Zach Wilt: Breaking down Jim Johnson’s struggles

Last season, Jim Johnson blew three saves in 54 chances, while this year, he’s blown three consecutive opportunities. The Orioles closer is scuffling and the team is stuck in a season-worst six-game losing streak. Johnson has allowed eight earned runs in his last three appearances and has watched his ERA jump from 0.95 to 4.22.

Arguably one of the best at his craft a season ago, Johnson is a unique breed of closer. He doesn’t overpower hitters or record high strikeout totals; he forces ground balls with hard sinkers and relies on the defense behind him for outs. When he’s able to locate his pitches, he can dominate even the strongest lineups in baseball, but when he isn’t - well, you’ve seen what happens.

Johnson has told reporters after all three blown saves that location has been his issue. On Monday, he specifically cited keeping the ball up in the zone. I’ve seen him struggle to hit the target Matt Wieters sets behind home plate and have watched him elevate his fastball to power hitters.

On Monday night, after throwing eight pitches to retire Robinson Cano, Johnson fell behind Travis Hafner. With a 3-1 count, Hafner hit a 91 mph belt-high fastball on the outer part of the plate 394 feet to left field. Wieters set up for a pitch low and outside.

“That’s what happens when you’ve got to throw a strike to a power hitter,” Hall of Famer Jim Palmer said on the MASN telecast. “Boy, the count plays such a big part.”

Johnson was visibly frustrated with home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg who called his 2-1 pitch on the outside corner a ball. PITCHf/x data from reveals it to be right on the black of the plate. He didn’t get the call, was forced to throw Hafner something in the zone and missed his spot. The result was a game-tying homer.

In his three blown saves, I’ve noticed some inconsistencies in Johnson’s release point compared to when he’s locating all of his pitches. Not surprisingly, Johnson is letting go of the ball at a higher vertical location than he had been earlier this season. This is causing his pitches to stay up in the zone while a more spread out horizontal location is resulting in him missing the target.

Against the Rays on Saturday, Johnson surrendered five earned runs on three hits. Tampa Bay was able to take advantage of some decent pitches, but falling behind in the count hurt Johnson’s chances of earning the save. His command issues were again on display as Kelly Johnson turned on a 3-1 fastball in nearly the exact same location as the pitch Johnson threw to Hafner.

The Orioles closer would walk the next two batters on 11 pitches and give up a bases loaded single to Desmond Jennings on a 2-2 count with a letter-high fastball at 94 MPH. Then he took Matt Joyce to a full count and surrendered a two-run double on a well placed fastball low and away.

With Johnson, the margin for error is slim. He can’t afford to miss his spots and rely on power because he’s more of a finesse pitcher compared to most closers. The baseball world watched Reds closer Aroldis Chapman blow a save Sunday against the Phillies. Chapman would bounce back Monday with a perfect ninth inning against the Mets. The difference is, Chapman can lean on his upper-90s fastball while Johnson is forced to be nearly perfect.

The good news is Johnson has a proven track record. He’s a guy who lead the league in saves with his .252 BABIP over 68 percent innings in 2012. If he can find that consistent release point once again and keep the ball down in the zone, there’s no reason to think that he won’t bounce back.

Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. His views appear here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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