Players don’t go to win in San Diego. They go there to retire. Or so a common thought process might go. After all, this is a team that has never won a World Series, the last World Series game they won was in 1984, last made the playoffs when they won the division in 2006 – and by win the division in 2005 I mean finish with a record of 82-80. With several ownership changes as well in the last couple of years, the patient people of San Diego were surprised and happy when the Padres spent some money this offseason and signed pitcher Josh Johnson to a $8 Million contract. Sure, he was dreadful last year, and always seems to get hurt…but when healthy, is absolutely one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. For a team that also has Carlos Quentin in LF about 80 games a year and still pays him $9 Million per year, this could make worse sense! However, we don’t want just blind optimism. We want to be able to intelligently understand: is this a good decision and what will pitching for the Padres do for his performance?
To help with this challenge, I have settled upon 4 other pitchers with somewhat similar backgrounds as Johnson to see how he might fare: the injury-plagued but hard thrower Chris Young, the “just needs a change of scenery” guy in Jon Garland, the veteran proving he still has something Jason Marquis, and Aaron Harang for good measure.
While beautiful Petco Park is now celebrating it’s 10th season, it has certainly gained a reputation as a pitcher’s park. Just ask Phil Nevin, who famously flipped off GM Kevin Towers after thinking he had hit a homer and the ball settled harmlessly before the warning track. Even with the fences moving in last year, it didn’t change that perception much, or help keep the marine layer from rolling in at night and keeping long fly balls at bay. As good as this sounds for pitchers, unfortunately it has also stopped the Padres from ever hitting a lot of home runs at Petco as well.
As we quickly analyze these four starters, we’ll take a look at a couple years before coming to SD and perhaps their previous “best” year when applicable. The basic metrics we’ll look at are ERA, HR/IP, WHIP, and general comments about the season.
So let’s start with Chris Young. Chris came to the Padres at a much younger age than Johnson is, in a great trade where the Padres netted Young for the aforementioned Phil Nevin, who went on to do nothing more significant. I was at the game in September 2006, where Chris Young nearly threw the first Padres no-hitter, but was thwarted in the 9th inning. Yet more than that – Young, like Johnson (and on a side note- current Padres hurler Andrew Cashner) you felt like had the stuff to throw a no-hitter every time out. He also is 6’10” to Johnson’s 6’7″.
Chris Young only had played one full season before coming to San Diego, with Texas at age 26 in 2005. That year he did 4.26, with 1.5HR/9, a WHIP of 1.26, and pitched 164 IP. He also went 2-7.
The next year, now in San Diego, he went 11-5 with 3.46 ERA, a 1.4HR/9, a WHIP of 1.13 and led the league only allowing 6.7 H/9. In 2007- his last full season, he put down a 3.12 ERA, .5 HR/9, 1.098 WHIP, managed 8.7K/9, and made the All-Star Team. This would be his last year making 20 or more starts until 2012. So certainly Young’s numbers appears favorable for making a comeback at Petco, but a little harder to tell because not a ton of historical success beforehand. Unfortunately, injuries have taken their toll on the tall right-hander in a case of what could have been.
Next up is Jon Garland, who like Johnson, already had a string of really good years before, followed be a couple subpar before coming down to San Diego. Looking at our main stats, here is how he did his year in the Friar’s hood.
His best year was arguably 2009, when at age 29 he had an ERA of 4.01, 1 HR/9, a WHIP of 1.302 and pitched 204 innings. Yet when he came to Petco and the Padres he dropped the ERA to 3.47, HR/9 to .9, and WHIP of 1.32. Like Young, he followed that up with injuries in 2011, missing all of 2012 and managed 12 starts in 2013 with the Rockies. We’re getting a little closer to finding a similarity, but still working at it.
The Padres liked this veteran pitcher for a year deal, so picked up Harang as Garland departed in 2011. Harang had won 16 games each year in 2006 and 2007 with ERA’s around 3.75, but had LOST 17 and 14 games respectively in 2008 and 2009. He was limited to 20 starts in 2010 and saw his ERA just up over 5. Time for a change of scenery. Harang was always a fly-ball pitcher, averaging about 1.2HR/9 up to this point. In 2011, he lowered his ERA to 3.64, HR/9 to 1.1, and WHIP down to the second-lowest of his career at 1.365! Interestingly, the following year he had a better ERA at 3.61, lower HR/9 at 0.7, and WHIP of 141. He has regressed since then with a bad 2013, but I think it is safe to say coming to Petco got two of the best seasons in a row since 2007.
Last in our study is Jason Marquis, who believe it or not has been pitching in the bigs since 2000! Had a few really good years with the Cardinals in 2004-5 at ages 25-26, then kept bouncing around Edwin Jackson-like until he started 2011 with a solid season, going to a 4.32 ERA, HR/9 under 1, and WHIP of 1.492. So when Minnesota picked him up, it looked good. Then he started the season, and looked washed up, going 2-4 with an ERA over 8. He was so bad he was released and picked up by the already-in-last-place Padres. Ended up finishing 2012 by going 6-7 with an ERA of 4.04 ERA and was off to a great start in 2013 before…Tommy John Surgery. In 2013 he pitched to a 4.05 ERA, a high 1.4 HR/9, and a WHIP of 1.521. Now Tommy John in your mid 30’s is against him, but he certainly seems to have some good innings left in him.
So what does this all mean for Josh Johnson? Certainly, he’s not as under the radar as some of these other guys when coming to San Diego. Two years ago it was a coup for the Jays to get him! Remember, in 2010 he led the league in ERA at 2.30, allowed HR/9 at a rate of .3 (that’s 7 total in 183 IP!), and a WHIP of 1.105. If he can have the success of Chris Young, the bounce back to glory years like Harang and Garland, and avoid injury like Marquis, we could have something. He’s also only 30 years old.
The expectations in San Diego aren’t the same as they were in Toronto, and certainly not playing in the AL East should help a pitcher calm down a little bit (see AJ Burnett), so that is good. At this point, all signs are looking good for his health, which always remains the wild card that Petco Park has nothing to do with, as long as he doesn’t hurt himself surfing with his 6’7″ frame. Besides that, we can expect a decrease in ERA, WHIP, and see his already great HR allowed totals decline as well. Which should all add up to a winning season for Josh Johnson. A resurgent Josh Johnson, coupled with young studs Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross who should benefit from some tutelage, and perhaps Ian Kennedy continuing his own Petco Park trend over the last couple of months from 2013 and Eric Stults continuing to confuse hitters with his change of speeds and location management, means this Padres rotation might have some bright days ahead.