Jim Johnson on spring training lessons, the bullpen and the WBC

With pitchers and catchers set to report on Feb. 12, I’m reminded of perhaps my favorite moment from spring training 2012.

Fans were obsessed with Jim Johnson’s diminished velocity, and the media kept bringing it up to him and Orioles manager Buck Showalter after every outing. It wasn’t just the radar gun that raised some concerns. Johnson was slowed in camp by a sore back and went 0-3 with a 6.75 ERA in eight appearances, with six earned runs, seven hits and six walks in eight innings.

Showalter wasn’t certain whether Johnson would be ready for opening day until the closer’s final appearance removed any lingering doubts.

Reporters waited outside the clubhouse to interview Johnson, the usual procedure before the final out is recorded. The game continues and we rush down from the press box to gather quotes, then hustle back to our seats to transcribe and file.

Johnson walked out the door and said, “The first person who asks about my velocity, I’m going to punch them in the throat.”

Laughter ensued.

As you know, Johnson went on to set the franchise record with 51 saves, made his first All-Star team, finished seventh in the Cy Young Award voting in the American League and placed 14th in the Most Valuable Player voting.

Should we consider it a lesson learned? That the radar gun should be ignored in spring training?

“There’s a lot of lessons to be learned,” Johnson said last weekend during the “Hot Stove Baseball” show on WBAL Radio. “Radar gun readings is one of them. What guys hit in spring training, how many homers they hit in spring training. There’s so many silly things.

“You guys have to write a story. I know that. We play so many games, you’ve got to find something. I understand it. It’s part of the job asking those kinds of questions. But it’s a funny game. It really is. You can find some weird numbers, you can find some weird trends. What you guys talked about a lot last year was the one-run games and how that’s going to play out again. Who knows? It’s just one of those silly things that happens.

“These statisticians come up with these formulas that tell you how good you’re supposed to be. You’re pitching better than your numbers or you don’t pitch as well. People need to quantify it. But if you just watch the games, you can see the bigger picture. I think it’s easier to see it that way.”

In other words, trust your eyes. I’ve said it many times here.

This will be the first winter that I can remember when the Orioles’ bullpen hasn’t been under major construction. Barring a trade, five spots will be filled by Johnson, Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala, Darren O’Day and Troy Patton. Brian Matusz figures to remain a lefty specialist, though he’ll be given a chance to re-enter the rotation. That leaves one opening for a long man - perhaps Tommy Hunter, Jake Arrieta, Steve Johnson or Rule 5 pick T.J. McFarland, depending on how the rotation shakes out.

johnson-jim-sidebar-black-throw.jpg“With the success we had, I think that’s part of the reason why. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” Johnson said.

“Its not just the bullpen. I think they’re trying to keep as many guys here that we had last year. Players and numbers tell part of the story, but for the guys who see what goes on in the clubhouse, there’s more to it. I know Buck and Dan (Duquette) do a lot of research on the kind of people they bring in. That’s more of a key than necessarily the ability factor.”

Johnson turned down a chance to represent Team USA in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

“Basically, with the way last year kind of happened, I had a rough spring training,” he said. “It didn’t go really the way I wanted it to go with the back injury to start the year. I thought it was in my best interest and the team’s best interest at the same time that I didn’t participate in the WBC. It’s a great honor to be asked, but it didn’t seem to match up. I wanted to make sure I had a solid spring training and focus on that.

“We’ll revisit it hopefully down the road and I can partake in the next event.”

That’s it for me this morning. I’m heading down to Ocean Pines for Christmas with the Kubatkos, which really should be a holiday special. The possibilities are endless. I’ll check back later.

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