PHOENIX – Jim Johnson and the ninth inning make a pretty nice match, but that wasn’t always the case.
The 6-foot-6 right-hander got his first shot at a regular closer’s gig in 2009 with Baltimore. He converted just 10 of 16 save opportunities and the wheels came off in the second half of the season for him.
But Johnson’s fortunes have turned in a big way over the years. The Oakland A’s new closer is coming off back-to-back seasons of 50 or more saves, just the second man in major league history to accomplish that, and he’ll anchor a stellar bullpen that should be among the majors’ finest.
He says he’s better now for the rough patch he once encountered in the ninth inning.
“They gave me a shot at it before and I was awful,” Johnson said. “For me, the key was just trying to be myself, not trying to be someone else. Just trusting who I am as a pitcher, as a player.”
Johnson, who the A’s acquired from Baltimore over the winter to replace Grant Balfour, has gotten rave reviews from his new teammates.
“Phenomenal,” catcher Derek Norris said of Johnson’s stuff. “Nothing does the same thing twice. Something is always different, whether it’s more sink, more run.”
“Obviously he throws really hard,” outfielder Michael Taylor said after stepping in against Johnson. “He’s got a power sinker. When it’s away from you, it’s down. When it’s in, it’s down and in. You could see why he’s had so much success.”
Johnson, 30, has big shoes to fill in replacing Balfour, the fiery Australian who won over Oakland fans with his intensity. Their pitching styles are different, as are their personalities. Though Johnson won’t take the mound snarling and cussing at himself, a la Balfour, his intensity is reflected in the way he prepares for the job.
“He’s one of the first guys here every day,” reliever Sean Doolittle said. “You can always tell because he gets one of the best parking spots. I’ll walk in at 7 and he’ll be in the weight room. I think the professionalism and leadership and the way he goes about his business is gonna help us.”
Johnson runs his fastball into the mid-90’s, but despite that velocity, he doesn’t pile up strikeouts. Of the top 10 saves leaders from last season, Johnson ranked eighth with just 56 strikeouts (in 70 1/3 innings). He averaged about three strikeouts fewer per nine innings than Balfour.
But part of Johnson’s early struggles as a closer can be traced to this very issue. He thought he had to be a strikeout pitcher, when his excellent sinker lends itself more to inducing ground balls.
He said his career took a turn for the better after he came back from an elbow inflammation injury in 2010. He posted a 1.62 ERA over 16 games to close out the season.
“I finally started putting things together,” Johnson said.
Things have peaked in the past two seasons, as he’s stacked up a major league-best 101 saves. His 17 ground-ball double plays last season led big league relievers. But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Johnson also led the majors with nine blown saves last season, though much of the turbulence came in the first half. He posted a 3.71 ERA before the All-Star break but a 1.69 mark after.
Now he’s finding his way in a clubhouse that is filled with pranksters and outgoing personalities.
“We’re starting to loosen him up a little bit,” Doolittle said.
Johnson knows how to have his own kind of fun. He recently filmed a cameo in an episode of the Nextflix series “House of Cards.” He struck a bond with the show’s star, Kevin Spacey, who’s a big baseball fan. The two stay in touch.
“It’s crazy to see all the set-up that goes into putting together a two-minute scene,” Johnson said. “And how quick they are at getting into character. I’d mess up my line, like, 50 times, if it was me.”
His role with the A’s is simple in description – convert the final three outs in the ninth. He may do it in a different style than Balfour, but the goal is the same.
“He might not have the outward fire that you saw in Grant, but he certainly burns inside,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “I think that’s the way with most closers. Some do it inside, some do it outside. When they’re in there to close out a game, there’s a certain intensity you have to have, and most successful closers do.”