Jim Johnson blew another save. It was his MLB leading 7th blown save of 2017. Beyond that, the circumstances of this particular lost opportunity could not have been worse. The Braves were on the verge of taking the second game in a four-game series against the division leading Nationals. If the Braves have any chance of fulfilling their slim hopes of a playoff berth, this is the series to gain some ground.
The Big Blow
Momentum was in the Braves’ favor. Not only had they won game one, but they had fought for a hard-earned 4-1 lead against Nationals ace Max Scherzer, largely by the efforts of their newly returned star Freddie Freeman, who hit a solo home run and 8th inning 2-RBI single. Johnson wasn’t just coming in with momentum and a lead, but a three-run lead in a critical game.
Maybe some better defensive play would have made a difference. Maybe Johnson was fatigued from saving a late-ending game from the “no rain delay” fiasco the night before. But the bottom line is that Jim Johnson is the Braves closer, and he allowed a single, walk, single, single before he even recorded an out. After the out, he gave up the game tying sac fly and another single to put runners on the corners, and then he was mercifully pulled. The Braves closer was given a three-run cushion and he couldn’t even finish the inning.
It rained under clear skies once again in Washington – it rained on the Braves momentum, washing it away in one miserable half inning.
Braves fans were quick to respond. Social media lit up with people calling for Jim Johnson “trash,” “the worst closer in the MLB,” and much worse. Many more want him to lose the closers job, and even released (even with another year on his contract at the reasonable amount of $4.5 million).
The question coming through gnashing teeth was, “How many more wins would we have if Jim Johnson hadn’t blown all those games?!”
I get it. As a fan, I’m pretty bummed about this game. But as a stats person, I’m stepping back and asking a different question, “Aren’t we being a bit dramatic about how bad Jim Johnson is?”
Turns out, yes we are. He’s not nearly as bad as we make him out to be. In fact, he’s been pretty good.
First off, let me say that Jim Johnson is not the perfect closer. As my colleague Brent Blackwell noted, Johnson has struggled this season when closing back-to-back nights, with 10 walks in 14.1 innings and 4 of his 7 blown saves. He’s 34 years old, so he’s no spring chicken, either.
Sure, we can pine for Craig Kimbrel to return, but that’s not happening, and we don’t really need it to happen. The 2017 Braves aren’t a team that needs a closer whose been near perfect half way through the season. But for comparison purposes, let’s use Kimbrel as the ideal closer. Then let’s break down each pitcher’s game-by-game performance, and classify them into three categories.
Category 1: in how many games did the pitcher do their job? Either they earned the save, held the lead, or didn’t allow a run to cross the plate when tied or behind.
- Kimbrel: 33
- Johnson: 31
Category 2: in how many games did the pitcher fail to do their job, but it didn’t impact the final outcome? Either they gave up a lead and their team came back to win, or they were already down and allowed their team to go down further.
- Kimbrel: 3
- Johnson: 3
Kimbrel has two blown saves, and the Red Sox offense bailed him out both times. In another game, the Red Sox were down 3-2, Kimbrel gave up a run to make it 4-2, and they lost 4-2.
For Johnson, all three were blown saves but the Braves came back to win it.
Category 3: in how many games did the pitcher lose the lead and the team lost the game.
- Kimbrel: 0
- Johnson: 4
So here is the real separation between the “perfect closer” and a pretty good closer in Jim Johnson. Four times, he has not only blown the lead, but the team lost. Twice he blew one run leads (April 9, 22), once he blew a two run lead (June 2), and once he blew a three run lead (probably goes without saying, but July 7).
That’s breaks down to about one appearance a month that Johnson blows a game. It’s what separates him from being Kimbrel.
Sure, Johnson has given up a few more hits and runs, and he doesn’t strike out quite as many as Kimbrel, but at the end of the day, looking game by game, there’s a four game difference between the two, even assuming you can put the entire game on that one pitcher (and not on the offense failing to score more runs in the other 8 innings or the defense and other pitchers failing to keep more runs off the board).
If we were to develop a rate for the pitchers of how well they each fulfill their responsibilities based on the actual game outcome, then we could get a good sense of how good they are at doing their job.
For a high end number, I’m only going to consider the percentage of the games entered in which they did their job (first category divided by total number of appearances):
- Kimbrel: 33/36 = 91.7%
- Johnson: 31/38 = 81.6%
For a low end number, I’m going to consider the team outcome. How many times did the team win even if they had to save the saver, so to speak (total of first and second category divided by total number of appearances):
- Kimbrel: 36/36 = 100%
- Johnson: 34/38 = 89.5%
If you think about these rates like grades on a test, then based on game outcomes, you have an A/A+ closer in Kimbrel and a B/B+ closer in Johnson.
Would I rather have Kimbrel? Sure! Who wouldn’t? But as a rebuilding team that hasn’t managed to be above .500 at any point this season, does it make more sense to have a B closer for $4.5 million or an A closer for $13 million?
The issue with fans is the issue of human psychology. The emotion surrounding the blown save sticks in our minds more than the more expected successes. But eight out of 10 times Johnson steps on the mound, he gets the job done. Nine out of 10 times, the Braves walk away with the win. But the one in 10 times that he blows it – that’s the one we remember.
In those moments, Braves fans are apt to long for Kimbrel. Would he make the Braves a little less mediocre? Definitely. His near perfect performance potentially could even have the Braves a game or two above .500 right now. But swapping Johnson for Kimbrel still doesn’t make Atlanta a playoff contender…at least not this year.