Is Jim Johnson an Upgrade over Grant Balfour?


Sep 28, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Orioles catcher Chris Snyder (48) congratulates closer Jim Johnson after a game against the Boston Red Sox at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Orioles defeated the Red Sox 6-5. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

The Oakland Athletics move on quickly. The situation of Grant Balfour is a prime example. The Athletics knew that Balfour would want more money than they would be willing to give him, so they quickly found a replacement, Jim Johnson.

Over the last two seasons, the former Baltimore Oriole has emerged one of the top closers in Major League Baseball. He has a league leading 101 saves in that time span.

Grant Balfour numbers were exceptional last season as well, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to replicate them. It seemed as if Balfour worked himself into a jam every time he came out to close a game. He had an undeniable knack for frightening A’s fans in the ninth inning. Some of his saves could easily have slipped from his grasp and could have cost the Athletics a few wins.

Of course, the Athletics cannot seriously complain about Grant Balfour’s performance last season. He ended up converting 38 saves in 41 opportunities, a percentage that few closers can match over the course of a season.

In 2012, Jim Johnson was one of those few. He converted 51 of his 54 save opportunities in a truly remarkable campaign.

Last season, however, he was not one of the few. Although he did record 50 saves, he led the league with nine blown saves.

This forces the Athletics to wonder which Jim Johnson they are going to see in 2014. Will they get the good Jim Johnson? Or will they get the great Jim Johnson? How can he return to his 2012 form?

Jim Johnson is a groundball pitcher. His hard sinker is the main reason he has had so much success in the past two seasons. People point to Johnson’s typically low strikeout rate and identify it as his weakness. However, Johnson had a 7.2 SO/9 rate (strikeouts per nine innings) last season, almost two full points higher than his rate in 2012. In fact, Orioles pitching coach and Jim Johnson agree that his higher strikeout rate may have actually harmed his overall pitching. It simply is not an integral part of his game.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter believes that Johnson was unlucky last year, that ground balls found may more  holes in the infield last season than they did the year before. Even if this is true, a sinkerball pitcher must realize that some groundballs will not go directly to the shortstop.

Luck will dictate whether the A’s get the good or great Jim Johnson (assuming Johnson doesn’t change his pitching style). Will ground balls go to the infielders or will they find their way to the outfield?

Either way, the A’s will have an effective closer next season.