The Case For Rob Johnson

Mike Salk · July 19, 2010 at 11:28 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Mike Salk is the co-host of the Brock and Salk show, which can be heard weekday afternoons on ESPN Radio 710. Starting on August 9th, they will be moving to the morning time slot, and you will be able to hear them from 9 am to 12 pm. You can read also check them out at their blog, where Mike puts his thoughts when he’s not contributing here. You will also find posts from me on their blog each Thursday.

Over the past few months, Mariners fans have disagreed on plenty of topics. But it seems that the one thing they agreed on is that Rob Johnson stinks. According to the calls, emails, texts, posts, and Tweets: he can’t catch, he can’t hit, and he shouldn’t be playing.

And yet he does keep playing.

So let’s assume for a moment that there is a good reason why. I set out to find it.

Before I go any further, I should come clean about the fact that I am a Rob Johnson fan. I think he is heckuva good guy and he has been very helpful to me over the past two years. He has always been willing to come on the show and has answered countless questions for me in the clubhouse about the game of baseball in general and catching in particular. I try not to let that get in the way of my analysis, but I will admit it sometimes gets clouded. That being said, I tried to take my personal feelings out of this and what you will read below is based on what others have told me, rather my own personal opinion. I won’t prove he deserves to play with stats (that’s not my role here), but hopefully the thoughts I’ve compiled will help you look at this in a more nuanced way.

Back to the question: why does Rob Johnson continue to get playing time despite the complaints of some fans?

Don Wakamatsu is the man responsible for awarding that playing time and he uses pretty simple reasoning.

“He fits our priorities, which start with getting the best out of our pitchers. And that starts with our best guys. Felix wants him; so did Cliff Lee. The pitching staff has a belief system in his game calling ability.”

Leaving aside Wak’s incessant use of “belief system,” he hits upon the best case to be made for Johnson: his pitchers consistently request him as a battery-mate. When we first learned about this last year, I was critical of the pitchers, saying that their relationship with him off the field should not factor into the decision. At the time, I thought the pitchers were making decisions because they liked having dinner with him or hanging out with him on the team plane.

I was wrong.

What the pitchers meant was that they liked the way he took time to build a professional relationship with them. He takes time to learn about their strengths and weaknesses. That is important to them.

***

This year, the requests of his pitching staff hit a different level. Both aces wanted to throw to him. Hernandez was understandable – the pair had grown comfortable with each other last season. But Lee was a little more surprising.

“He just has a good knack for the feel of the game,” Lee told me when I asked him why he had chosen Johnson. “ He understands the flow of what’s working and what isn’t. He sees what hitters are doing and it’s easy to get on the same page with him. He prepares well, but it’s more that he can make the adjustments.”

We have all heard that pitchers like to be comfortable with their catchers. And being on the same page seems to be a big part of that. But that doesn’t tell the whole story here. The thing that stands out in Lee’s statement is that Johnson excels in watching hitters and making adjustments to them. In a game of adjustments, that is important.

“It’s huge to watch a hitter,” explained Lee. “You watch their feet in order to tell what they’re looking for, then you adjust accordingly.”

Their feet?

“Yup. As a catcher, you need to call for the opposite of whatever the hitter’s feet tell you they are trying to do. And Rob is great at that.”

According to Johnson, “the feet are the window to the brain.” He believes “the hitters’ feet will tell you what direction they want to go. It’s especially helpful with guys who are cheating to try and cover a part of the plate.”

Former big league catcher (and current Single-A Bakersfield manager) Bill Hasselman agrees.

“It’s important to watch the whole body, but especially the feet and hips,” he told me. “Good hitters will usually have their front foot come down in the same place. But you can tell what they’re trying to do. If the foot is open, the hips are usually open and it means they are out in front and you can get them with something soft and away. If they are stepping across a little, you can try to cross them up with something hard inside. You can feel it in your peripheral vision. Sometimes you can just sense it.”

***

Pitchers prefer Johnson for more than just his ability to adjust in a game. They appreciate the way he calls a game and they like his defense.

As the staff ace, Felix Hernandez can throw to whomever he wants. He chooses Johnson because they are on the same page.

He believes Johnson “calls the right pitch every time. He always calls the pitch that I have in mind. He does it every time.”

OK. So Felix likes throwing to him. But, you might say, what is his frame of reference? He always throws to one guy so maybe they get in sync because they are so used to each other.

If so, consider David Aardsma, who comes into games in the ninth inning and inherits whichever catcher is already behind the plate.

“I love his knowledge of hitters and situations,” says Aardsma, who thinks Johnson does an excellent job. “It takes the pressure off me as a pitcher to know that my catcher knows what he is doing. It allows me to just concentrate on me. It allows me to focus on my delivery and my release point and worry less about pitch selection. But he almost always calls what I was thinking of anyway. And if there is a difference, I always see why he is calling what he is calling.”

Need a specific example?

“Just Sunday, he recognized that Howie Kendrick was looking for a first pitch fastball so we started him off with a slider away. He came out to the mound to talk about that one. Right before that, he got the sense that McAnulty was pressing so we didn’t give him anything to hit, especially with a base open. It worked. In fact, I would say virtually every big hit against me with Rob catching has been because I missed my spot, not because of a bad call. It’s always been a flaw of execution.”

***

If you are noticing a common thread in all of these quotes, it’s probably the importance of trust. What Wak refers to as his “belief system” is essentially what we all call trust. Pitchers are generally fragile creatures with self-confidence issues. Trust is important to them.

And I know what you’re going to say next. How can you have trust in a catcher when he continues to let balls get past him at an alarming rate? And how could you have gone this long without addressing our biggest concern?

Look, the passed balls are a strike against him. I’m not going to ignore that. But there are a few mitigating factors.

The first is injury. Let’s try not to forget that Johnson had surgery on BOTH hips just a few months ago (not to mention his wrist). This is the same guy who played through those injuries all of last year, not even telling his team about them until after the season was over. Debate the merits of his silence if you want, but realize that this is a tough guy who will play through pain.

“He is still re-educating his body from those surgeries,” according to team trainer Rick Griffin. “Whereas other guys might have spent the off-season getting stronger, he was just rehabbing.

