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Jim Johnson has been better than you think

Stranded on the Braves, it’s been easy to overlook the changes he’s made this season

MLB: Washington Nationals at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

On May 29, Braves closer Jim Johnson entered the bottom of the 9th in Angel Stadium to protect a 6-3 lead. He struck out Nolan Fontana, got Martin Maldonado to line out, gave up a single to Cliff Pennington, and closed it out by striking out Eric Young Jr. Save No.11 was in the books and it was fairly uneventful.

Unless you owned him, you didn’t care. And why would you? He turns 34 at the end of this month, closes for a team that’s more than likely going to stay below .500 all season and owns a career 6.66 K/9 and 3.61 ERA in 606.1 IP. By all accounts, he’s the definition of an average reliever.

But then you’d be ignoring what’s happening this season, which itself is an extension of 2016.

Jim Johnson Now and Then

2016-17 Pre-2016
2016-17 Pre-2016
ERA: 3.13 ERA: 3.55
FIP: 2.56 FIP: 3.68
K%: 26.1 K%: 16.4
BB%: 6.8 BB%: 7.6

The first thing that sticks out is his K%. Ten percentage points is a massive gain. In 2017 he’s nearly at 10 K/9. Remember, this is someone who couldn’t even break the MLB average for relievers.

Even more striking is his Swinging Strike rate. He’s upped it to 10.2%, up from 7.6% combined the last five years. So what gives? What’s this journeyman doing that’s taken elevated him from “Waiting to be replaced by Arodys Vizcaino” to “Damn, he’s a top 15 closer”?

Johnson is slowly but surely reinventing himself by pitch mix.

Since peaking with 73 percent fastball usage in 2013, Johnson’s been on a slow decline, bottoming out at 51 percent this season, his lowest mark since he switched to the fourseam full time. At the same time, he’s increased his curveball usage. But that hasn’t been the only answer.

His secret weapon this year has been the changeup. It’s responsible for a massive spike in whiffs and is almost single-handedly accounting for his strikeouts.

Sometimes it’s as simple as that. You change your pitch mix and get good results and you keep doing it. Of course, it helps that Johnson has been roughly 50 percent better than league average relievers with a 1.66 BB/9, widening his margin of error on mistake pitches.

Buy or Sell?

If you drafted Jim Johnson, he didn’t cost you much. According to NFBC data, managers drafted him roughly in the 15th round of standard leagues. Many expected Arodys Vizcaino to take over the role at some point early in the season. But Johnson is now fully entrenched.

Johnson’s ratios right now are true skill. He’s not getting overly lucky. As such, he doesn’t scream sell high. But he’s a victim of circumstance. Given his unexpected brilliance, the Braves might trade him before the July 31 deadline. While some point to his two-year, $10 million contract as reason to keep him, it could be argued they’d flip because he’s so cheap. Teams like the Rangers and Cardinals, both in the bottom five of team bullpen ERA, could be interested and they have loaded farm systems to use as ammo in a trade.

There’s a fair chance that wherever he lands, he might enter a set-up role and lose all value in standard leagues. In that sense, it makes sense to sell, especially if he’s a fourth closer on your team and you can plug a hole.

At the risk of seeming indecisive, it makes sense to hold as well, though. The Braves opened a new stadium this year and vowed to have a team ready for the postseason soon. Why trade one of their most dependable bullpen pieces if they think they can compete next year?

If you want to sell Johnson, now’s your best chance. In the last month he’s pitched 12 innings, struck out 12, and notched seven saves with a 2.25 ERA and 0.67 WHIP. He’s been the fifth-most valuable closer in that span. On Monday, Rob Parker posted his Week 9 Closer Tier update and slotted Johnson as the 14th overall RP sandwiched between Alex Colome and Corey Knebel.

If you prefer to hold, just be sure that once the calendar flips to July, your team can withstand a trade that knocks out his value.