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« To Justify Prospect Hype, Profar Must Solve Breaking Stuff | Main | Memo to Patrick Corbin: Keep the Heater Down »

Josh Johnson: This Winter's Francisco Liriano?

When it comes to joining baseball's uber-rich via free agency, timing is everything. Hit the market after a career year, and you might just land a $100 million deal despite a longer track record suggesting you're more league-average innings muncher than ace (hello, Ervin Santana). But enter the bidding after a season defined more by DL stints and quick hooks than quality starts, and you're staring at the prospect of a one-year, "prove it" contract that pays a fraction of what you used to make.

Case in point: Josh Johnson. While the former Marlin and Blue Jay hasn't proven near as durable as Santana, Johnson easily bests him on a per-inning basis (Johnson's career park-and-league adjusted ERA is 23 percent above average, compared to exactly average for Santana). But Johnson, who recently agreed to a one-year, $8 million deal with the Padres, reached free agency at the worst possible moment. He's coming off a 2013 campaign in which he tossed just 81.1 innings due to triceps, knee, forearm and elbow injuries. And those innings were terrible: His 66 ERA+ was sixth-worst in the majors among starting pitchers throwing 80+ frames, ahead of just Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong, Brandon Maurer, Edinson Volquez and Joe Blanton.

Johnson, who raked in $13.75 million during his first and last season in Toronto, will take a sizeable pay cut in 2014 despite teams throwing around cash like Kenny Powers on a bender. But health permitting, Johnson may prove to be a major bargain. Here are three reasons why the 29-year-old could be this winter's version of Francisco Liriano, reclaiming ace status through a combination of better luck and knockout breaking stuff.

He was ridiculously unlucky in 2013

During his nine-year career, Johnson has surrendered hits on balls in play at a league average clip (.302 BABIP). But his .356 BABIP last season was second-highest among pitchers making at least 15 starts, with only Wade Davis (.362 BABIP) suffering from more bloops and bleeders. Johnson has typically given up fewer home runs on fly balls hit (8.2 percent of the time) than the MLB average (around 11 percent). Last year, though, his HR/FB rate more than doubled to 18.5 percent -- fourth highest among starters. Johnson wasn't giving up lots of towering shots, as opponents' average distance on fly balls hit against him (269 feet) was about league average (266 feet). It's doesn't look like he suddenly turned into a pinata. Rather, Johnson had lousy luck on balls in play and gave up some wall-scraping homers.

He missed bats, especially with his breaking stuff

Johnson's stuff didn't suffer as he endured one ailment after another, as he struck out a career-high 9.2 batters per nine innings. He punched out hitters at the 14th-best clip among starters, sandwiched between a former Sugarland Skeeter who revived his career (Scott Kazmir) and Liriano. Johnson induced about a league average number of swings and misses with his fastball (14.4 percent), but his breaking stuff was wicked. He got whiffs 39.6 percent of the time with his slider, easily topping the 30.9 percent MLB average for starters. His curveball was even harder to square up: Johnson's 49.4 percent miss rate with the pitch bested all starters except AL Cy Young finalist Yu Darvish (50 percent). High ERA aside, Johnson shouldn't be mentioned in the same sentence as soft-tossing, strikeout challenged guys like Blanton and Zito.

He located his pitches

Some might argue that Johnson gave up so many hits on balls in play because missed his spots, hanging pitches over the middle of the plate for hitters to pulverize. That wasn't really the case, though, as he actually threw fewer pitches to the vertical middle of the strike zone (31.1 percent) than the MLB average (32 percent). Johnson was particularly adept at keeping his breaking stuff out of the middle of the zone:

Johnson's pitch location with his slider and curveball in 2013

Johnson threw an MLB-high 77.7 percent of his sliders and curveballs to the lower third of the strike zone, far above the 55.2 percent average for starters. Why does that matter? Hitters rarely make hard contact against low breaking pitches (.253 slugging percentage), but they reach the gaps or clear the fence far more often on belt-high curves and sliders (.475 slugging percentage). Johnson's sky-high BABIP and homer rate look more the product of bad bounces than bad command.

While the ace-turned-scrapheap sign didn't land a fat contract this winter, Johnson could well be in a position to do so next year. He still possesses the talent to evade lumber and spot his stuff, and he'll have the benefit of making home starts at Petco Park, which StatCorner says decreased run-scoring by 15 percent compared to a neutral stadium in 2013. If you're in search of a favorite for 2014 NL Comeback Player of the Year, Johnson tops the list.

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