Last season, the question everyone had for Jim Johnson and Fernando Rodney was, How long can they keep this up? This year, it's the same question, but it comes from a very different place.
For the Orioles, Johnson went from being a semi-dependable reliever to MLB’s saves leader, racking up 51 of them and helping the surprising O's reach the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. Down in Tampa, Rodney reinvented himself from a power arm with no control into the hardest pitcher in baseball on which to score, setting a major-league record with a 0.60 ERA to go with 48 saves in 50 tries.
This season hasn’t been so kind to those two. Johnson has blown four saves in the last two weeks to see his ERA balloon to 5.25. In his last outing against Toronto, he came into a 5-2 game, promptly gave up three straight hits to make it 5-3, got two outs around a walk and another run scored, and then let the light-hitting Munenori Kawasaki lash a two-run double to left-center to take the loss. Rodney, meanwhile, has an unsightly 5.75 ERA, has blown his last two save chances and has given up seven runs and eight walks in his last 6 2/3 innings. Both have seen their leashes grow shorter by the day, though both have been given votes of confidence by their respective managers.
In Johnson’s case, his 2013 troubles are tied to a falling groundball rate and a rise in home runs allowed. Johnson has never been a traditional flamethrower -- his career strikeout rate is a mere 5.8 per nine -- but has gotten by thanks to a propensity to induce groundballs. Armed with a power sinker and heavy four-seam fastball, Johnson got groundballs 62 percent of the time in 2012; with a batting average on balls in play of .251, leading to a lot of outs. This season, though, Johnson’s sinker isn’t sinking. His groundball rate has fallen to 49 percent, and his line-drive rate has shot up from 16 percent to 20 percent. Most troublesome is a rise in flyballs, especially those leaving the yard. Through 2013, Johnson has already allowed as many homers (three) in 24 innings as he did in 68 2/3 innings last year.
As for Rodney, his control has collapsed into the horrific. Last season, he posted by far the best walk ratio of his career, with just 15 free passes in 74 2/3 innings. Through Tuesday’s games, Rodney has walked 19 batters in 20 1/3 innings, or 8.4 batters per nine. He has walked at least one batter in eight of his 12 appearances this month. But wait, it gets worse: Rodney’s home-run rate has also skyrocketed, as he’s allowed more homers so far this year (three) than he did all of last season (two). The combination of more baserunners plus harder contact has made Rodney’s position as closer an increasingly untenable one.
Can either Johnson or Rodney turn it around? Johnson’s results may be tinged with bad luck, as his BABIP currently sits at .329. But he’s giving up solid contact regularly, and lefthanders in particular are giving him fits with an .875 OPS against in 56 plate appearances. Rodney’s predicament is more dire. He’s never been the picture of perfect control; last season was the first time he’s ever had a walk rate under 3.0 per nine innings. Even though his strikeout rate is all the way above 12 per nine, he’s not fooling batters. His line-drive rate is an alarming 28 percent, and hitters are swinging at his pitches less often, particularly outside the strike zone. And his changeup, a devastating out-pitch last season, has been decidedly pedestrian in 2013.
Neither team is in a great position to replace closers, however. In Baltimore, top setup man Pedro Strop has also fallen off from a spectacular 2012, with 12 earned runs, 14 walks and three homers allowed in 17 2/3 innings. Strop just hit the disabled list with a lower back strain, putting the setup burden on the situational tandem of righthander Darren O’Day and lefty Troy Patton. O’Day has been stellar for Buck Showalter with 26 strikeouts in 24 innings, but his side-arming style leaves him vulnerable to southpaws -- he’s allowed a .324/.429/.529 line to lefties in 43 plate appearances this year. Tampa Bay’s bullpen has been a headache for Joe Maddon all year: Kyle Farnsworth and Jake McGee have been unusable, and only Joel Peralta (27 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings) has been a reliable contributor. Still, though last season’s results gave them a lot of rope, Johnson and Rodney won’t be closing much longer if they don’t turn things around quickly. Otherwise, the Rays and Orioles may find themselves losing more and more ground to the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East.