Commentary

Johnson low key, but a total dominator

Marlins' 26-year-old righty quietly turning himself into arguably the game's top pitcher

Originally Published: July 16, 2010
By Jorge Arangure Jr. | ESPN The Magazine

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- In a room tucked away in a corner of the Anaheim Marriott, a boy named Cash Johnson dashed from one corner to the other. Cash, 2, sprinted from the bed, where he had been watching a Disney movie, to the window, where he jumped up and down in a childish frenzy, his long blond locks bouncing with every step. Pity the poor items -- including a water bottle that was tossed off the bed -- that stood in his way. Cash was full of energy, enough to compensate for every weary adult in the room.

Josh Johnson
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireJosh Johnson has the lowest ERA (1.70) in the major leagues.

In another part of the room, Cash's grandparents, Allan and Bonnie Johnson, chuckled as they remembered that it was not so long ago when one of their sons, Josh Johnson, Cash's father, had acted in the same way. Josh was the youngest of the five Johnson boys and yet, acting with the same fervor as Cash, he always wanted to play with his older brothers.

One time when Josh was not much older than Cash, he tried to get in on a pickup baseball game with his brothers and their friends. The problem was that the boys were pitching much too fast and Josh simply couldn't keep up.

Normally, that would cause most parents to hold their sons back for fear that they would get hurt. Not the Johnsons. Allan Johnson had been a baseball player who once tried out for the Minnesota Twins and Bonnie was a multisport athlete in high school. Both knew the lessons that sports, particularly baseball, could teach children. They would never push their children into sports, but if the boys showed an interest, they would teach them to play the right way.

With Josh asking for help, Bonnie realized that here was a perfect opportunity to teach her young son a lesson. After initially asking the boys to pitch slower to Josh, Bonnie changed her mind. She decided to make Josh adjust. It was a lesson, among many given by his parents, that Josh would later take to heart when his body, specifically his elbow, failed him and threatened his career. Sometimes in life, just as in sports, you have to adjust.

"You have to hit these boys' fastballs," Bonnie told Josh. "If you do, you'll one day get to the major leagues."

So young Josh, who had been flailing at fastballs and then sobbing in frustration, went back out there to face those intimidating older boys. And while Josh didn't exactly smack those balls around the field, he did make contact, each time better than the previous. Josh's confidence grew with each swing. He accomplished what had appeared to be impossible. Lesson learned.

His mother's promise also eventually came true. Josh made it to the majors in 2005 and has become an All-Star for the Florida Marlins and perhaps one of the game's best pitchers.


By most measures -- standard (1.70 ERA, 0.96 WHIP) or not (49.4 VORP, 4.9 WAR) -- Johnson is the best pitcher in baseball. Though Ubaldo Jimenez was chosen to start the All-Star Game for the National League and Roy Halladay threw a perfect game earlier this year, Johnson has outpitched both in 2010.

There's no complexity to Johnson's dominance. He doesn't have a funky delivery or a particularly unique way of hiding the ball as he releases it. Frankly, at 6-foot-7, it's nearly impossible for Johnson to hide anything. He simply overpowers hitters with a fastball/cutter in the mid-90s and a slider that often reaches 90 mph. His immense size also is an advantage. By being so tall, Johnson can throw a pitch that arrives in the strike zone at an awkward angle. Think of it this way: It's as if the 6-4 Jimenez were throwing off a mound that was elevated three inches.

Johnson's height advantage was no more evident than during Tuesday's All-Star Game player introductions. Lined up next to Michael Bourn (5-11) and Rafael Furcal (5-8), Johnson literally appeared to be a man among boys.

"It seems like he's standing right on top of you," Atlanta catcher Brian McCann said. "He's such a big presence. He paints [the strike zone] and throws a 96 mph cutter. To me, he's the best."

It's almost impossible to plan against Johnson. If he's got command of his pitches, which he often does, teams aren't likely to hit him. The Braves' pregame hitting meetings in the video room on days Johnson pitches are usually spent trying to decipher a way to hit Johnson's fastball.

