Over Reactions Abound Surrounding Jim Johnson’s 9th Inning Meltdown

There really isn’t any positive way to spin the first two outings for new A’s closer Jim Johnson. Through a combined one inning of work over two games, he has allowed five runs to score, recorded two losses and a blown save. He admits himself that the team should be 3-0 if not for him, instead they sit at 1-2.

To top it off, he has been pulled from both games and had to leave strong boos from his new home crowd, including a handful of fans yelling for him to “go back to Baltimore,” in the night-half of Wednesday’s doubleheader.

“Tonight I missed a couple locations,” Johnson told reporters following the game. “I don’t know. I mean, trust me, I left everything I had out there, and sometimes you don’t have answers. The only thing I can do is just keep trying to improve every time I go out and correct this as quickly as possible.

“I’ll try to sleep it off tonight. I’m not going to be doing anyone any favors if I hang my head. These guys are playing their butts off. I gotta be me, I gotta trust in what I’m doing. It’s going to get better, I gotta prove that to the guys, and be one of the 25 guys that is going to help us win.”

If you thought the reaction in the stadium was bad, you should have seen what was going on in the world of social media. We could embed a number of Tweets here to illustrate the point, but truthfully it wouldn’t get us anywhere other than pointing out what we already know, Johnson has a long road ahead of him to winning over the fans.

I admit, I was a bit taken aback at the backlash after just two games, and posed the following on Twitter in a bit of a sarcastic tone:

 

 

In no way was I seriously suggesting we remove Johnson from the closer role following just two games, but that did not slow a huge reaction via replies and a surprising number of direct messages from fans who I suppose wanted to be a bit more discreet with their displeasure. For the most part, the reaction to that message was playful and went along with my “show of hands” comment (those of you who follow me seem to understand when I am being serious and when I’m not, and the interaction is always great). You know, good natured, albeit frustrated fan-to-fan conversation type stuff.

The further end of the spectrum showed the growing frustration. A number of people just replied with their longings for the rage-filled Aussie closer of the past two seasons, the departed Grant Balfour. Then there were some others who chose to blast Johnson, myself and any other member of the media who posted anything even close to resembling a defense of his performance. To the one follower who asked, no, I am not related to Jim Johnson, nor am I “retarded.” There’s a few pieces of paper on my wall and hanging around my neck nightly that would state otherwise, thanks for asking though. I suppose I appreciate the concern for my mental health. To each their own I suppose. No one can say how you should cheer for your team, passion for your team is a good thing and brings a range of emotions.

It makes sense, to a degree. Balfour was about as automatic as closers can be over the past two season. He broke Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley’s franchise record for consecutive saves without a blown save even. He was a fan favorite as his fiery personality won over the coliseum and sparked the “Balfour Rage” when he came in to pitch the ninth inning.

With other quality arms in the bullpen such as Luke Gregerson, Sean Doolittle and even Ryan Cook when he returns from injury, there will certainly be calls for Johnson to ride the bench if he can’t roll out a few saves in a row fairly quickly here.

Despite leading the Majors in saves each of the past two seasons with 51 in 2012 and 50 last season, he also lead the league in blown saves in 2013 with nine such cases. It’s worth noting though, that in 2012, he only had three blown saves, as many as Balfour had all of last season. Most of his nine blown saves came grouped together during a rough patch last season as well. These things happen to professional ball players. It doesn’t make it any easier, but it does happen.

“It’s been two games,” Melvin said, defending his struggling closer. “We traded for him for a reason. He does have a terrific track record and is obviously off to a slow start.”

Derek Norris tried to put it into perspective as well.

“He’s had a couple hiccups, and I think, especially coming to a new ball club, he wanted to make a great first impression,” Norris said. “I think Balfour was a fan favorite. They got to do the Balfour rage, but he’s putting a lot of pressure on his shoulders.

“He’s very, very good. It’s not a secret. It’s just a matter of time that he lets that pressure go. When he puts so much pressure on himself, he tries to do more. And when a pitcher tries to do more, they fly open a little bit, their sinker doesn’t sink as much and it gets elevated, and that gives good hitters a good chance to hit the ball.”

Being signed only for this season and already earning $10 million, it’s very possible that either Gregerson, Doolittle, Cook or even the currently injured Eric O’Flaherty could wind up the closer to begin next season, but the job is Johnson’s for now.

He needs a few good outings to help boost his confidence, but more importantly, to boost the confidence the fans have him when he enters the game.

“Getting booed off the field is not going to help the situation,” said Norris. “I think it’s sad that he has to go through that here. Hopefully in the next couple weeks he’ll change their minds and become the new fan favorite.”

Though Johnson appears mentally tough, it’s the type of thing that can shake a player’s confidence and start to effect them mentally. The game is littered with pitchers who didn’t necessarily lose their “stuff,” but rather lost it somewhere between the ears and just couldn’t perform anymore. Again, Johnson does not seem like the type of player to succumb to such things, but I’m sure while he has downplayed the boos so far, even if he would probably admit that it’s not helping him to relieve the pressure and turn things around.

The track record is there, he’s just a player trying to live up to his own expectations and pressure at the moment. As soon as he realizes all he needs to be is the Jim Johnson he was the past two seasons, and not the Aussie closer he is replacing in Oakland, he’ll get past this and be better. The sooner the Oakland faithful come to the same conclusion, things can really start to click and following a few successful outings, perhaps even some cheers can come his way.

Johnson is a stepping stone from Balfour to one of the A’s younger relievers. He’s a stepping stone who should be able to turn in at least a 35-40 save season still, perhaps even close to the 50 he has recorded each of the past two seasons.

“It stings right now and it should, but sometimes it’s how you respond to adversity,” Johnson said.

So long as the adversity doesn’t damage his confidence beyond repair, he will be fine and this will wind up a minor bump in the road to the final outcome of the season.