Josh Johnson: How Good Is He?

CHRIS PUMMER: Marlins pitcher Josh Johnson has already ascended to ace status. You could say he did that last year when in his first full season back from elbow surgery, he blew away hitters to the tune of a 3.23 ERA with high strikeout low home run rates.

Yet even with his improvement this season over last, I think it’s still hard to place him too deep in the discussion of who is baseball’s best pitcher.

Johnson sports an ERA below 2.00 with even more strikeouts per 9 innings (8.9), is allowing freakishly few home runs (0.3/9 IP) and giving up fewer hits than he has in his career (6.4 / 9 IP, versus 8.0 career and 7.9 last year).

Even in a context in which more than a dozen starters in the National League sport ERAs below 3.00 early this season, the big 26-year-old righty has been dynamite. But that said, once the HR and hit rates regress somewhat as the summer heats up, Johnson will probably finish this year with an ERA closer to 3.00 than to 2.00.

While no team would be embarrassed by Johnson at the front of its rotation, if I had my choice of any pitcher, there are several names I’d take in front of Johnson.

In my opinion Johnson’s promise still doesn’t overshadow Roy Halladay’s long track record of success that is continuing through today. The same can be said when stacking Johnson against Tim Lincecum, Zack Greinke, Chris Carpenter, Justin Verlander, Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright or CC Sabathia.

Johnson is a terrific pitcher. He just has a little more to prove before he’s on the same level as those names.

Josh Johnson is 26, healthy, and pitching as well as anyone in baseball. With his current performance, and all his key indicators trending upward, he’s got to be in the conversation for the best 3-4 pitchers in baseball this season moving forward.

While Johnson’s superficial stats are astoundingly good- 8-3, 1.83 ERA- it is in his areas that best predict future performance that he really stands out. His strikeout rate is 8.9 per nine innings, his walk rate a paltry 2.3 per nine. Incidentally, here are his three-year rates- see if you spot a trend: for K’s, 7.9, 8.2, 8.9. For walks, 2.8, 2.5, 2.3.

Even his home runs, though down significantly in terms of HR per fly balls, follow this trend- from 9 percent of fly balls in 2008 to 7.5 percent in 2009 to 4.3 percent in 2010. A return to 2008-2009 norms would still leave him with an overwhelming 2010 season.

So who are we taking over Johnson, exactly? Cliff Lee? I’d bet Lee’s walk rate falters sooner than Johnson’s HR rate- it is a far greater outlier from his normal seasons. Sabathia is a terrific pitcher whose K-rates have trended down and walk rates up the past three seasons. He’s well off of Johnson’s pace in 2010. Roy Halladay is a great pitcher, and he’s 33, with a less-impressive season than Johnson so far.

This is not to knock any of the pitchers Chris mentioned. They are all impressive aces. I simply think the list of pitchers one would take ahead of Johnson for the duration of 2010 may not include any of them.

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