(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!