“He really could have taken this whole year off. Jason Vargas had the same surgery on one of his hips and missed a whole year then took a while to get all the way back in the second year. You won’t see the real Johnson until next season.”

He’ll never admit it, but those injuries may have kept him from getting to a few of those balls that got past him.

And of those passed balls, his teammates aren’t too concerned.

“I don’t worry about his passed balls,” says Aardsma. “Many of them are either because of Felix or [Brandon] League. Those guys have balls that move all over the place. Felix might have more movement than anyone in the game – it’s like catching a knuckler. And League might be even worse. I catch him every day on flat ground and it’s almost impossible. Even he doesn’t know which way it’s going! I always have confidence throwing it on the dirt.”

So does Felix who says, “I believe he will block the pitch so I have the confidence to throw it in a tough spot. It’s not easy to catch me, you know?”

Johnson leads the majors with eight passed balls. A few are from Felix, a few from League. One or two were crossups (when the pitcher threw the wrong pitch). I’m not arguing that he deserves a Gold Glove, just that maybe the defense is better than we give him credit for.

***

The last knock against him is his hitting. A .200 average with a .600 OPS is certainly nothing to brag about. Actually, it’s essentially indefensible.

But remember this. Catching in the big leagues is hard. Harder than playing any other position. It’s especially hard for a young player and even more so for one who is expected to run a pitching staff at times without the help of a veteran backup.

As director of player development Pedro Grifol told me, “it’s so hard to be a young catcher. They have to know 12 pitchers and their repertoires. They have to work on their receiving, blocking, throwing, controlling the running game, calling the game, reading advance reports and preparing for opposing hitters. Then we ask them to hit and drive in runs too!”

I’m not saying that excuses his hitting. Just that it might explain why it’s SO bad. Johnson is probably never going to hit .280 but he might hit .250. And if he does, his bat will be just fine.

***

“Catchers have to do everything,” says former catcher Wakamatsu. “They have to control the pitchers, the running game. They have to have the memory of an elephant – they have to remember what each batter did in the first inning when they see them again in the ninth. And Rob does that well.

Remember, he is only in his second full year and he’s still dealing with the recovery from his hip injuries. Catchers develop a little later and playing has helped him a lot.”

Johnson may never turn into a star. He may never even hold down an everyday job in the majors. But he’s also not the bum so many people think he is. He’s a guy that other players, pitchers and managers seem to like. And those guys see a lot of baseball. Maybe they’re on to something.

Comments

78 Responses to “The Case For Rob Johnson”

  1. Dave on July 19th, 2010 11:44 pm

    Before you all jump in and yell “burn the witch!”, I’m glad Mike wrote this. Because, yes, we all think Rob Johnson sucks, and we can disagree with the coaches and pitchers about what’s actually important, but it’s good to know what we’re disagreeing with, rather than just vague cliches about the pitchers liking him.

  2. Westside guy on July 19th, 2010 11:46 pm

    I’ll be curious to see if this “belief system” is still holding once Moore is back up with the big club – from the manager anyway. As I recall, Wak wasn’t happy with how either of his catchers were doing. Didn’t he make a statement to the effect “I am hoping one of these guys steps up and takes the starting job”? That wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of RoJo. Unfortunately not long afterward, Moore went down with an injury – so RoJo’s had the job by default. But Johnson hasn’t exactly been tearing the cover off the ball since then, nor has his defense particularly shone.

    I will admit it bugs me a bit to hear a pitcher basically say “well, Felix and League are hard to catch so it’s not RoJo’s fault”. Sure those guys’ pitches have a lot of movement – but it’s not like our two Mariners pitchers are the only ones in the major leagues with that attribute. Other decent catchers seem to cope. Heck, even Steve Baron seemed able to catch Felix’ pitches, IIRC.

    Personally, I think RoJo is destined to be Jamie Burke. That’s not a bad thing.

  3. Dave on July 19th, 2010 11:49 pm

    Empircally, the coaches/pitchers have no case. Johnson was a passed ball machine in the minors when his hips were fine and he wasn’t catching Felix. He’s always sucked at catching the baseball. They’re just covering for him, and the “pitches move so much” thing is a convenient excuse.

  4. Westside guy on July 19th, 2010 11:54 pm

    BTW Mike thank you for writing that piece. I do appreciate hearing your perspective, even in a case like this one where I might not agree with you.

  5. nick.h on July 19th, 2010 11:54 pm

    I dislike Rob for the same reasons we’ve gone over (passed balls, hitting etc), but after this I feel like he is a productive member of the clubhouse. Mostly because Wak and Aardsma are willing to stick their necks out for him. You don’t use flimsy, convenient excuses for people that you don’t genuinely respect.

  6. Wak Attack on July 20th, 2010 12:07 am

    Salk, you are clueless. Of course his teammates are going to say nice things about him. Duh! What did you expect. Try talking to a few scouts off the record. Its not just the passed balls. Its the countless ‘wild pitches’ that he should be blocking. Many, if not most, of those should be scored as passed balls but aren’t because official scorers are generous. He stinks! If he is slowed by injures, then that is another reason to play someone else!

    ‘beyondtheboxscore.com’ did a statistical analysis of the defensive abilities of all the catchers who have played in the majors this year and he came in 73rd out of 79. The next time he catches watch him when the pitcher in in their wind up. He holds his glove parallel to the ground and only flips it open right before the ball gets their. Horrible form. Watch Pudge or even Bard. A catcher is supposed to present a target to the pitcher. A clear target. Glove open and facing the pitcher. He can’t hit and he can’t field. Face it.

    I’m glad he’s your buddy and all, but try to avoid the Shannon Drayer trap of wanting to be such good pals with the players that you can’t bring yourself to criticize them and will defend them no matter how crappy they are. She is a total disgrace as a so-called reporter. You are better than that.

  7. Axtell on July 20th, 2010 12:09 am

    If RoJo is so great at calling games, and can ‘adjust on the fly’ as well as these pitchers are claiming, then why has Aardsma sucked this year? Why is DA struggling so mightily if RoJo’s best attribute (his magical ability to look at batter’s feet and make adjustments) worked for Felix/Lee and not DA? Might it be because those pitchers would do well no matter who’s catching them?

