Much ink has been spilt over the nouveau riche Miami Marlins' free agent additions. From franchise shortstop Jose Reyes to ultra-durable Mark Buehrle to closer Heath Bell, the Fish handed out a total of $191 million to bolster Ozzie Guillen's lineup and fill their new $634 million retractable roof stadium. But the difference between the Marlins contending with the Phillies and Braves and once again being relegated to also-ran status may well be injury-prone ace Josh Johnson.
During Florida's bleak 72-90 season in 2011, Johnson was limited to just 60.1 innings pitched by right shoulder inflammation. He threw his last pitch on May 16, with the Marlins eight games over .500 and just one game back of the Phillies. While Anibal Sanchez turned in a quality year, Javier Vazquez was unhittable in the second half and the staff got little help from a plodding defense (17th in the majors in Defensive Efficiency), the Florida rotation was mediocre as a whole. They ranked eighth in the National League in Fielding Independent Pitching (3.88) and 12th in innings pitched, taxing the bullpen often. Without Johnson, the Marlins tried to convert Clay Hensley (5.53 FIP as a starter) mid-season and called on not-ready prospect Brad Hand (5.73 FIP).
Buehrle will provide innings, but Vazquez seems headed for retirement. That leaves Johnson as Miami's best bet at having a top-tier starter to combat the Halladays and Lees of the NL East. When he's healthy, Johnson qualifies. Check out where he ranks in some key categories among starters since 2009:
Batting Average Against: .227, 82nd percent among starters (better than 82 percent of starters). Places between Mat Latos and C.J. Wilson.
On-Base Percentage Against: .284, 92nd percentile. Ranks between Adam Wainwright and Clayton Kershaw.
Slugging Percentage Against: .320, 94th percentile and sandwiched between Kershaw and Felix Hernandez.
Strikeout Percentage: 23.6%, 86th percentile. Between Zack Greinke and Latos.
Walk Percentage: 6.9%, 81st percentile. Between Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia.
The key for Johnson is a devastating mid-to-high-90s fastball. When hitters do manage to make contact (which isn't often -- his 20% miss rate with the pitch is ninth among starters since '09), it's weak contact. Look at opponents' in-play slugging percentage by location vs. Johnson's heater, compared to the league average. When Johnson keeps the ball low, they've got no chance:
Johnson has held hitters to a .338 slugging percentage with his fastball since 2009, trailing only Felix Hernandez among starters.
With a wicked fastball, Johnson ranked ninth among starters with 12 Wins Above Replacement from 2009-2010. Verlander, Greinke, Halladay, Lee, King Felix, Tim Lincecum, Ubaldo Jimenez and Jon Lester were the only guys with higher WAR totals, and Johnson placed high on the WAR leader board in 2011 before his shoulder shut him down. To keep pace with Philly, Atlanta and an upstart Nationals team, the Marlins need a healthy, Cy Young-level season out of Johnson.