"We try to look at a lot of video and really, I just look for his fastball since that's the only pitch you can really hit," Braves utilityman Omar Infante said. "His breaking ball is too difficult to track."

Brian McCann It seems like he's standing right on top of you. He's such a big presence. He paints [the strike zone] and throws a 96 mph cutter. To me, he's the best.

-- Braves catcher Brian McCann
on Josh Johnson

Yet all that scouting and video watching hardly helps. Johnson's 24.3 swing-and-miss percentage on his fastball, according to Inside Edge, is the best in baseball. The major league average is 14.5.

Most astounding is that Johnson has been pitching for less than 10 years. As a boy growing up in Tulsa, Okla. -- all five Johnson boys were born in Minnesota but the family moved to Oklahoma after Allan was transferred there for work -- Johnson mostly was a position player.

Allan Johnson often encouraged Josh to play against the best competition -- older boys, more skilled players -- but always as a position player, first at shortstop and then in the outfield. By the time Johnson reached Jenks High School he was a power-hitting position player, thanks in large part to the competitive local leagues and All-Star travel teams in Oklahoma.

Allan's transfer to Oklahoma turned out to be fortuitous for all the Johnson boys.

"It gave us access to some really good athletic programs," Allan Johnson said. "Athletic programs in Oklahoma were much more advanced at the younger levels and more complete. It was exactly what we were looking for."

During the final few days of Johnson's freshman year, Jenks was scheduled to play a doubleheader. Coach Glenn Sullivan asked Johnson -- who had always shown a strong arm in the field -- whether he could pitch in the second game because the team was short-handed. Johnson agreed. He pitched five scoreless innings that day.

Johnson pitched sparingly during the regular season of his sophomore year, but in a state tournament game the 15-year-old came in from left field to pitch and topped out at 88 mph.

"That's when everybody started tracking him," Allan Johnson said.

At the end of his junior year, Johnson was ready to focus on pitching. Allan Johnson knew that he could not take his son any further, so he sought help from one of the most acclaimed pitching tutors in the area, Joe Jordan, who at that time was a scout for the Montreal Expos.

Jordan was a former star player for the Oklahoma Sooners who had flamed out in the minors because of injuries. He had been an assistant coach at Oklahoma prior to joining Montreal. Jordan was undoubtedly a baseball lifer, but one who knew that pro baseball often doesn't pay all the bills, so he tutored young area kids to make some extra cash.

"Honestly," Jordan said, "we needed the money."

For the first lesson, Johnson drove more than 90 minutes to meet with Jordan in Oklahoma City. The plan was simple: Jordan sought to refine Johnson's mechanics. On that first day he taught Johnson to stay back longer in his delivery while keeping his body compact to not fly open. Quickly, Johnson grasped the changes, something Jordan's previous students did not.

"I immediately noticed that he was a big guy who had control of his body," said Jordan, now the Baltimore Orioles' scouting director.

Because the prodigy was a fast learner, Jordan spent the next lesson adding pitches to Johnson's arsenal. At that time, he threw only a fastball and curveball.

"I'm going to teach you a cutter," Jordan told Johnson. "One day you'll end up throwing a slider."

The next three lessons were spent refining the cutter. After the fifth lesson, Jordan realized he wouldn't make any more money off Johnson. His prized student didn't need any more lessons.

"I was a thrower," Johnson said. "He turned me into a pitcher. I took that raw ability to Joe and he turned it into something bigger."

Johnson remembers he threw the cutter just twice during his senior year, but one of those times was to end a game. Almost immediately, a scout who had been tracking Johnson raced to him in the dugout and asked, "Was that a cutter?" Johnson nodded. The scout, almost in disbelief, ran back to his spot to mark something in his book.

Josh became such a prized prospect that the Johnsons received dozens of calls each day from college recruiters and major league scouts. When it became overwhelming, they stopped answering the phone.

Eventually the Marlins, who by that time had hired Jordan as a scout, took Johnson in the fourth round of the 2002 draft. It took Johnson just three years to reach the majors. By 2006, he was one of the Marlins' best starting pitchers, though he began to complain of arm problems that September.