    I’m sick and tired of these people covering for Johnson because he’s a ‘nice guy’ or a ‘professional’. He can’t hit, he can’t catch, and he can’t throw runners out. Are the M’s going to be held hostage to this guy until he retires? Or are they going to sit Felix down, tell him that they understand he likes throwing to Rob, but RoJo is just far too much of a liability to keep on the club?

    It seems incredulous to me that a guy with so many problem areas gets as many changes as Johnson has.

  8. Jeff Nye on July 20th, 2010 12:14 am

    That’s right, “Wak Attack”.

    Stay classy.

  9. Teej on July 20th, 2010 12:19 am

    “Their pitches move a lot” is a pretty awful excuse. Yes, Felix and League have great stuff, but catchers should be able to deal with it. Felix wasn’t at the top of the “wild pitches” leaderboard when Johjima was around.

    That’s really the only thing that bugged me in this piece. Nice read. Thanks, Mike.

  10. 300ZXNA on July 20th, 2010 12:24 am

    Well, that settles it. Since he knows the art of calling a game and studying hitters so well, I say we promote him to catcher coach, we’ll double his salary to mentor and coach our catchers so they can all be like him. Right?

    I too appreciated the ‘nuts and bolts’ aspect of why RJ continues to start. As Dave said, too bad that all of the pretty explanations don’t amount to tangible run prevention.

  11. spankystout on July 20th, 2010 12:30 am

    I like the article Salk, and keep em’ coming…But I disagree about RoJo.

  12. StatBoy on July 20th, 2010 12:48 am

    I would be even more concerned with the Mariners if Felix, Aardsma et al DIDNT have nice things to say about Johnson.

    Hes their starting catcher for now, whether they like it or not, they’re not going to throw him under the bus. And he’s clearly not hitting or catching, so what else is there for them to praise?

    Calling the game or clubhouse presence. Two unquantifiable qualities which, while nice, don’t make up for a .600 OPS and an inability to field your position.

  13. StatBoy on July 20th, 2010 12:51 am

    Alternative theory on why Wakamatsu keeps running RoJo out there:

    He knows he sucks, but he doesn’t have any better options. And until another option presents itself, every loyal teammate will have wonderful things to say about Rob Johnson’s underappreciated qualities.

  14. mln on July 20th, 2010 1:22 am

    Honestly, when I first read the title of this article, I thought the piece was meant as a satire.

  15. jwgrandsalami on July 20th, 2010 1:51 am

    Good article, Mike and I’m glad that this year you’re willing to admit that the fact that a Mariners player being a good guy and always willing to talk clouds your judgment when it comes to providing objective analysis about that player.

    Last year you were insistent that the M’s shouldn’t trade Jarrod Waahburn and you claimed it was because the M’s would be much more likely to be able to bring him back for 2010 if they didn’t deal him (how would that non-trade have worked out for the M’s? Not too good… Of course it made no sense to keep Washburn when the M’s were out of it and Robles seems like a stud.

    Unfortunately, you weren’t able to make much of a case for Rob Johnson because there’s no case to be made. Wak and the pitchers can talk all day about their comfort level, but if they don’t care that Rob can’t catch the ball, they’re idiots. And it’s not just the passed balls — the M’s lead the Majors in wild pitches this year due the plethora of balls that Rob can’t block that other catchers would block.

    Here’s a fun fact — you think Randy Johnson was hard to catch in his prime? Did his ball move all over the place? Dan Wilson had ONE passed ball the entire 1995 season and he played in more games that year than Johnson has the last two seasons, when Rojo has amassed a universe-leading 17 passed balls.

    The M’s manager and pitchers need to stop making excuses for a bad player that’s not deserving of a spot on the team. And don’t get me started on what a gamer he is for hiding his injuries from the trainers and managers last year. A team player doesn’t do that. Rob was hurting the team last year by going out there at less than 100% but all he cared about was not losing his job…

  16. Librocrat on July 20th, 2010 1:58 am

    Great article. Still, it only exemplifies a problem, rather than offering an explanation.

    Felix Hernandez, David Aardsma, and Brandon League claim that Rob Johnson can read their minds when it comes to pitch selection.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that so can I. I’m guessing they’re thinking “fastball.”

  17. Dylan S on July 20th, 2010 2:14 am

    Good article, thanks for explaining the team’s thought process. What they are saying is that Johnson’s ability to call the game makes up for his other flaws. However, they don’t know that this is true, they only feel that this is true, because they have no quantitative analysis. They don’t know how many outs Johnson generates over an average MLB catcher with his game calling. Is it 1 per game? 5 per game? 10 per game? They really don’t even know for sure that his game calling is above average. Just that the pitchers on the team like the way he calls games.

  18. DaveValleDrinkNight on July 20th, 2010 2:16 am

    This entire article just re-inforces how far the M’s really are from contention.

    Not one playoff contender would even consider starting him behind the plate.

  19. jephdood on July 20th, 2010 2:25 am

    ‘beyondtheboxscore.com’ did a statistical analysis of the defensive abilities of all the catchers who have played in the majors this year and he came in 73rd out of 79.

    @Wak Attack.. Actually, Rojo is 56th there. I think you were looking at an earlier ranking. You might also note that our other two catchers sit at 67 and 83 out of 90. I’m not sure how credible their methodology is for judging catchers, but he’s essentially in the middle of the pack there.

    So, if Rob sucks so bad (and I’m not saying he doesn’t), who in our system would you RATHER have catch??

    Finding a cornerstone catcher is really a tough thing to come by. Makes you really appreciate the consistency and reliability we had with Dan Wilson, doesn’t it?

  20. tgf on July 20th, 2010 3:57 am

    This isn’t very compelling:

    “Just Sunday, he recognized that Howie Kendrick was looking for a first pitch fastball so we started him off with a slider away. He came out to the mound to talk about that one. Right before that, he got the sense that McAnulty was pressing so we didn’t give him anything to hit, especially with a base open. It worked. In fact, I would say virtually every big hit against me with Rob catching has been because I missed my spot, not because of a bad call. It’s always been a flaw of execution.”

