck Showalter was careful to monitor Johnson’s workload though he tried to talk himself into some games when the manager wanted to rest him. He pitched 68 2/3 innings, and wasn’t a strikeout pitcher.

The two pitchers with the most saves in a season had abrupt falls. In1990, the White Sox’s Bobby Thigpen set a record with 57 saves. He pitched 88 2/3 innings at 26. For the rest of his career, Thigpen totaled 53 saves and was finished by the time he was 30.

Francisco Rodriguez broke Thigpen’s record with 62 in 2008, also at age 26. He was effective for a few more years, but in 2012, he was 2-7 with a 4.38 ERA and just three saves in 10 chances. He threw 68 1/3 innings in his record-setting season, about the same as Johnson.

Some of the best relief pitcher in history had 50 or more saves in a season while maintaining their effectiveness. John Smoltz (55) Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera (53) and Dennis Eckersley (51) all had managers who didn’t overwork them. Only Rivera had more than one 50 save season.

Showalter is a student of baseball history and has studied relievers, knowing a repeat is unlikely.

He’s not going to let Pedro Strop or Luis Ayala close games more often to relieve Johnson’s burden. He’ll monitor Johnson’s innings.

Almost forgotten now is that Johnson came up as a starter, failed in his first try as a closer and was thought of as a possible starter for last season.

Because of Johnson’s calmness, his efficiency and the lack of shtick on the mound, he’s likely to continue to excel as a closer. Domination? Not so much.