(Image courtesy Hiroshima Carp)
2021 season age: 31
Contract: Minor league contract
Height: 6’4 – Weight: 230
2020 stats: From Japanese Central, Pacific and Western Leagues – 3.35 ERA, 40.1 innings, 42K/20BB, 11 wild pitches
Background: To start, DJ Johnson has had a fascinating baseball journey. He was an undrafted free agent by the Rays out of Western Oregon in 2010. He was out of their system in by 2011 and pitching in Independent leagues later that year. He caught on with Arizona’s system in 2012 and didn’t pitch at all in 2013. He was pitching in the Frontier League again in 2014 before the Twins signed him off the Traverse City roster. He was with the Twins system through 2015, getting as high as Double-A. He bounced around to Arizona’s system, the Angels system, the Mexican League and then finally with Colorado. In 2016, Johnson was actually already a resident of Ohio, working at a lumber yard in Portsmouth, Ohio before he caught on with Colorado and made his MLB debut in 2018. He also overcame a major shoulder surgery as well.
2020 in review: Johnson pitched in Japan in 2020 and logged over 40 innings after a rough 2019 in Colorado. Across 2018/19 he pitched 31.1 innings for Colorado and with 33 strikeouts and 21 walks with a 4.88 ERA. He did pitch better in Japan last season and logged more innings there than he would have in the states, so that’s a good thing. However, he did uncork 11 wild pitches. In 40.1 innings that is an extremely concerning amount. Unless the official scorers have different interpretations of wild pitches and passed balls, that’s not a good sign for a pitcher who has always had control issues.
On the mound: In his two MLB seasons, Johnson has essentially operated with two pitches. His primary offering is a four-seam fastball (93.2 mph in 2019 – 2310 spin rate, 62nd percentile, which is slightly above average. But average isn’t a good spin trait for a fastball) and a curveball (82.5 mph – 2641 -70th percentile, which is pretty good, but we don’t know about spin direction, which matters more). Savant also shows a cutter and changeup that he threw three times combined. It has been reported he worked on his changeup in Japan.
Beyond the stats: Despite pitching in Coors, his fastball wasn’t tagged too badly, but a good fastball plays better than a curveball in the thin air anyway. His fastball only allowed a .355 SLG% in 2019 and his curveball allowed a .364 SLG%. So his two primary pitches didn’t suffer a lot of damage. He didn’t miss a lot of bats in 2019 (20.7 K%) and had an ugly walk rate (16.4%). His walk rates were average to below average as he reached the upper minors before making his debut in 2018 briefly. Savant’s batted ball data has his fastball surrendering much more significant contact (.391 xWOBA – expected, weighted on-base average, which weights the quality of offensive outcomes by a batter, so a single is worth a certain percentage, and as more damage is done, the percentage is weighted)., so while he didn’t get a ton of base results from it, the batted ball data thinks he should have suffered more. Really for Johnson, command issues are the thing he has to try to combat.
2021 role: Now that Johnson is back stateside for baseball, he’ll compete for a spot in Cleveland’s bullpen that really should only have four spots guaranteed out of camp (James Karinchak, Nick Wittgren, Phil Maton, and Emmanuel Clase). He’s competing with Bryan Shaw, Blake Parker, Oliver Perez, and Heath Hembree as minor league signings as well as pitchers like Kyle Nelson, Anthony Gose and some other internal minor leaguers. There are essentially three or four spots open, depending on what Cleveland does with Rule 5 pick Trevor Stephan. He’ll essentially be a middle relief option if he makes it, maybe the first guy out of the pen if a starter gets knocked out early or they are behind and don’t want to waste a leverage arm.
Fantasy impact: No fantasy value to be had here even if he makes Cleveland’s bullpen.