    If Kendrick would have been looking for something else, I’m sure you would have been told of some different example where Johnson guessed right. How often is he right and how often wrong, and how does that compare to other catchers? Not that this is measurable, sort of like the “team chemistry” argument……

  21. Wak Attack on July 20th, 2010 3:58 am

    jephdood, you’re right. I was looking at an earlier ranking. Still…73rd out of 79 or 56 out of 90 – not exactly an endorsement of Johnson’s abilities either way, eh?

    “So, if Rob sucks so bad (and I’m not saying he doesn’t), who in our system would you RATHER have catch??”

    Adam Moore. He may rank even lower than Rob Johnson in the above detailed rankings, but at least he has some real upside. He is hitting .352 in 25 games at Tacoma since his injury. Rob Johnson couldn’t hit .300 on xbox, much less in the American League. Lets use the rest of the season to see if Moore can improve on his past performance with the M’s – both at the plate and behind it.

    The fact that Rob Johnson is even run out there everyday by Wak as a supposedly legitimate major league player is further evidence that Geoff Baker had some valid points about Mariner fans. RJ would have been booed off the field and out of the lineup in many other towns – and not just NY, Philly, Boston and Chicago. Seattle fans are nice. They are forgiving. That’s great but we should at the very least demand competence. We are not getting that at catcher.

    And I totally agree with you, jephdood. I appreciate what we had in Dan Wilson more and more all the time. He was first class.

  22. z24lax on July 20th, 2010 4:07 am

    Maybe Rob Johnson can be a great teammate and teach all that foot watching crap as well as how to call a good game to Adam Moore, so we can cut Rob Johnson and have a catcher who can hit the ball, and I know this sounds crazy, but actually catch the ball sometimes. That’s how Rob Johnson can help this organization.

  23. Typical Idiot Fan on July 20th, 2010 4:52 am

    I’ve got my pitchfork and my torch. Only one thing left to do.

    BURN THE WITCH!

  24. big hawna on July 20th, 2010 4:52 am

    Hey Salk,

    Glad to see you are finally adjusting to the world of continually lowered expectations. Welcome to the fraternity Seattle sports media!

    Johnson is not a 23 year old kid, he is at his peak. There is no upside.

    So,
    cant hit + is a very poor reciever (doesnt frame well) + is unable to block balls at all..

    But he watches batters? BTW, those 8 passed balls dont include balls that any other big leaguer would have caught…

  25. terry on July 20th, 2010 5:02 am

    BURN THE WITCH!

    First shouldn’t we at least verify that Rojo weighs the same as a duck?

  26. ivan on July 20th, 2010 6:21 am

    All this is moot because the Mariners don’t have a catcher who can hit even a little bit. As soon as one emerges, Johnson is toast.

  27. Paul B on July 20th, 2010 6:48 am

    And those guys see a lot of baseball. Maybe they’re on to something.

    If this were true, we’d see some evidence of it, either in hitting, fielding, or pitching.

    Since we don’t, and in fact see the opposite, then we have to conclude that they are mistaken.

    Nice guy, but a crappy catcher.

    Otherwise, what you are saying is the equivalent of: He’s really valuable in some way that has no impact on either his performance or the performance of the team. But he’s really great!

  28. brokejumper on July 20th, 2010 6:56 am

    I am going to have to agree that starting Johnson makes sense from Wak’s perspective.

    1) He is not there to tell us what he really thinks about players. If he did, he would be a crappy manager.

    2) We don’t really have any other options

    3) RJ is apparently very well liked, and since there has not been any real upside to playing anyone but RJ, it makes no sense to tick people off for no reason.

    If Moore had hit in the first 2 months of the season I really do believe Wak would have told Lee and Felix to stuff it, Moore is the future and you better get used to it. He didn’t, so he is saying nice things about the guy he plays.

  29. brianc1279 on July 20th, 2010 7:09 am

    So….can we just have the DH hit for the catcher? I’m thinking Felix would hit better than RoJo.

  30. BrianL on July 20th, 2010 7:30 am

    Let me make sure I’m following the logic here.

    David Aardsma and Brandon League swear by Rob Johnson’s ability to call pitches.

    David Aardsma and Brandon League have all either gone through spells or still have issues with throwing way too many fastballs. That has led them to getting clobbered this season. In League’s case in particular, we know that he’s throwing his fastball way more than ever before and his nearly unhittable splitter/changeup or whatever that breaking pitch of death is far less than he did last season.

    If we follow this assertion that they trust Rob Johnson this much, we can make the argument that it’s Rob’s fault that those three have thrown their fastball way more often than they should.

    So, to turn this argument around, since they trust him so much, it’s Rob Johnson’s fault that David Aardsma and Brandon League throw their fastballs way too often and get lit up like a department store at Christmas.

    Or, we can just admit that the ability to call pitches really isn’t all that important and pitchers are going to throw whatever they please.

  31. Carson on July 20th, 2010 7:32 am

    ““It takes the pressure off me as a pitcher to know that my catcher knows what he is doing. It allows me to just concentrate on me. It allows me to focus on my delivery and my release point and worry less about pitch selection.”

    And that has done wonders for you, Aardsma.

  32. RRS for Prez on July 20th, 2010 7:37 am

    If this were true, we’d see some evidence of it, either in hitting, fielding, or pitching

    I know we all hate ERA but what is the M’s ERA when RoJo’s catching relative to the mean for this year and last? And I know we all love xFIP…what’s that too?

  33. mrb on July 20th, 2010 7:40 am

    I don’t think the belief system will matter too much if Adam Moore turns out to be a Major League Ready player. It boils down to wins and losses, and if the pitchers want a bat that can win them the game in the lineup over a game-caller that can win them the game, they’ll choose that.

  34. mrb on July 20th, 2010 7:43 am

    If this were true, we’d see some evidence of it, either in hitting, fielding, or pitching

    Not quite – if this were true, there would be evidence of it, we just might not see it or have the tools to identify it.

    For example, I don’t think anyone has a way to differentiate defensive player range from defensive player positioning as of current.

  35. hawgdriver on July 20th, 2010 7:50 am

    Mike, terrific write-up, thank you.

    If I was going to take your case to task, I would seek to understand two things. First, what is the value of calling a good game (in terms of runs prevented per game), and second, how do we compare this ability of RJ to everyone else–is he uber-zen uncanny, or just pretty good?

