10 Degrees: Josh Johnson’s hot start is no fluke

The radar gun at Great American Ball Park flashed 100 mph, because the radar gun at Great American Ball Park is about as truthful as a supermarket tabloid, but that didn’t keep Josh Johnson(notes) from enjoying it. For a month now, he has been the most unhittable pitcher in baseball, and it took a bogus gun reading for him to get even the slightest recognition.

Playing in the MLB wasteland that is South Florida, for baseball’s worst owners, in a ballpark that draws more than 18,000 people only when a concert follows the game camouflages Johnson’s greatness. And in April, nobody matched the Florida Marlins’ 27-year-old right-hander in that respect.

Josh Johnson carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning of three of his first six starts this season.
(US Presswire)

So when Johnson was informed the supposed 100-mph pitch actually traveled 95.4 mph and told reporters, “Let me have it,” you wished you could bend time or ignore facts and just give it to him. Until Johnson is acknowledged in his rightful place – as one of baseball’s unquestionable aces, the rare pitcher with earned-and-deserved No. 1 status – he’s owed something.

Because while Roy Halladay(notes), Tim Lincecum(notes), Felix Hernandez(notes), CC Sabathia(notes) and Cliff Lee(notes) have parlayed years of excellence into such a designation, Johnson, Jered Weaver(notes) and Jon Lester(notes) are fresh enough on the scene to prompt questions.

Like: Ahead of Justin Verlander(notes)? (Yes. He was the final cut, and if you’re not a strict interpretationist, go ahead and welcome him aboard.)

And: Clayton Kershaw(notes), too? (Indeed. Once he can lower the walks, he’ll join the band.)

Then: What about David Price(notes), Dan Haren(notes), Zack Greinke(notes), Cole Hamels(notes), Chris Carpenter(notes), Roy Oswalt(notes), Tommy Hanson(notes), Matt Cain(notes), Brett Anderson(notes), Tim Hudson(notes), Trevor Cahill(notes), Josh Beckett(notes) and, for the time being, Ubaldo Jimenez(notes)? (Let’s call them all No. 1a.)

Because Johnson’s dominance comes over a limited period – the last two years, plus an April – his position here is tenuous. His insane first month (0.88 ERA, 18 hits in 41 innings, a nearly 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio) and National League ERA title in the Year of the Pitcher paid his cover to the club, and his arm should keep him here a while. Just as Fredi Gonzalez predicted during the 2008 Winter Meetings …

1. When he said: “Just watch Josh Johnson when he’s healthy.” In August 2007, Johnson had Tommy John surgery. By July 2008, he was back in the major leagues, a staggeringly quick recovery, and in 14 starts he went 7-1 with a 3.61 ERA.

“He’s going to be even better,” said Gonzalez, then the Marlins’ manager, who now watches him from the Atlanta Braves’ dugout full of mirth at just how Johnson can carve apart a lineup. He has carried no-hitters into the sixth inning in half of his six starts this season. Certainly the .173 batting average on balls in play has helped; because Johnson is such an extreme groundball specialist and pitches in front of a mediocre infield defense, that number should spike about 100 points – as has a proclivity for preventing home runs.

Between a bowling-ball fastball and what one scout recently called “the best slider I’ve seen this year,” Johnson attacks with a pure power arsenal …

2. Whereas his American League equivalent, Jered Weaver, slices, dices and juliennes hitters with precision that would make Ron Popeil proud. If anybody can challenge Johnson for best-in-April title, it’s Weaver, the Los Angeles Angels’ 28-year-old right-hander who likewise is following up a tremendous 2010 with an even better start to ’11.

Weaver’s fastball reaches no higher than 92 mph. Velocity matters not with command and ownership of the outside half of the plate that borders on unfair. With a low three-quarters delivery and a release point so different from every other major leaguer that it’s like facing a specialist for nine innings, Weaver has honed a unique skill set much like Tim Lincecum.

A stomach bug Sunday kept Weaver from trying to continue into May the havoc he wrought in April: a 6-0 record, 0.99 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 45 2/3 innings. He’s expected back Monday against Boston …

Carl Crawford

3. And that May monster, Carl Crawford(notes), who is hitting .500 in the month. Granted, it’s all of one day old, and that .500 amounts to a pair of singles in four at-bats. A base hit in his final one scored the winning run in the Boston Red Sox’s 3-2 victory and gave Crawford perhaps his first worthwhile moment after signing for $142 million this offseason.

Whether it sends him back to his rightful spot near the top of the Red Sox’s lineup is something Terry Francona must manage carefully. Crawford is not, of course, the worst hitter in the major leagues. In April, though? Yeah. That was him. He’s still there now, with the .168 batting average, .215 on-base percentage and .238 slugging percentage his personal Larry, Curly and Moe.

Crawford will get right because 29-year-olds who spend nine seasons as a game changer and show no sign of skill regression don’t suddenly forget how to hit. Then again, 29-year-olds who spend six seasons as complete scrubs don’t suddenly turn into an offensive machine …

4. Like Jose Bautista(notes) has over the past year. First came the 54-homer breakout last year. And in April, Bautista was even better. He leads the AL in batting average (.357) and home runs (nine), all of baseball in on-base percentage (.530) and slugging percentage (.762) and perhaps the general populace in critics silenced.

Or maybe not. Bautista’s breakout still remains inconceivable because of the conventions it breaks and knowledge that any smart athlete could skirt MLB’s drug program with a few vials of HGH. On the first point: Guys just don’t turn into monsters after a journeyman’s career. The second: Because of the past 15 years, when there is no answer, the answer inevitably gravitates to drug suspicion.

