Jim Johnson: AL MVP?

by Sonny Bunch on August 28, 2012

(Update, Sept. 20): Since publishing this post, Johnson has notched 5 saves, 1 win, and 0 blown saves, giving up one earned run in 9 appearances, all of them Orioles wins. The Orioles have also continued winning close games (none of those victories were by more than four runs and the average margin of victory was two runs) and extra inning games (they’ve now won 15 extra inning games in a row, the longest such streak since 1949). Additionally, the Orioles are only 1/2 a game back of the Yankees in the AL East and only 3 games back of the Rangers for the best record in the League—despite having a negative run differential. There’s still a chance Jim Johnson will be the best player on the best team and his stats, especially without those anomalous .2 IP, suggest he’s basically untouchable. Doesn’t that garner him some MVP votes?

OK, so, Josh Hamilton is pretty clearly the MVP of the American League at this point: He’s the best player (35 HR, 111 RBI, .937 OPS) on the best team (the Rangers, who are two games ahead of the Yankees for the best record in the League and have a run differential of +114). Fine.

But let me briefly make the case that the Orioles’ Jim Johnson should come (at least) second on any honest ballot. Bear with me for a second.

The Orioles are stubbornly clinging to a wild card spot and are only 3.5 games behind the Yankees in the ultra-competitive American League East—despite the fact that they have a run differential of -45 (which is to say, they’ve given up 45 more runs than they’ve scored). They are in a position to sneak into the playoffs because their bullpen has kept them in close games and they tend to win those close games: Including last night’s 1-run win, the Orioles have won 13 straight 1-run games and are 24-6 overall in one-run games. The bullpen as a whole has been fantastic; their closer, in particular, has been virtually unhittable.

Jim Johnson’s stats are deceptively good. He’s got a 2.96 ERA and a .988 WHIP to go with his 40 saves (which ties him for the league lead). He has blown three saves, two of which the Orioles won anyway. I say his stats are deceptively good because his ERA has been massively inflated by two terrible outings: One .1 IP outing in which he gave up 6 ER, and notched his only loss, and one non-save outing in which he gave up 5 ER in another .1 IP. So he’s given up 11ER in .2 IP—two appearances out of 56, one of which wasn’t even a save situation. If you remove those two anomalous outings, his ERA plummets to 1.17 and his WHIP drops to 0.81. If you just take out the one anomaly that wasn’t a save situation, his ERA still drops to 2.15 and his WHIP dips to 0.93. As I said, he’s been pretty damn good when it matters.

Now, I don’t think his stats aren’t good enough to win him the Cy Young; his k/9 is pretty low and his ERA/WHIP aren’t the best in the League. I’d say Hernandez or Verlander probably have a better case for the mantle “best pitcher in the league.” But they certainly put him in contention for “most valuable player.” Wins are wins and outs count regardless of how they come; I don’t think periphery stats matter as much for this category. In 1992, when Dennis Eckersley won the MVP, Oakland made the playoffs and Eck notched 51 saves with a 1.91 ERA and a .913 WHIP. Johnson’s numbers aren’t far off if you take out that one bad, non-save outing and are actually better if you remove both anomalies. If the Orioles somehow manage to make the playoffs he’d clearly be the best player on a playoff team and virtually the only reason they’ve managed to keep pace with teams that have far more potent offenses.

Of course, all of this is moot if he gets blown up from here on out or if the Orioles go into a tailspin. But you’ve got to lay the groundwork for these things early! Johnson for MVP!

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Craft August 28, 2012 at 10:00 am

I’m a lifelong Rangers fan. I can’t really agree or disagree. I just felt the need to share this with you:

Desperate Angels Deactivate, Reactivate Vernon Wells To See If That Works

http://www.theonion.com/articles/desperate-angels-deactivate-reactivate-vernon-well,29304/

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Brn August 28, 2012 at 11:12 am

I think that it is interesting that baseball seems to be the only game where winning close games is attributed to skill and not luck. Just think of every other matchup where an underdog plays an overwhelming favorite. If I tell you going in that the game is going to be a blowout, how likely are you to think that that is good news for the underdog?

Yet in baseball, the statement that “good teams win close games” implies the opposite, doesn’t it? It means that a good team is more likely to lose by several runs than by one.

Suppose for example, we have two bowlers, one who averages 150 and another who averages 200. If they bowled a million times, the 150 bowler would win some of the games. But I would bet that he would win almost none of the games decided by 50 pins or more, but in games decided by less than 10 (where one ball makes a difference) he would have a lot better record.

If a team’s record in 1-run games wildly better than their overall record, isn’t it most likely just a statistical blip that will even out over the long run?

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Sonny Bunch August 28, 2012 at 11:18 am

Oh, I think it’s undoubtedly true that Johnson is at least a little lucky to be in the position to pick up all those saves. But he’s still got to slam the door.

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Chris Craft August 28, 2012 at 11:21 am

” It means that a good team is more likely to lose by several runs than by one.”

I don’t agree. It means that at the end of the season, you’ll find that the teams that made the playoffs found a way to manufacture runs and win more close games that the teams that didn’t make the playoffs.
It doesn’t mean that a good team is more likely to lose in a blowout. Throughout a season with as many games as a MLB season, every team is going to win and lose a few blowouts, but the good teams will win more of the close games. (The really good teams will also win more of the blowouts.)

