After a nightmare 2013, one of the most intriguing names on the free-agent market has found a new home and perfect landing spot for a mid-career resurgence. Tuesday night, the San Diego Padres inked free-agent starter Josh Johnson to a one-year, $8 million contract, per Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.
Just months after finishing a one-year stint in Toronto with an unsightly ERA of 6.20, Johnson has found a home in pitcher-friendly Petco Park. Along with peripheral statistics in line with much more effective pitchers and a track record of extreme success, the 29-year-old righty is poised to give San Diego a very good 2014 before hitting the free-agent market again next winter.
While Johnson is a risk, San Diego added an interesting wrinkle to the deal in order to protect themselves against another lost season from the former Miami Marlin, per Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports. If Johnson doesn't make at least seven starts in 2014, the Padres can retain him in 2015 for the small sum of just $4 million.
The decision to sign Josh Johnson isn't a baseball decision; it's a medical one. If he's 100%, he's awesome. I have no idea if he will be.— Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) November 13, 2013
Of course, a healthy Johnson should thrive in San Diego's expansive ballpark. According to ESPN's MLB Park Factors, no stadium suppressed offense like Petco Park in 2013. The fewest runs in baseball were scored during games in San Diego, a far cry from Johnson's last home, Toronto's Rogers Centre, where the fourth-most runs in baseball were scored this past season.
Furthermore, Johnson's career 47.1 percent ground-ball rate, per Fangraphs, will help him thrive (relatively) on the road in the NL West in homer-friendly parks like Coors Field in Colorado and Chase Field in Arizona. When factoring in scheduling, from home games to division games on the road in San Francisco, Los Angeles and the aforementioned hitters' parks, 60 to 70 percent of Johnson's starts in 2014 can come in parks he's built to thrive in.
As much as Petco will be a boon to Johnson's game, his health and ability matter much more. Despite the rough 2013, there's reason to believe that major talent is still left in the right arm of a pitcher who once made back-to-back National League All-Star team appearances. Among the reasons to think that Johnson's right arm is healthy enough to dominate for San Diego in the NL West: strikeout rate and peripheral numbers.
Last season, Johnson posted a 9.2 K/9 rate for the Blue Jays. That mark, despite an injured arm, was the highest rate he's posted since 2010. Overall, it represented the second-best K/9 rate of his entire career. If he continues to miss bats at that rate, there's little reason to believe he can't be successful over 180-plus innings.
As Bleacher Report's Adam Wells pointed out in his piece about Johnson's potential as a free-agent steal, the big righty can still blow hitters away. Considering that he struck out batters at a higher rate than most healthy pitchers, a return to form could be in order if the October surgery fixed what was ailing the former top-five finisher in the NL Cy Young vote.
While the 6.20 ERA stands out to baseball fans, another pitching metric likely stood out to Padres general manager Josh Byrnes when mulling over the contract offer: expected fielding independent pitching, or xFIP for short. In 2013, Johnson posted a xFIP of 3.58, good for 45th-best in baseball, per Fangraphs. Among the pitchers with xFIP rates higher than Johnson in 2013: Hiroki Kuroda, Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Verlander.
According to Fangraphs' explanation of xFIP, 3.75 is above average. When you consider how excellent Johnson was in the five seasons prior to his injury-plagued year, that distinction isn't hard to accept when mulling over the present and future of San Diego's newest starter. The following chart shows where Johnson's adjusted ERA ranked in the five years before arriving in Toronto.
Pitching to a better ERA+ than Adam Wainwright, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander and Cole Hamels is no small feat. From 2008 through 2012, Josh Johnson was one of the most dominant starting pitchers in baseball. If a new park and a fresh start can unlock the pitcher who starred for the Marlins, San Diego just added one of the best pitchers in the sport to its rotation.
Will Josh Johnson return to dominance in San Diego?
Since arriving in the majors in 2005, Josh Johnson has proven to be a high-quality starter. Now, his career is at a crossroads. Few will question the ability, but until he becomes a consistent 180-plus inning arm, concerns will persist. As you can tell, there's ample evidence that a healthy Johnson, buoyed by a run-suppressing environment in the NL West, can rebound to become a reliable, top-tier pitcher once again.
Unless the Padres surprise the baseball world by competing for a postseason spot in 2014, the oft-injured pitcher can perform a career resurgence in anonymity. However, if Johnson's return to form coincides with an unexpected summer of winning in San Diego, much like Pittsburgh's in 2013, Johnson may be remembered as the Francisco Liriano of the 2013-14 free-agent class.