Padres Editorial: Can Erik Johnson Be A Viable Big League Starter?

San Diego Padres starting pitcher Erik Johnson throws to the Baltimore Orioles in the first inning of an interleague baseball game in Baltimore, Wednesday, June 22, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

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Credit: USA Today Sports
Credit: USA Today Sports

With the trade of James Shields in the beginning of June, the Padres made it clear where they stood. At the end of the day, the move was all about money, with the return in the deal becoming important. The Padres are on the hook for just over half of the remaining money on James Shields contract, just over $30 million if Shields does not opt-out following the season. On top of that, the Padres got two players in return in the trade: Fernando Tatis Jr. and Erik Johnson.

While Fernando Tatis Jr. is the more interesting potential piece in the long term, Erik Johnson is the one gaining more notice to this point given his spot on the major league roster. Through his first few starts in San Diego, Johnson has seemingly already worn out his welcome in Southern California. So far in four June starts, Johnson has been all kinds of awful, giving up 20 earned runs in only 19.2 innings pitched, including nine home run balls. Padre fans have understandably responded negatively to Johnson’s woeful first month in San Diego.

I could continue with more negative tweets, but you get the idea. No Padre in recent memory has received the kind of immediate negative reaction that Johnson has to this point. While it’s understandable that fans are upset with his performance, it’s pretty clear that Johnson may just be in over his head a bit. Due to how bad he has been so far, it begs the question: Is Erik Johnson a viable big league starter?

Based on the recent results, including another poor start on Tuesday, that question may seem like it has a pretty simple answer. However, it’s actually a little bit more complicated than that.

To this point in his Padres career, it’s clear the biggest part of Johnson’s struggles have come from poor pitch location, which has helped lead to his significant home run problem. Bigger than that, however, has been his issue with inducing swings and misses and getting batters to make weak contact. It’s almost looked like Johnson was throwing batting practice, as batters keyed in on all his pitches and made strong contact.

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Looked at another way, Johnson is allowing way too much contact on pitches inside the zone, as demonstrated by the additional plot below.

Based on these two plots, Johnson’s problems are even more apparent. Given his inability to induce swings and misses, Johnson is giving up a lot of contact, including a lot of hard contact. In the month of June, Johnson has given up soft contact just 16% of the time, while he has given up hard contact 42% of the time. It’s not hard to understand why those numbers are alarming.

As can be seen in the video above, the lack of movement on Johnson’s pitches has led directly to his negative performance. Johnson isn’t throwing the ball hard enough to overpower hitters, and his lack of movement is making it even easier for batters to tee off. Given his current repertoire on the mound, which includes over 50% fastballs and 25% sliders, it’s easy to see why Johnson has struggled to fool hitters to this point.

Going forward, it may be best for the Padres to send Johnson down to Triple-A to better assess his future as a big league starter. At this point, he’s mostly a two pitch pitcher with little velocity or movement on his fastball. That kind of pitcher doesn’t last too long in the big leagues. Really the only way Johnson can be a viable big leaguer is if he develops a more consistent third pitch, and works on some sort of more established sinker to use along with his fastball to better fool opposing batters. Until that happens, Johnson seems likely to continue to be mired in mediocrity in San Diego.

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