Josh Johnson: Sleeper in San Diego

 Josh Johnson’s agent is Matt Sosnick. Sosnick is a man who deserves both real life and fantasy lauding for securing Johnson an $8 million contract in sunny San Diego.

Before 2013, Johnson had never been a bad pitcher. Johnson had been an injured pitcher, and a frustrating pitcher, and a pitcher you could — and at times had to — dream on, but he’d never been a pitcher that got positively lit up. Then he went to Toronto and put up a 6.20 ERA over 16 starts in a walk year. That’s getting lit up. Obviously the 6.20 ERA doesn’t tell us everything, but, from a fantasy perspective, it told us all we needed to know — he wasn’t playable last season. But what can we expect for next year?

Let’s start with the good news — he’s moving from the American League to the National League and from Rogers Centre to Petco Park. Rogers was the third-best park for hitting home runs last year, while Petco ranked at No. 17. This is particularly significant for Johnson because his HR/FB rate spiked last year to 18.5 percent. For context, league average HR/FB is usually around 10 percent and his career HR/FB percentage is 8.2. This stinks of some small sample size aberration, doesn’t it? Let’s keep going!

Johnson’s 2013 K/9 was 9.2 and his BB/9 was 3.3 — right in line with career norms. But then there’s that H/9 at 11.6. That’s high, particularly for a pitcher who’s got a career 8.4 H/9. A 24 percent line drive rate explains some of that and the .360 BABIP explains some more. Johnson kept his peripherals about the same, but he was more prone to harder contact and got pretty unlucky on top of it all, which is why he posted a 3.58 xFIP last year, per Fangraphs.

Johnson was around the 30th starter taken in fantasy last year. If you drafted him, you weren’t happy. Maybe you got married or went to Thailand, mitigating some of that unhappiness. I hope you’re happy. I bet Josh Johnson is happy, because someone just gave him $8 million, and a chance to earn way more than that next year. Even more than $8 million! That’s so much money.

Johnson’s fantasy value is almost completely tied up in his health. Since he just had bone spurs removed from his elbow, I’m going to assume throwing a baseball incredibly fast won’t hurt him as much next year. I expect him to post an ERA much closer to his career 3.40 than his flukishly gross 6.20. The strikeouts were there last year, so there’s no reason to expect them to go away, and if his BABIP normalizes a bit, his WHIP should be an asset as well. Projecting wins is a fool’s errand, but let’s say 10 is reasonable.

That’s a pretty good fantasy pitcher, right there. Not amazing, but few of us truly are. Since he was so fantastically bad last year, he should fall considerably in drafts for 2014. People won’t fully trust him, and they’re right not to. But you’ll probably be able to get him near round No. 15 in 12-team, 5X5 leagues next year. He’s a great flier to target — with good health he can put up the numbers of a fourth or fifth rounder.

Good health. Wish it upon Josh Johnson, and wish it upon us all.

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Jason A. Churchill

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