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Sonny Bunch August 28, 2012 at 11:23 am

The Orioles are also more prone to the occasional blowout than most teams, given their lack of offense and inexperienced starters. They simply have a hard time keeping pace when they get torched early.

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Brn August 28, 2012 at 11:37 am

If a team has a better record in close games than their overall record, then they must have a worse record in non-close games. It is simple math.

Suppose that we define close games a 3 runs or less. If team A is 10 games over .500 overall and 20 games over .500 in close games, then they are 10 games below .500 in non-close games. So the numbers would show that it is easier to beat that team by 4 runs that by 1.

A close game is like a short series: Anything can happen.

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Chris Craft August 28, 2012 at 11:48 am

You’re seem to be working from the assumption the team that wins the close game is a good team. The phrase indicates that good teams win more close games than teams that are not good. All teams will win close games. The good teams will find ways to win more close games than the teams that are not as good.

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Brn August 28, 2012 at 12:04 pm

I don’t think that is what people mean by that. Who is surprised that the better team wins, regardless of the score? If that is what people mean (and whenever I’ve seen it brought up, it has never been in that context, but always when some team has a wildly better close game /overall record), then it is meaningless.

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Brn August 28, 2012 at 12:01 pm

” It means that at the end of the season, you’ll find that the teams that made the playoffs found a way to manufacture runs and win more close games that the teams that didn’t make the playoffs.”

I don’t think that if you look at the past that this is true. For example, in 2010, Tampa (29-27) and NY (20-19) were 2 and 1 game over .500 in 1 run games, where Baltimore was 8 (29-21). Yet Baltimore was 30 games behind at the end of the season and Tampa and NY in the playoffs. It was just a fluke that Baltimore was better in 1 run games. It didn’t show that they were a better team.

Even more extreme, in 2003, my Tigers went 43-119 overall but were 19-18 in 1 run games. I don’t think that that made them a good team, just lucky in those games.

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Even Jeff Wells! August 29, 2012 at 3:39 am

I enjoy your work, Sonny, but your argument that a closer (who is on pace to throw about 68 innings this season) has somehow provided enough value to merit serious MVP consideration is…. not persuasive. And the fact that Mike Trout – the most valuable player in the AL to this point – is never even discussed in your post certainly isn’t helping your case.

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Sonny Bunch August 29, 2012 at 9:05 am

Isn’t Vernon Wells the MVP of the Angels by dint of the fact that everyone else has to play 25% harder when he’s in the line up soaking up outs?

More seriously: Trout is obviously great, but he and Pujols are roughly equally valuable to that team, I’d argue. Trout has obviously had the better statistical season, but the Angels didn’t start winning until Pujols started hitting. And if you remove that dreadful first month, Trout’s and Pujols’ stats are pretty similar (minus steals). Honestly, Miguel Cabrera probably has the better case for MVP.

But the reason I’d pick Johnson over Trout (or Pujols, or probably even Cabrera) goes back to the definition of the award: who is the most valuable player to their team? The simple fact of the matter is that the Orioles are in the playoff hunt solely because of their ability to win close games, their bullpen, and the fact that the Orioles have only lost one of Johnson’s 43 save chances. Here’s an interesting stat for you: “Since 1975, major-league teams have converted 67.8 percent of their save chances. Year-to-year, that rate has never gone above 71.5 percent (1988) nor below 64 percent (2008), and within that narrow range of fluctuation there has been just one discernable peak (70.7 percent from 1988 to 1992) and no multiyear valleys.” If Johnson converted only 70% of his save chances, the Orioles would have 10 fewer wins and be well back in the playoff race. To me, he is more valuable to his team than Trout or Cabrera is to theirs.

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ShoelesJoe August 30, 2012 at 2:33 am

Sonny — as a life long O’s fan I really appreciate the love you’re throwing our way, but as much as I love what Johnson’s done this season I have to disagree with one of your points. Even if he was an average closer and blew 10 save opportunities that doesn’t mean the Orioles would have won 10 fewer games. Blown saves do not equal losses, as Johnson’s own stats prove. This season he has blown 3 saves, and in the end his team still won two of those games. If he had blown 10 saves we can assume each of those games would be a late inning or extra inning statistical 50/50 toss-up in which the Orioles would win about half the time.

10 blown saves probably costs the Orioles 4-6 wins, which would be bad, but they’d still be in the playoff hunt.

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Bugg September 20, 2012 at 7:18 pm

Miggy Cabrera is having a monster September to key a TIgers’ playoff run. He lead the AL and average and RBIs only trails Hamilton by 2 homers in the “triple crown” categories. Granted in a SABR-metric analysis Trout, Johnson or Hamilton may have more wins shares than Cabrera, but these are idiot hidebound sportwriters voting for MVP. Those stats are like shiny trinkets to the Mike Lupicas of the world.

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Jim Johnson, huh? October 8, 2012 at 12:10 am

Just watching the Yankees-Orioles game. You want that same Jim Johnson guy who is giving up all those runs to the Yankees right now to win the MVP award? Over Mike Trout? (And over Cano, Verlander and Cabrera?) The guy serving up homers to the anemic Russell Martin?

C’mon, Sonny. Come on.

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