He has an ERA of 2.79 with 11 strikeouts to just two walks over 9 2/3 innings on the year. Over his last four games, he has pitched five scoreless innings with five strikeouts.
Johnson has always been a hard thrower, but now an improved changeup has become a real weapon for him.
“JJ has always had a good changeup,” manager Buck Showalter said. “(Pitching coach) Mark (Connor) and he worked hard at taking a little more velocity off it this spring. One thing I told him that, you see it at 89-90 last year and that’s a little too firm. Just a little too close to his fastball and he wasn’t getting a lot of swings and misses off it. There were some guys putting it in play that shouldn’t be doing it. JJ has been able to get that two or three miles per hour off that changeup and that’s made it a real effective pitch for him.
“Certain things are in vogue it seems like every year. Changeups to like side hitters has become a normal practice now where in years past that was a no-no. Left on left changeups, that’s one of Okajima’s best pitches, a changeup where he starts it on the inner half. JJ has tightened up his breaking ball. It’s not quite as loopy as it was. He’s getting a lot of results and he’s got a good look in his eye.”
Johnson came on last night to start the seventh and retired six of seven Red Sox batters in a 25-pitch, two-inning stint.
Johnson agrees the change has become a real important pitch for him.
“I started using it more last year, when Kranny (pitching coach Rick Kranitz) was here we worked on using it more. It’s become my second pitch, so I’m pretty confident throwing it in any count.”
So it’s a pitch that became better for Johnson after he made the major leagues.
“I never really threw a whole lot of them in the minor leagues,” Johnson said. “I threw a different-style one, but I’m just more consistent with it now.”
Right now, it looks like Johnson has closer-type stuff and he has saved 12 major league games. But, even with him throwing this well right now, it doesn’t seem like there is any role change coming in his immediate future.
“I think he has that (closer) type of potential,” Showalter said. “I like the potential where he can pitch two innings against the Boston Red Sox too. You have a need for all those things. Someone has to start the game and pitch well, someone has to bridge the gap and someone has to pitch at the end of the game. If you start putting too much importance on one of them, you have to rob Peter to pay Paul. We like where JJ is right now, physically and mentally.”