    Enjoyed the read.

  36. sodomojojojo on July 20th, 2010 8:11 am

    Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t recall seeing any actual quotes from Brandon League in the article.
    Aardsma does mention him,

    “I don’t worry about his passed balls,” says Aardsma. “Many of them are either because of Felix or [Brandon] League. Those guys have balls that move all over the place.

    I would have liked to have seen a quote or two from Brandon, since it appears he is throwing his fastball more often when Rob’s behind the dish; maybe he sees something different than Aardsma.

  37. CYK on July 20th, 2010 8:47 am

    I think the only justification for playing Rob is the hope that he will develop his game significantly for 2012.

  38. mikethomas22 on July 20th, 2010 8:56 am

    I think Johnson is a terrible player. He can’t catch, as in literally he can’t catch the baseball, he often doesn’t even try to block pitches, and he can’t hit. He is not a major league catcher. That said, Salk gets at an important point that apparently he’s good at. Pitch calling. I think all the different things that people say positively about Johnson boil down to he’s good at calling pitches, which is important. However, it doesn’t make up for all his other weaknesses. He should not be our catcher.

  39. Rayvensdad on July 20th, 2010 9:03 am

    Thanks Mike, good article. Rob is young and still learning, but it sounds like many of the M’s fans here expect him to be perfect and veteran like. He is literally in his 2nd full season in the bigs, come on folks, this whole team is learning, what do you expect. And those who thinks its easy to catch a ball that moves the way League and Felix’s pitches do needs to put on some gear and give it a try. I play goalie in soccer, and every now and then I have a guy shoot on me who’s shots have the same type of movement that these pitchers have. You only have a half second to try and track a ball that somehow goes up and down and back up and left and dips. I HATE those shots. I’d rather have a guy blast a 110 mph straight shot at me that rattles my hands then a 70 mph shot that knuckles like that. Give Rob credit to some degree since we can only watch on Television. Also, yes Rob’s teammates aren’t going to say something bad about him, BUT they also don’t need to go into detail on why they like him either. They aren’t giving the whole cliche; “Rob gives 100%. He’s a good guy. Next question please.” These guys are giving legitimate reasons why they like Rob behind the plate, especially at his young age, and many of the M’s fans don’t want to hear it. We’ve become so bitter that we just want to hate someone. Well, I like Rob. I’ve liked him for the past two years and until Adam Moore can prove that he is better than him, I say give the job to Johnson. Someone also said if Rob is good at calling a game, why has Aardsma sucked so bad this year. Do we have to explain how this is a possibility?????? If a catcher calls the right pitch, in the right location, and that pitch would absolutely beat a hitter, but the pitcher doesn’t throw it in the right spot, who do you blame? The pitcher. Even Aardsma said that the hits against him this year, the big ones, came when he missed his spots, not when he threw the wrong selected pitch. If he felt it was Rob’s fault for the big hit, he easily could have twisted it to make it sound like, “The guy beat us.” “he is just a good hitter.” “We had confidence with the pitch but it didn’t work out.” NO, he said that it was him missing his spot. HIM. If you can pull your head out from the rectum you’d see that he isn’t “being nice” to Rob, he’s stating that HE’s the one who screwed up. And you don’t do that unless you mean it and you have some pride. This whole club is rebuilding. And it will be for the next 2 years at least. We need to support these guys and grow this team to contention. Jack Z. is doing it the right way, even though the impatient fans don’t wanna hear it. I’m interested to see what Rob Johnson is like in 2012. 3+ years under the belt could make him completely different.

  40. daveblev on July 20th, 2010 9:06 am

    Before I go any further, I should come clean about the fact that I am a Rob Johnson fan

    I stopped reading after this sentence.

  41. CCW on July 20th, 2010 9:13 am

    I agree in this sense:

    Imagine you’re Felix or Cliff Lee or Vargas, and you’re pitching for a team that never scores any runs for you and, despite your great efforts and performance, flat-out sucks and repeatedly loses in awful ways. I can understand wanting to pitch to someone that I like, and with whom I am particularly comfortable, when that is going on. If/when the team is good again, RoJo will seem less important to those guys and, while he isn’t very good, he’s a very small part of what’s holding the M’s back right now.

  42. IdahoFan on July 20th, 2010 9:16 am

    I am very much in favor of having Mike post articles like this that present a view different from those held by most USSM readers. If successful, i.e., those who comment have reasonable discussion regarding their disagreements, this blog will be unique in a marvelous way. Congratulations to Dave and Mike!

  43. msfanmike on July 20th, 2010 9:24 am

    Good article Mike. Thank you for writing it. It may be the exception that proves the rule, but thank you for making the effort.

    No need to pile on Johnson (others have handled it quite well); but one element that was missing from the article as well as the subsequent posts is the fact (or what looks like a fact to me – watching on TV) that Johnson is calling very few of the pitches. He looks to the dugout to “get the pitch” before calling it.

    Essentially, the point upon which he is getting most of his credit (from the midst of the many things he does not do well) – isn’t something that he is actually doing (based on what I think I am seeing).

    Pitchers usually love their catchers … they have to. It’s those 2 against the world for the most part – until the ball is put into play. All of the pitchers will love their next catcher too, and we very much look forward to the day when that new bond has a chance to be formed.

  44. ThundaPC on July 20th, 2010 9:25 am

    This is the best defense I’ve read for Rob Johnson in the case of intangible reasons.

    If anything, I’m just surprised at how influential Rob Johnson has been to the pitching staff. When you’re getting endorsement from Cliff Lee, who certainly can and has worked with anybody, you must be doing something right.

    You know what would be interesting is to see how other organizations as a while value a catcher’s intangibles. Rangers apparently do as they went out and traded for Bengie Molina to help out their pitching staff (it certainly wasn’t for his bat or his “speed” :) ).

  45. dlukas on July 20th, 2010 9:36 am

    An argument based entirely on handpicked anecdotal evidence really has no place on this forum. People here are smarter than that, and pretty much every conventional justification of the disaster we call Rob Johnson can be quantitatively and unequivocally debunked. The question, therefore, is not:

    …why does Rob Johnson continue to get playing time despite the complaints of some fans

    but rather: why does Rob Johnson continue to get playing time despite being an objectively terrible baseball player in pretty much every way?

