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The Devil Went Down To Steve Johnson

The Curphus of Steve Johnson

Minnesota Twins v Seattle Mariners
the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was whatever Steve Johnson did to Miguel Sano
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Try to picture Steve Johnson, Mariners reliever. You probably can't. Maybe you kind of imagine MiMo and squash him down some; maybe you think of a guy you know, whose name wasn't Steve Johnson, exactly, but maybe it was Mike Johnson? Or John Stevenson? Steve Michelson. You sat next to him in Chemistry, maybe, and sometimes he let you copy his notes; or he was on your seventh grade basketball team, the one that just missed the finals. Maybe he was the boyfriend of your college girlfriend's best friend, or someone you worked with at your first job. The Steve Johnsons of the world fade back into the tapestry of our lives, puzzle pieces we sort into handfuls--another blue one, sea or sky--and shove aside while we focus on finishing the medieval tower and its sharp precipices. Some people are like that--generic, forgettable, common as a paper napkin. But sometimes you're at a party with that person and stay outside chatting until it's cold and you're both shivering, your skin tinged orange by the streetlights, but you don't want to go back inside and resign yourself again to the same old conversations; and you might not remember that person exactly, years later, and if you do it's such a ridiculously generic name you'll never track them down on Facebook, but you remember that night, that feeling like you were standing at the edge of a very deep pool you were only skimming the surface of, knowing that you could disappear into this person for an undisclosed amount of time, but you won't.

Because a general sky/sea piece in your puzzle is a brilliant scrap of a princess's dress in someone else's. Before he came to us, Steve Johnson had spent seven years with Baltimore, his hometown team, and a few more years before that with the Dodgers, who drafted him in 2005, as a seventeen-year-old. But it's Baltimore Steve Johnson belongs to, as his father before him (also a pitcher, also with the comically common name of Dave Johnson) also belonged to that city. You probably don't remember this, but on August 8, 2012, Steve Johnson got his first start with the Orioles. It was also his first win. The team he faced? The Seattle Mariners.

In 2015, the Orioles--his hometown team, the team he'd played most of his professional career for--did not offer Johnson a contract. He was picked up by the Rangers in the winter, but released during spring training, which is when Jerry Dipoto signed him to add to Seattle's pile of healthy relievers (a surprisingly small pile, as it turned out). Johnson has an injury history (oblique, lat injuries) but pitched 16 innings in Tacoma, posting a 2.25 ERA, before getting the call up this year to replace injured fireballer Tony Zych. "Steve Johnson?" We rolled our eyes, shook our heads in disappointment over Zych's setback. "Never heard of him." The papers he came with are unimpressive: a career ERA pushing 4, a SO/K ratio of 1.95, a fastball that doesn't crack 90 mph. Meh and meh and more meh. The Steve Johnsons of the world are cannon fodder, place holders, extras in the festival scenes that hold us in thrall.

But Steve Johnson, foster puppy, has showed up in our house determined to make a good impression. In his debut on May 3 at the Coliseum, in an 8-3 Seattle victory, he gave up a home run to Khris Davis in the 9th. Since then, he has appeared in nine other games, for a total of 11.1 innings. He has not yet given up another run. How has he been so effective? Is it the curphus? (term copyright Nathan Bishop) Has he just been lucky? His .167 BABIP and LOB % of 100% (!) would suggest yes, incredibly so, and his FIP of 3.47 suggests regression is coming soon, and cruelly, for that .079 ERA. But at 11.1 innings we can still say the sample size is small enough that maybe, just maybe, the devil taught Stevie a few new tricks during their fiddlin' contest. Let's look more in-depth at one of his early performances at Houston on May 6, in a losing effort when Tai fell asleep on his futon playing Call of Duty because sometimes he's allowed to be 22:

Steve took over for Monty to close out the seventh, and then pitched the bottom of the eighth. He started out by walking Carlos Gomez, not challenging him at all in the zone despite Gomez's early-season struggles:


Ball 3 there is the 64 mph curveball--the "curphus" as Nathan dubbed it--but Gomez wasn't biting. But our Steve, he learns. Look how he attacked Luis Valbuena on the next at-bat:


This time, Johnson pounds the zone against Valbuena, a left-handed hitter, inducing a couple fouls on high-80s fastballs before zipping a called strike three on a fastball right at the bottom of the zone. He would walk lefty Marwin Gonzalez next, missing the strike zone badly, before attacking Jason Castro with a nice series of pitches that finally found the corner of the strike zone he'd been aiming for:

Johnson might flail a little initially, but once he commands the left side of the strike zone he can put batters away. Left-handed batters are only hitting .209 against him, but have an OBP of .320 thanks to some walks. Right-handed batters are faring even worse, hitting just .118 with an OBP of .182--again, the 9 walks in his 11 innings of relief is a number that needs to come down if he's to be at all effective. Johnson's curphus might actually work against him here; batters don't often chase it, and it usually lands out of the zone (that, or it doesn't get called a strike because the ump has fallen asleep before it gets to the plate). He's best when he varies his pitch speeds and pounds the zone, relying rarely on the curphus as a change-of-pace pitch, as he did when he struck out the side in the game against Minnesota on Friday night. After an ugly walk to Robbie Grossman, Johnson disposed of Byung Ho Park, and then struck out Kurt Suzuki and Danny Santana on three pitches each. Here's his pitch sequence to Park:

The first two pitches are 87 and 89 mph fastballs high in the zone; Park took the first for a strike and cold missed the second. Pitch 3 is a 90 mph fastball that missed the zone. Pitch 4 is the curphus, a 63 mph bender that just nicks the bottom of the zone and induced a swing and a foul from Park. Johnson follows that up with a high fastball at 90 mph that must have looked blazing fast compared to the curve, as it fooled Park badly for a swinging strikeout.

Somehow, Johnson is getting the job done. The walks are still a problem (he struggled with them in Baltimore, as well), but right now he's making outs in key situations, showing he can give at least a couple innings of effective relief, and basically outperforming anyone's expectations for a guy named Steve Johnson. Also, if you need help distinguishing him from "generic reliever guy," check out his Twitter feed, which is pretty funny and features gems like this:

Wise words, Steve Johnson. Oh, and in case you need a visual:

Maryland Strong