San Francisco Giants

A’s reliever Johnson finds ground balls find a hole when he pitches

Back in February, when he met with reporters ahead of being introduced as the A’s new closer at FanFest, Jim Johnson said he was looking forward to pitching in front of a home crowd that seemed “into it, involved and engaging” when he played at the Coliseum as an opponent. Of how fans would mark his entrance into games, he said: “I’m sure they’re going to come up with something silly.”

Consider that among the very little that has gone as planned through the last two months for Johnson, who was relieved of closing duties just weeks into the season and entered Friday with a 6.55 ERA after allowing two runs in an inning against the Detroit Tigers the day before.

The latter also raised his ERA at home this season to 14.04, and Johnson left the mound to the sound that has accompanied many of his home outings in his first year with the A’s – booing. After the game, Johnson said there’s little he can do to control fans’ reaction, and that he feels his struggles are due in part to “a little bit of bad luck.”

One statistic suggests that may be true. Johnson, who saved 101 games the past two years for the Orioles, has always been a ground-ball pitcher, and he’s getting ground balls at a similar rate (60.3 percent of batted balls) to his career average (57.9 percent), according to the website FanGraphs.

Opposing hitters, though, were batting .390 this season against Johnson when putting the ball in play as of Friday. That was the third-highest mark among major-league relievers with at least 16 innings pitched, and dramatically higher than Johnson’s career average of .293, which suggests the right-hander has been the victim of more balls finding holes this season than in years past.

Johnson said Friday that while “there can always be a little better of a pitch here and there,” he feels that since the first couple of weeks – when he issued six walks and allowed seven runs in his first five games – he has mostly commanded the ball how he wants.

“You can look at video and say, oh, my arm was in this slot and this ball did this or that,” Johnson said. “But my job is to get the ball on the ground, and I’ll continue to do that, or try to do that.”

Still, aside from a stretch from April 11 to May 4, when Johnson did not allow a run over eight outings, the results – and the reactions to them – have remained largely the same as in that first week, when Johnson suffered a loss and blown save in his first two games in Oakland and was booed off the mound in both.

The reception has taken several of Johnson’s teammates by surprise, including fellow reliever Sean Doolittle, who said Friday that “it seems a little uncharacteristic for (the fans). … I mean, it’s one thing if you boo for lack of effort, or a play happens where somebody’s blatantly not hustling or not paying attention. But I see the work (Johnson) puts in every day, I see how bad he wants it.”

Doolittle said he also felt the way Johnson’s outing Thursday unfolded “was bad luck.” With one out, Don Kelly lined a single just out of the reach of second baseman Eric Sogard and Miguel Cabrera singled on a well-placed grounder to the left side between Jed Lowrie and Josh Donaldson. Victor Martinez then pulled a sharply hit double down the right-field line to score both.

“I thought he was throwing the ball with conviction,” Doolittle said. “I didn’t see any bad body language or lack of confidence or anything like that.”

That Johnson was brought in to replace Grant Balfour, a fan favorite who opted for free agency after last season, may have been a factor in his reception early. But Johnson has struggled mightily at home – he’d allowed 13 runs and 20 hits in his first 8 1/3 innings.

“We’re trying to get him through a tough period,” Manager Bob Melvin said said. “The ability is still there, the track record is there.”

Melvin has often said the A’s feed off the support of their crowd. As for whether the opposite could be true – negative reaction compounding struggles – Melvin said he wasn’t sure, but acknowledged: “It’s tough when you get booed at home.”

“I think he’s handling it right just saying it is what it is, and hopefully we get him on a roll so we don’t have to listen to that.”

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