  46. mymrbig on July 20th, 2010 9:49 am

    I think a pitcher’s “comfort” with his catcher is vastly overrated. I remember back when Maddux was at his peak and used Charlie O’Brien and Eddie Perez over Javy Lopez. Every now and then they’d show stats (granted it was ERA, since FIP and xFIP weren’t even a gleam in their mother’s eye yet) basically showing that he pitched just as well (if not better) to Lopez. My theory was that if the pitcher wasn’t as comfortable with the catcher, he had to focus more. Or something. Regardless, unless the catcher truly sucks (and I mean sucks so bad there is no way they should be a major leaguer) or the pitcher and catcher hate each other (Zambrano/Barrett?), then I think “comfort” is overrated. And that is without some deep, stats-based analysis.

    I mean, does anyone in the world belive Felix or Lee or anyone else would somehow lose their ability if someone other than Rob Johnson was propped up behind the plate?

  47. groundzero55 on July 20th, 2010 9:53 am

    So….can we just have the DH hit for the catcher? I’m thinking Felix would hit better than RoJo.

    Well, Felix DID have that grand slam off Santana…

  48. SonOfZavaras on July 20th, 2010 9:55 am

    I am NOT a Rob Johnson fan as a major-league catcher. I admit I think he’s the kind of guy you can certainly get a brew with, hunt with, and I won’t question his inner toughness. I don’t hate Rob Johnson as a person, not even close.

    I also know catchers can be works in progress for a loooong time.

    But he’s the definition of a slider-speed bat. He will never have bat speed commensurate with a major-league hitter. I am positive about this.

    And I am not anywhere near convinced there’s a whole lot of else there to work with, defensively. I know about the surgeries, and realize that they could still be hampering him to some extent. I don’t 100% buy it, but I grant the thought.

    But I also remember guys like Ron Karkovice- who had the knee structure of jello-pudding sticks- and I don’t ever remember HIM having a problem with passed balls to RoJo’s degree.

    And “Officer Karkovice” caught a Jack McDowell in his prime, as well as Scott Radinsky and Kirk McCaskill- none of whom I think were regarded as EASY to catch.

    There’s probably a litany of catchers- past and present- that have or have had chronic pains and injuries to deal with in their catching.

    And more than a select few of them performed at a major-league level moreso than what Johnson is.

    But I also think there’s a fair chance it won’t be a thing for US to debate much longer, as birdies have been telling me that RoJo could be shipped away to another team soon.

  49. mironos on July 20th, 2010 9:56 am

    Thanks for continuing to contribute here, Mike. I will say, though, that to me, this is a pretty weak argument.

    That pitchers like him isn’t nothing — I get that. But almost everything else in the article sounds like excuse-making.

    He has passed balls because he was injured, and because major league pitching is bendy.

    He’s terrible at hitting because it’s hard being a catcher.

    Look, I don’t think anyone here thinks Rob Johnson is a bad person. But you shouldn’t get playing time for being a good person. To me, that’s essentially your argument here, that his teammates like him.

    If it is how you say w/ this team, that he gets playing time just because he’s likable and pitchers “trust” him, then I fear for the future of M’s baseball.

  50. jordan on July 20th, 2010 10:18 am

    Thanks Mike! I just posed this exact question a couple days ago!

    It pretty much just boils down to one thing… He is a true professional. He goes about his business the right way, and he does his homework really well. That is why the pitchers like him.

    Now, if we could just make him a better player!

  51. eponymous coward on July 20th, 2010 10:24 am

    Of course, most MLB players, managers and sportswriters didn’t really think that batter walks were important measurements of skill for a lot of baseball history, so “well, they play baseball so they know this better than you nerds in a basement” is a pretty specious argument.

    The bottom line is Rob Johnson’s performed poorly compared to his peers in every statistical cetegory you can come up with, and he’s older than Jose Lopez, so he’s not exactly a young player with huge breakout potential. As a backup catcher who is full of intangible goodness and mostly sits on a bench, he’s not a serious problem, but he’s a terrible starting catcher on a major league ballclub.

  52. Jay R. on July 20th, 2010 10:41 am

    Good article- thanks for contributing. Doesn’t change the fact that RJ is cover-your-eyes awful at every physical part of the game. He very well could make a good coach or manager, but he is not a major league catcher.

  53. henryv on July 20th, 2010 10:43 am

    Thanks for the article, Mike.

    While I can’t say I agree with you, it’s good to see the other side. We spend a lot of time preaching to the choir.

    Also, sorry about having to work with Brock. Do you wear sunglasses in the studio to compensate for the glare? If you’re looking for another creepy-looking blond guy to have in the studio next year, I think Garrett Olson should be available.

    Anyways, I want to write about media prejudice. Perhaps prejudice is the wrong word… Favoritism is better.

    Anyways, when a player is accessible and affable towards the media, the members of the media tend to have a (sub-conscious?) more positive viewing of that player.

    For instance, on your show you have been tearing apart Ichiro for the last week. Basically for no other reason than being accessible to the media. His play has been good, and his base running gaffes have been no worse than all the other players on the team.

    But I’m not here to defend Ichiro. That’s too easy. I’m here to bitch about the media.

    I don’t particularly care what players on the members are nice to you, or your colleagues. As long as they aren’t complete dicks, I’m okay with them not talking to you very much. I mean as long as they don’t punch you as they walk out of press conferences, they’re okay with me, generally. And if they punch Geoff Baker or Steve Kelley, I’m still okay with that, too.

    I hate when media come on the radio and complain about the media booths. What the hell does that matter? Perhaps it’s because there is too much sports coverage with the TV, radio, blogs, newspapers, etc, that there is nothing else to talk about… But I don’t know that it is true, seeing as how we should be talking about Tacoma and West Tennessee, but aren’t. Well, mostly Tacoma, now. Perhaps talking about free agents in the next year… Something… But the constant whining I am hearing on the radio about player availability is getting on my nerves, especially on the B&S show… Ha ha… BS… Never noticed that.

