One of Jason Johnson’s biggest deficiencies the last few years is his ability to pitch late into games. Part of it may have been due to stamina – as he tends to struggle when he gets past the 90 pitch mark. Over the last 3 seasons his OPS against jumps to .899 for pitches 91-105, and 1.038 above the 105 pitch threshold. However, this was compounded by the fact it took him quite a few pitches to get out of each inning. The result is that the average JJ outing was only 5.9 innings each of the last two years. So far this year, Johnson is averaging 6.1 innings per start, which is a very small improvement. However, if you remove the start against Minnesota in which he lasted only a third of an inning, he is averaging 7.1 innings per start. This improvement comes from reducing his pitches per inning from 16.8 over his career, to 13.8 which is 5th best in the American League.
There are two ways to improve pitches per innings pitched. The first is to allow fewer baserunners. The fewer people you have to pitch to, the fewer pitches you have to throw. Johnson has lowered his WHIP from a career mark of 1.49 to 1.31.
The second way is to throw fewer pitches to each batter. That is where Johnson’s biggest improvement has come from. While his pitches per plate apperance has been dropping (4.03, 3.80, 3.78, 3.78, 3.67) over the last 5 years, it has dropped to 3.29 this year. That is good enough for second place in the American League behind only Carlos Silva. Part of the drop is due to the fact that Johnson’s BB/9 is down to 2.34 from a career average of 3.54. That’s the good news. The other reason his pitches are down is because he is striking out fewer batters with only 3.76 K/9 opposed to his career average of 5.86. That means more balls in play, which means more potential for hits. Johnson has done a good job of inducing ground balls, which has minimized this impact, but could prove ominous in the future.
On the other end of the efficiency spectrum is Wilfredo Ledezma. Ledezma is averaging 18.5 pitches per inning, which is the main reason that by the time the 5th inning is complete, Ledezma is at 100 pitches. Ledezma is using 4.04 pitches per batter, and his opponents have a .369 OBA which means he’s facing a lot of guys.
With respect to the OBA, it is reasonable to expect it to go down. Through games of 5.15, Ledezma is allowing line drives on only 8% of his balls in play. The league average is 17.2%. Also, in terms of fly balls he’s inducing a lot of infield flys with 28.3% of his flyballs being caught in the infield (the league average is 13.3%). So Ledezma is allowing a lot of fieldable balls, yet his defense is only converting 67.9% of balls in play into outs. That same defense is converting 71.0% into outs for the whole team. It looks like Ledezma may be partially the victim of some bad luck.
The bad luck however doesn’t effect the number of pitches per batter. In watching Ledezma, he looks to be struggling with a similar issue that Nate Robertson dealt with last year. He can get ahead of hitters, but fails to put them away. I’m not sure if it is a lack of a go-to pitch, or just trying to be too fine. Hopefully that is something that will improve with time and Bob Cluck’s tutelage.