A's Jim Johnson sinking into a rut

So these are the results of Oakland A's closer Jim Johnson's five appearances thus far:

  • March 31 versus Cleveland: Entered in a 0-0 game, five batters faced, one out, two runs, two hits, one walk. A's lose 2-0, Johnson credited with the loss.

  • April 2 versus Cleveland: Entered with a 4-3 lead, seven batters faced, two outs, three runs, three hits, two walks, blown save and loss.

  • April 5 versus Seattle: Pitched eighth inning of a 3-1 loss, four batters faced, three outs, no runs, one hit, two strikeouts.

  • April 6 versus Seattle: Got the save in a 6-3 victory, five batters faced, three outs, no runs, one hit, one walk, two strikeouts.

  • April 9 versus Minnesota: Entered with 4-2 lead, five batters faced, one out, two runs, two runs, two hits, not actually credited with a blown save but the Twins tied the game. A's win 7-4 in 11 innings.

So, umm, that's pretty bad. Johnson has faced 26 batters so far and 16 of them have reached base. He's walked six and struck out four. Batters are hitting .529, albeit with no extra-base hits and a .600 BABIP.

Is Johnson crashing or just in a run of bad luck? He led the American League in saves the past two seasons, but he also led it last year in blown saves and had the second-most relief losses in the majors. The Orioles' bullpen, with Johnson locking down 51 saves in 54 opportunities, was the key to their 2012 playoff run but a major reason they missed the postseason in 2013.

Johnson is a bit of a rare breed for a closer. He relies on a four-seam fastball and a power sinker, both 93-95 mph, that don't register many strikeouts for a closer but do generate ground balls. He also has a changeup and a curveball, making him a rare four-pitch closer. His curveball was actually a decent strikeout pitch last year -- he threw it 145 times and in 34 plate appearances ending with that pitch struck out 20 batters with no walks and no home runs. He almost always starts batters out with the four-seamer or sinker, however, doing so against 245 of the 291 batters he faced last year.

OK, that's the background. What's gone on this year? He's thrown 109 pitches in those five appearances, 79 of them being four-seamers or sinkers. Fifty-seven percent of them resulted in strikes (called or swung at); last year that number was 64 percent. In baseball, 7 percent can be huge. But here's an ever bigger problem: Of that 64 percent strike total last year, only 51 percent were actually located in the zone. This year, it's been 56 out of 57 percent. Basically, it looks like the sinker ain't sinking and if Johnson is forced to throw too many four-seamers he's in trouble. He's not getting to counts where he can throw the curveball (three of his four strikeouts have come on the curve).

It seems that until there's evidence that the sinker is back it's time to remove Johnson from the closer role. The A's escaped on Wednesday but they can't always rely on the offense to bail them out.