  54. Pat O'Connell on July 20th, 2010 10:44 am

    The next time he catches watch him when the pitcher in in their wind up. He holds his glove parallel to the ground and only flips it open right before the ball gets their. Horrible form. Watch Pudge or even Bard. A catcher is supposed to present a target to the pitcher. A clear target. Glove open and facing the pitcher

    @Wak Attack
    You’re wrong. He uses proper form for a professional catcher. His pitchers pitch to his mitt and body; they don’t need to see the inside of his mitt. Holding the mitt parallel to the ground and then flipping up when the ball approaches allows his hand to be in a better position to catch and frame pitches (especially low ones).

  55. henryv on July 20th, 2010 10:52 am

    I play goalie in soccer, and every now and then I have a guy shoot on me who’s shots have the same type of movement that these pitchers have. You only have a half second to try and track a ball that somehow goes up and down and back up and left and dips. I HATE those shots. I’d rather have a guy blast a 110 mph straight shot at me that rattles my hands then a 70 mph shot that knuckles like that.

    I play keeper, too, and also caught pitchers up to the high school level, as well as being a practice catcher for an independent league pitcher, too. Didn’t actually play much because I was too dedicated to swimming, but I still loved catching.

    I agree that catching a ball with movement is hard, but it’s not impossible.

    Yes, hard. But it should be hard for a professional catcher, that Rob Johnson is, kind of.

    We are using minor-league excuses for a major league pitcher. There isn’t, to my knowledge, a catcher in MLB that is as bad at catching as he is. And it’s not like he’s just dropping curves, or stuff in the dirt. He’s dropping straight fastballs in the middle of the zone.

    And his problem isn’t little things. It is the fundamental way he catches the ball. He catches the ball like an outfielder. He rotates his mitt when he doesn’t need too. His feet don’t move well enough. He barely moves his feet at all. He doesn’t block the ball forward. When a ball is in the dirt, he doesn’t drop down fast enough. He is playing defensive catcher at the low-minor level, and hitting terribly, and is getting to the majors because he “calls a good game”. Well, if it’s true that he does, he better be calling the best games in MLB history, because his two measurable skills are terrible.

  56. henryv on July 20th, 2010 10:55 am

    Holding the mitt parallel to the ground and then flipping up when the ball approaches allows his hand to be in a better position to catch and frame pitches (especially low ones).

    I politely disagree. Very few MLB catchers will rotate their glove like this. In reduces the width of the catching surface, because as you turn your glove, you can’t keep it open as wide. Additionally, it is hard to track a ball into the glove as the glove is moving and rotating.

  57. Paul L on July 20th, 2010 10:57 am

    The only case for Rob Johnson is that we currently have no one better than him in the organization.

    I’m guessing that Moore will get significant playing time as soon as he’s healthy, and unless he collapses in spring training will be the starting backstop next April.

  58. killer_ewok18 on July 20th, 2010 11:14 am

    “Everyone likes him” is not a compelling reason to like Rob Johnson. You’re appealing to the majority.

  59. JMHawkins on July 20th, 2010 11:37 am

    I’ll chime in with Kudos for Mike Salk as well – nice write-up and good job digging into a question a lot of fans have been asking.

    Johnson seems like a nice enough guy who works hard and tries to get the most out of his abilities, and it’s one of the unfortunately things about life that sometimes nice guys fall short. Compared to 99% of the population, he’s a damn good ballplayer. Compared to MLB starting catchers, he’s not.

    But the M’s don’t really have anyone better at the moment, so I was thinking about recalibrating myself and not complaining about Johnson for the rest of the year. He’s the best we’ve got, doesn’t seem to be a horrible person, so why not just root for the guy to squeeze everything he can out of his skillset and enjoy the occasional 2B or RBI.

    But this is something Zduriencik needs to address. The M’s need a better-than-replacement-level starting catcher, and Johnson isn’t going to grow into that. He’s at his peak now, he’s not going to get better. C is a tough position to fill, and if the M’s need to trade for one, it’ll cost them.

    So they really need to figure out if Moore can fill the role or not. As long as he’s not hurt, he should be back up with the big club and starting the majority of games for the rest of the year.

    So then RESOLVED: I will not complain about Johnson’s limitations with the bat or glove and will enthusiastically enjoy any moments of grandeur he may have. But I will complain about him starting more than two or three games a week as long as Moore is not on the DL.

  60. MarinerFanMike03 on July 20th, 2010 11:41 am

    So Johnson’s professionalism is whats keeping him in the games? Hmm let me think about this. Most people who cant actually “play” the game any more but have great “professionalism” are the managers/coaches. Are we suggesting that RoJo should be a catching coach or something?

    Professionalism != Playing Ability

  61. Raapba on July 20th, 2010 12:05 pm

    Wakamatsu sees himself in Johnson. He was a good defensive catcher with one season of .226/.250/.226. He was a student of the game and became a big league manager.
    Johnson’s line is .204/.285/.310 and he may be a good manager some day also.
    Since this is a lost season they will play Smoak every day–good deal.
    Well, play Adam Moore everyday and see if he can be a regular catcher. We all know Johnson can’t.
    What else does Adam Moore have to prove playing in Tacoma–play him now!

  62. Xteve X on July 20th, 2010 12:08 pm

    Rob Johnson is an awful player and an awful catcher, and no amount of platitudes about his character or professionalism can mitigate that.

    I categorically reject what has, sadly, become the Seattle Mariner way: accepting or even praising mediocre, substandard, or past its prime talent and/or performances using the “he’s such a nice guy/steady presence in the clubhouse” canards. And it’s even more reprehensible that local media just sits back and accepts it.

    I agree that at some point it does reflect back on the front office and franchises’ commitment to fielding a competitive product.

  63. Coug1990 on July 20th, 2010 1:18 pm

    I like how Salk says that the pitchers and Johnson are almost always on the same wavelength, then he makes the case that several of the passed balls are not Johnson’s fault because he was crossed up.

    Hmmmmmm!!! Trying to have it both ways?

    I heard Salk make the same argument on the radio a little while ago and laughed then and now.

  64. kinbote on July 20th, 2010 1:32 pm

    Enjoyable read. Thanks.