The following season was a washout. Johnson's arm problems lingered all year until the team sent him to noted orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, who recommended Johnson undergo Tommy John surgery. And with that, Johnson's meteoric rise stopped.


Almost three months removed from his August 2007 surgery, Johnson picked up a ball for the first time.

All throughout the rehabilitation process, Johnson wondered, "Can I pitch again? Can I do this again?"

His mind often wandered and he tried to think of what he would do if he could no longer play. That year also delivered some incredibly good news: Johnson's wife, Heidi, was pregnant with Cash. Yet the injury had tempered the enthusiasm. How could he provide for his child if he could no longer play? Johnson had earned some good money in his two seasons in the majors, but certainly not enough to provide for his family over the long haul.

"Mentally, it was a roller coaster," he said.

But his first day at the Marlins' spring training facility in 2008 was the first step back. He grabbed a ball and walked 10 feet away from the team's rehabilitation coordinator. Johnson took a deep breath and threw for the first time since surgery. Instantly he felt a sharp pain in his elbow. He didn't want to make another throw.

"Throw the ball," the coordinator said.

"But it hurts," Johnson replied.

"Throw the ball," the coordinator said.

Allan and Bonnie Johnson had taught their son to face adversity, to seek competition and to welcome any and all challenges. Mostly, they taught their son not to quit in spite of the odds. So he didn't.

Despite the pain and fear, Johnson threw again. And again it hurt. The third throw, Johnson felt something pop in his elbow. But this pop was different than the pop that had gotten him injured. This pop didn't hurt. It was more like a release. Johnson soon learned the pop was the scar tissue that had broken up. From that point on, Johnson threw without pain.

Several weeks after that throw, Cash was born. Because of the injury, Johnson was able to spend more time with his son than he would have if he was playing with the Marlins. Also, Johnson, perhaps because he was in better shape after so much rehab, began to throw harder than he did prior to the surgery.

Johnson was back with the Marlins by the end of 2008. By 2009 he became one of the best pitchers in the majors while throwing almost 2 mph faster on average than he did in 2007 (94.9 versus 93.1, according to Pitch f/x data on FanGraphs.com).

In the end, Johnson's injury didn't turn out to be such a bad thing.

"It was," Johnson said, "a little bit of a blessing."

This year has been even better than last. Aside from signing a four-year, $39 million extension prior to the season, Johnson has twice dueled Halladay -- winning once and, despite allowing just one unearned run in seven innings, losing on the day Halladay threw his perfect game -- and hasn't allowed more than two runs in a game since May 8.

I don't need the fame. I'm a country boy from Oklahoma that wants to be low key.

-- Josh Johnson, on the lack of
attention paid to him

Many suggested Johnson should have been the All-Star Game starter instead of Jimenez. Johnson hardly seems to have received the accolades he deserves. During media day at the All-Star Game, Johnson was seated in the right-hand corner of the room near an exit. Several reporters trickled toward his area but he did not draw nearly the crowd that Halladay or even Tim Lincecum drew. For now, Johnson remains underappreciated.

"I don't need the fame," Johnson said. "I'm a country boy from Oklahoma that wants to be low key."

Johnson's appearance in the All-Star Game was a success regardless. He pitched two scoreless innings, during which he struck out Ichiro Suzuki on three pitches. That feat -- Ichiro has struck out only three times in 28 All-Star plate appearances -- earned Johnson a postgame interview with the Japanese media, one of the few interviews Johnson conducted after the NL's win.

Mostly, Johnson enjoyed the experience much more than he did last year, when he knew he would not be able to pitch because he had thrown just a few days prior to the game. During this year's game, Johnson chatted with several of his peers in the dugout, including Adam Wainwright and Heath Bell. Johnson and Bell even discussed pitching philosophies.

"He's very soft-spoken, but he kind of seems like he's one of your buddies," Bell said. "He's not one of those meathead fireballers."

Even better yet, Cash was now old enough to enjoy the experience. After the Home Run Derby on Monday, Cash raced into the clubhouse with his father. He ran from one end of the room to another, not unlike how his father often frolicked in Allan and Bonnie's living room in Tulsa.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.