Have you ever had a couple of bad days at a new job despite trying to make a good impression? Ever have thousands of people scream at you for making a couple of mistakes? Have you ever had an angry mob tell your bosses to send you home for the day or banish you to your former employer? Welcome to Jim Johnson‘s world.
The new Oakland A’s closer hasn’t exactly endeared himself to the home crowd during the season’s opening series. Going 0-2 while coughing up five runs in just one inning of work against the Cleveland Indians has brought the boo birds out in force and left Johnson and manager Bob Melvin facing some hard questions during post-game interviews.
The A’s haven’t even completed their first homestand and Melvin’s already fielding inquiries about whether he’s worried about his closer and if the next save opporunity might go to someone else in the bullpen. And Johnson’s been stuck in front of his locker most nights with reporters crowded around him as he faces the music after another tough loss.
It’s a brutal start to Johnson’s career with the A’s, which promised to be brief even before his implosions on Monday and Wednesday. Seeing the small-budget A’s make an offseason trade with the Baltimore Orioles for a $10 million closer to replace All-Star Grant Balfour was a surprising move but it’s probably a given that Oakland will let Johnson walk as soon as he hits free agency after this season.
Despite the rough outings this week, Johnson hasn’t tried to duck any questions thrown his way after each defeat. As he told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle last night, “We should be 3-0. I’ll take the blame for that. But if I sulk and pout, it doesn’t do anyone any good.”
In his two games against the Indians, Johnson has shown good velocity with his fastball regularly hitting 94 to 95 miles per hour on the radar gun. But location has been more of an issue as the closer’s signature power sinker hasn’t been catching the bottom of the strike zone with the consistency or movement that’s helped him lead the American League in saves the past two seasons. Last night it seemed like every ball Johnson left up in the zone was tagged for a hit by Cleveland’s batters.
The obvious question on everyone’s mind is what’s wrong with Johnson. For his part, the new A’s closer sounded just as baffled by his recent performances as anyone else. “I’ve got to be me. I’ve got to trust in what I’m doing, that it’s going to get better,” Johnson told Carl Steward of the Bay Area News Group after Wednesday’s game. “Something’s going to click. That’s how this game works out. You go through slumps, and just one thing can get you going, and you’re off to the races.”
For the moment, it looks like the A’s coaching staff and Johnson have a puzzle to solve. Is Johnson wilting under the pressure of impressing a new team in front of hostile fans? Is he putting too much pressure on himself to have a near-perfect season as he enters free agency? Is Johnson overthrowing the ball, gaining impressive velocity at the expense of the natural sinking action on his fastball? Is he uncomfortable working with new catcher Derek Norris? Does Johnson lack faith in the ability of Oakland’s middle infielders to turn his groundballs into rally-killing double plays. Is he disgusted by playing in a ballpark where sewage leaks into the dugout and clubhouse? Does he feel uncomfortable pitching in the team’s distinctive white shoes?
Who knows? Feel free to join the overreaction party and venture a guess.
The more you think about what might be throwing off Johnson’s performance, the more complicated things can get. But the answer to what’s behind his early struggles may be as simple as a guy having a couple of bad days at work despite his best efforts. Baseball is hard and bad days can happen to the best players.
With three games down and 159 to go, the A’s and Johnson have to hope that his rough start is just a minor bump in the road, because in a vastly improved AL West, the margin of error for winning the division promises to be dangerously slim this year.