  65. groundzero55 on July 20th, 2010 1:36 pm

    I categorically reject what has, sadly, become the Seattle Mariner way: accepting or even praising mediocre, substandard, or past its prime talent and/or performances using the “he’s such a nice guy/steady presence in the clubhouse” canards. And it’s even more reprehensible that local media just sits back and accepts it.

    I think management and the media are under the impression that good guys sell tickets, like Seattle is some hippie community of tree-huggers who would rather have the team be known more for their smiling faces and cameraderie in the clubhouse than for winning games.

    Not to poke at tree-huggers or anything, I’m pretty green myself, but Seattle is not the backwater it’s often made out to be.

  66. kinbote on July 20th, 2010 1:44 pm

    Which is why the Bradley deal never made any sense to begin with.

  67. groundzero55 on July 20th, 2010 1:50 pm

    That’s why they signed him, thinking that being around all the other good guys would make him a good guy too.

    I can’t really comment on that – since his early season incident, he’s been uncharacteristically harmless.

  68. SODOMOJO360 on July 20th, 2010 2:25 pm

    Felix wasn’t at the top of the “wild pitches” leaderboard when Johjima was around.

    I just realized it would be nice if Johjima was still around but that contract was outrageous.

  69. mymrbig on July 20th, 2010 2:31 pm

    Surprised no one else mentioned this, but over at Prospect Insider (behind the subscribers firewall), Jason Churchill mentioned that a couple teams admired Johnson and “it would not surprise many if he were traded this summer or during the coming winter….” He mentioned 4 specific teams as having interest.

  70. GripS on July 20th, 2010 2:42 pm

    Belief system…. so sick of reading that garbage. How about a ‘Performance System’? Meaning that you perform…. you continue to play.. you don’t and you ride the pine.

  71. Wakamaniac on July 20th, 2010 2:44 pm

    Lets be honest Rob isn’t studying the batter to anticpate what they’re trying to do, he’s trying to figure out why they can hit a baseball and he can’t.

  72. groundzero55 on July 20th, 2010 3:06 pm

    The reality of it is that if we did that now, we wouldn’t have a roster. We don’t have a choice other than starting underperforming players. Even if we had young replacements for these guys, the union would probably cry foul.

  73. diderot on July 20th, 2010 3:16 pm

    The thing that annoys me most about this is the idea that other players decide playing time…not the manager.

    So let’s do a hypothetical with the same reasoning:
    Fister walks into the clubhouse one day and says, “I really don’t like Ichiro. He never talks to me. I don’t think he gets the same jump on the ball that he used to, I saw him make a stupid baserunning mistake the other night, and he doesn’t hit for power. I’d be a lot more comfortable on the mound with a right fielder who could hit for power”.
    Wak: “Well, who would you like?”
    Fister: “Bring Tui back up. I know he’s young, but I played with him in Tacoma, he’s a good guy, and once in a while he can get ahold of a pitch”.
    Wak: “Well, I’m all about your belief system. You got it. Ichiro’s on the bench”.

    Yes, an exaggeration. But I think the analogy is relevant.

  74. jimbob on July 20th, 2010 4:34 pm

    At first, I thought this post was a cruel sarcastic hoax then realized it was serious. The Mariners will never be true contenders until they have solid catching like New York, Boston, Minnesota, etc. The “Good Guy” veteran stuff is for losers and it’s pathetic to even discuss it. Johnson and other M’s do seem brilliant when compared to Figgins trying to play 2nd. I never imagined “little ball” meant “little defense” when the season started.

  75. littlesongs on July 20th, 2010 4:47 pm

    Thank you Mike.

    We all like Rob as a person. We all hate Rob as a player. You make a solid case for Johnson to have a few more chances as a backstop and a nice long coaching career.

    If he is traded, fans of his next team will find this post on Google. They will have a few warm fuzzies to ponder before they throw empties at the television.

    Either way, his future is probably not with the Mariners. It is just a matter of time before less is replaced by Moore. The writing on the wall is in your own blog:

    “[Adam Moore] just needs more time,” explains director of player development Pedro Grifol. “It’s not just the offensive side of his game that needs to be in tune. We need his defense to be ready as well. We want his next call-up to the majors to be his last one.

    “It’s so hard to be a young catcher,” says Grifol. “They have to know 12 pitchers and their repertoires. They have to work on their receiving, blocking, throwing, controlling the running game, calling the game, reading advance reports and preparing for opposing hitters. Then we ask them to hit and drive in runs too!

    “It’s almost impossible and for most young catchers, the offense is what suffers. They are responsible for so many things during a game, often they don’t even focus on their own at bats. After a game, they often couldn’t even tell you how their at bats went.”

    Grifol is confident Moore will succeed.

    I’ve watched him for years and he has always had good at bats. He takes a lot of pitches, works deep in counts. He has a very high percentage of Quality Plate Appearances.

    I’m sold.

    We are hoping to be sold on Mr. Moore as well.

  76. harry on July 20th, 2010 4:52 pm

    There are realities to managing. You have to make do with what you have sometimes; people are not 100% fungible. You play your hand, and when doing so, you act like you have the best damned hand you could hope for. That’s called respecting your co-workers, and not being a whiner.

    That said… Johnson’s got to go. It was understandable when the team was not 20 games below .500, when being competitive meant that Johnson was the best of a bad lot. Now that winning can only really hurt the future, it’s time to play Moore and for Johnson to sit. Get Felix used to pitching to someone else, because The Future demands it.

  77. Fat Ichiro on July 20th, 2010 4:52 pm

    Johnson is what he is. He is a Scott Bradley, Hasselman, Burke and Marzano. He is a starting catcher on a 100 loss team. We just do not have a Dan Wilson or McCann.

    Do not hate on the player hate on the fact we have not produced a player to put Johnson in a position that he should be in. Every team needs a backup we are just starting him.

    What none of you seem to notice is that Mr Moore is sitting in Tacoma and not vesting his arb eligible season. Why bring him up and lose a whole year at 26 when we can have an extra year down the road.

  78. sbrune40 on July 20th, 2010 11:00 pm

    keep up the writing mike. we need to get the word out there that rojo is unbelievable with the pitchers and maybe we can get a taker for him. if lee doesn’t win his next game maybe z can convince texas lee is nothing without rojo

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