Baltimore Orioles' Jim Johnson On The Brink

By Thom Tsang
Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Johnson came out of nowhere to record 51 saves for the Baltimore Orioles in 2012, quickly establishing himself as one of the league’s top relievers.

The encore, however, has not gone quite as well as planned.

Though he did establish a new franchise record of 35 consecutive saves dating back to that magical campaign last year, it’s the righty-hander’s new streak that has rightly caused the O’s to be concerned. Including Monday’s 24-pitch effort against the New York Yankees, Johnson has now blown three consecutive saves, each being as demoralizing as the other as the team’s once-vaunted bullpen continues to stumble down the league ERA rankings.

No, this wasn’t quite the mess that he put up against the Tampa Bay Rays over the weekend (five ER , three hits, two walks), but the culprit for the closer’s downfall on Monday was the same thing: the home run.

Asked to protect a 4-3 lead, Johnson could not get past Travis Hafner, falling behind 3-1 to the Yankees’ No. 3 hitter before delivering an ill-fated sinker that was promptly deposited into left field. He’d avoided further damage (that job was left to Pedro Strop, who did his part to help complete the collapse), but the single run was plenty enough to turn the momentum of what had been a close-fought game.

With home runs allowed in consecutive starts, Johnson has now allowed three long balls on the season. To put that in perspective, he allowed just three home runs all year in 2012.

At this pace, he’s easily set to establish a career-high in home runs allowed in a season, and even if he continues to have manager Buck Showalter‘s vote of confidence, it’s unlikely that his hold on the job will last to that point.

The issue, as you might have guessed, has to do with Johnson’s diminished abilities to draw ground balls (53.2 percent in 2013, 62.3 percent in 2012), but it might also have to do with the fact that he’s throwing fewer pitches in the zone (47.1 percent vs. 49.8 last season). In this case, it caused him to fall behind in the count to a key hitter, and the rest was history.

It’s worth noticing that his fastball velocity has dropped a tick too (93.2 mph average vs. 94.4 in 2012), though it’s not as though he’s been unable to succeed without a blistering high 90s fastball, so it’s unlikely to be a main culprit here.

With Strop also not exactly the shining example of reliability, the last thing the Orioles need is an issue in the ninth inning on top of a six-game losing streak.

That said, this is a team that relies heavily on its bullpen to win tight games, and if Johnson can’t get that sinker to get back to doing its thing soon, all the votes of confidence from the manager won’t help the team avoid more streaks like it.

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