In reality, Jose Bautista is no more likely to be using HGH than any other player, and to single him out because of his accomplishments stretches logic. Not everyone who succeeds uses. Not everyone who uses succeeds. Outliers happen. Nobody figured …

Joey Votto

5. A skinny kid from Canada named Joey Votto(notes), who never hit more than 22 home runs in a minor league season, would beat that in each of his first three major league seasons and by his fourth turn into the sort of hitting savant who ended April without missing a beat from his MVP season last year.

There were players with higher batting averages and on-base percentages (Matt Holliday(notes) at .418 and .521) and others with higher slugging percentages (Lance Berkman(notes) at .753). Fellow players and scouts believe Votto is the likeliest to repeat his monster April, in which his .357/.492/.602 represented a pervasive fear of pitching to him – his 26 walks are six more than any other NL player – and a same-as-always ability to spray every type of pitch to all fields.

Between Votto and Brandon Phillips(notes), two of the league’s most productive hitters reside in Cincinnati. Though, truth be told, they’re not even the best or second-best duo …

6. In their division. Honors go to Ryan Braun(notes) and Prince Fielder(notes), whose production narrowly edges Holliday’s and Berkman’s. Using FanGraphs’ batting runs Braun and Fielder rate just ahead of Holliday and Berkman, and neither of the Brewers sluggers has been a particular beneficiary of batted-ball luck, while an otherworldly 48.3 percent of Holliday’s batted balls have fallen for hits.

This will be the last season Braun and Fielder spend together. Fielder is off for the spoils of free agency, where agent Scott Boras has designs on a $200 million contract. Braun in April signed a deal that will keep him in Milwaukee through at least 2020, by which time he’ll be 36.

The Brewers survived April without Zack Greinke thanks to Braun (.356/.450/.703) and Fielder (.330/.415/.612), who even outdid the Los Angeles Dodgers’ dynamic Matt Kemp(notes) and Andre Ethier(notes). Both rode staggering line-drive rates (32.2 percent for Ethier and 26.8 percent for Kemp) to an April that showcased their potential. The biggest issue now: figuring out whether the Dodgers’ ownership situation will resolve itself in time to sign either (or both) before they hit free agency after next season. Because already Dodgers fans are cringing at the prospect of watching Ethier parry pitches into another stadium’s gaps and Kemp wear another uniform while launching huge home runs …

Ryan Franklin

7. Similar to the pair he launched off Ryan Franklin(notes) in mid-April, the first of which prompted Vin Scully to intone “He just killed it,” and second of which prompted Franklin to lose his closer’s job.

Of Franklin’s nine appearances in April, he allowed runs in seven. And lest you think the calendar turning would cure Franklin of his true ailment – perhaps doctors have some sort of a fancy name for it, but it’s best known as Mediocre Stuff – Cardinals manager Tony La Russa used him in a tie game in the ninth inning Sunday only to see him yield the winning run after a Ryan Theriot(notes) error. May did not do for Franklin …

8. What it did for Adam Dunn(notes): Give him something to build upon. In his one at-bat Sunday, Dunn hit a home run. In his previous 75 wearing a Chicago White Sox uniform, he hit two.

Dunn’s struggles personify those of the White Sox, whose battle with the Minnesota Twins is on the wrong end of the AL Central standings. The division’s two powerhouses are the two worst teams in baseball as May dawns. Dunn’s handiwork in helping Chicago turn into the dregs came after he missed a week early on because of an appendectomy. He was 8 for 61 the rest of the month, and Dunn – signed to a four-year, $56 million deal this offseason to provide on-base help and power – had a .300 OBP and .267 slugging percentage. In other words, he fit in perfectly in Chicago’s offense.

His battle with …

Hanley Ramirez

9. Hanley Ramirez(notes) and Carlos Gonzalez(notes) and Raul Ibanez(notes) for April’s most disappointing hitter ended up gravitating toward Ramirez, not only because his defense at shortstop remained pedestrian and his speed has eroded with added weight – one scout thinks Ramirez is closer to 240 pounds than his listed 230 – but his bat turned limp.

Ramirez’s long home run Sunday was his first of the season, and both his on-base and slugging percentages are below .300 while his batting average sits at .200 and has gone no higher than .256. Ramirez, the scout said, isn’t lost at the plate as much as he is simply making poor contact. His line-drive rate has plummeted, his groundball rate is approaching that of 4-3ter. Good thing he’s had …

10. Josh Johnson on the mound in front of him. Plus Logan Morrison(notes) and Chris Coghlan(notes) and Gaby Sanchez(notes) in his lineup. And Ricky Nolasco(notes) and Anibal Sanchez(notes) in his rotation. Not to mention the second-best bullpen in baseball, with its 2.38 ERA, built from scratch by the brilliant management team of Larry Beinfest and Mike Hill, whose ability to make chicken salad rarely ceases to amaze.

It’s why the Marlins, at 17-9, are tied for the third-best record in baseball, a half-game behind Philadelphia and trailing the 19-8 Cleveland Indians – who someone didn’t find any of their players on this best-and-worst-of-April list. It’s a testament, in a way, to Cleveland’s ability to win as a whole – with Travis Hafner(notes) looking of old, Grady Sizemore(notes) returning with a thump, Matt LaPorta(notes) looking like something, Justin Masterson(notes) the same and another bullpen with questions rocking a 3.04 ERA.

April gives baseball great stories like that every year, the surprises that set up great achievements or colossal failures. The Indians? In that mess of a division, why not? The Marlins? The talent’s there, right?

Josh Johnson? No need to answer that with a question. Yes. A million times yes. An ace, a real ace, who’s here to stay.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, May 2, 2011