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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tampa Bay Rays beat odds, make the playoffs, and the Durham Bulls' Dan Johnson is the extra 2%

Posted by on Thu, Sep 29, 2011 at 6:00 AM

The Bulls Dan Johnson is congratulated after hitting a homer at the DBAP earlier this season.
  • Photo by Al Drago
  • The Bulls' Dan Johnson is congratulated after hitting a homer at the DBAP earlier this season.

ESPN—The Tampa Bay Rays made the playoffs last night. You wouldn't have imagined that outcome for most of the season, especially not when it started. The Rays lost their first six games of the year. They finally won one on April 8, when Dan Johnson hit a three-run home run that capped a five-run, ninth-inning rally and beat the Chicago White Sox.

Still, they were nine games behind Boston in the wild card race less than a month ago.

But if you're reading this, you probably already know that Johnson's (deep breath) pinch-hit, two-out, two-strike, ninth-inning home run—off of Yankees reliever Cory Wade, a teammate of Johnson's in Durham earlier this year—saved the Rays' season. Johnson's homer capped off the Rays' comeback from a 7-0, eighth-inning deficit and allowed them, three innings later, to beat the New York Yankees, 8-7, in 12 innings just after midnight Thursday morning. The improbable win, coupled with the Boston Red Sox' also improbable loss at Baltimore—in which the Red Sox, like the Yankees, had their opponent down to their final strike—propelled the Rays into the Major League Baseball playoffs. (Check out this unbelievable graph for evidence of how improbable it was.)

Evan Longoria hit his second home run of the game with one out in the bottom of the 12th to beat the Yankees, a line-drive shot down the left-field line that just barely cleared the wall. The homer ended a wild night and wild month in Major League Baseball, in which not just the Red Sox but also the Atlanta Braves lost huge leads in their respective wild card races. The Braves lost to Philadelphia last night—they too coughed up a ninth-inning lead, just as the Yankees and Red Sox did. Meanwhile, surging St. Louis beat Houston to leapfrog Atlanta on the season's final day—the Braves had a 10 1/2-game lead on the Cardinals about a month ago.

But since this is the paper (or blog, anyway) of record for the Durham Bulls, let's talk about the Durham Bulls, shall we? Actually, let's talk about Dan Johnson.

I'm gonna be honest with you: I'm feeling kind of pleased with myself right now. earlier this month, I was honored to be asked to write a guest piece for Baseball Prospectus, an esteemed and wonderful baseball web site. I intended to write about the Bulls' Russ Canzler, who won the International League Most Valuable Player Award and had just been called up to the major leagues for the first time.

And write about him I did. But toward the end of the essay, I found myself getting distracted by thoughts of Dan Johnson, who won the same MVP Award in 2010. The two players collaborated, inadvertently, on the most memorable image of the season for me. It was that image, which foregrounded Johnson rather than Canzler, that concluded what I wrote.

Johnson was rather quietly called up to Tampa Bay just a few days after Canzler's promotion. The Rays had made a contest out of what had been a runaway wild-card race in the American League—what with Boston's nine-game lead with less than a month left in the regular season—and the Tampa Bay brass probably figured it couldn't hurt to have Johnson's left-handed power on the bench—just in case, you know... well, whatever, why speculate? They were paying him a million bucks this year—that's a lot for the Rays, who are one of baseball's poorest teams. Might as well at least have Johnson hang around in the dugout.

Actually, to go ahead and be precise, since the importance of statistical precision follows in the ensuing paragraphs, it was a nine and a half game lead over Tampa Bay that Boston was sitting on and was fixing to lose. Baseball Prospectus, among other good baseball geeksites, placed the Rays' chances of overcoming the deficit and making the playoffs at, literally, less than 1%. Like .02% at one point, numbers like that. Like, go home. Summer's over. School's about to start. Time to move on.

What those prognosticators didn't account for, of course, is what Rays devotees have known for at least all of 2011 if not longer: the Rays have The Extra 2%. That's the title of an illuminating book by Jonah Keri about Tampa Bay's unusual methods—I call your attention particularly to pp. 182-86, which are about Dan Johnson—which allow the little paupers to compete against division-rival tycoons in New York and Boston.

The Rays' entire opening-day payroll this season was less than the combined salaries of the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. Or Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. Teixera and Jeter. Or look at it this way: Two players who left Tampa last off-season for long-greener pastures in, respectively, New York and Boston—Rafael Soriano and Carl Crawford—made $25 million this season. The Rays' payroll, for 25 players, was just under $42 million. Or this: The Rays have made the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. In those four seasons, they have spent a total of about $220 million on payroll. The New York Yankees have spent about $207 million on payroll this year alone.

That the Rays completed their unthinkable comeback just after the movie version of Michael Lewis's groundbreaking book, Moneyball, came out in theaters, is a felicitous piece of timing: The book, and the Brad Pitt movie, tell the story of the cash-poor Oakland A's, who in the early 2000s built themselves, under the leadership of General Manager Billy Beane (played by Pitt) into a contending team by finding new ways of measuring talent and getting the most out of that talent. (Here is Neil Morris's well-written review of Moneyball in last week's Indy.)

Both the book and the movie have come under fire for overstating the impact on Oakland's unlikely success of sabermetrics and other advanced statistical analysis in baseball—and to be fair, the critics have a case. Also, unfortunately, the movie version omitted one of the book's most interesting components: a suspenseful and gratifying account of how the A's used the player draft in innovative ways. But Tampa Bay's ascension early this morning went a long way toward vindicating the Oakland A's, if not quite in practice then certainly in spirit.

And, actually, kind of in practice, too. Dan Johnson was originally drafted by, you guessed it, the Oakland A's, in the seventh round back in 2001. You can see why: Johnson doesn't really look like a hot-shot athlete; he doesn't run well; he is okay with the glove but perhaps no better than that; and he has a strange-looking batting stance that traditionalists might have looked askance at.

But speaking of looking askance, that's something Johnson knows how to do at pitches out of the strike zone. He's got a good batting eye, always has, one of a handful of reasons he appealed to Oakland, where "On-Base Percentage" was sort of the watchword for a few years, especially as the movie version of Moneyball plays it.

Guys who draw walks also get hits. Even John Kruk, the almost unlistenable color commentator for the Rays-Yankees game last night, was able to make that rather obvious yet often neglected point (he was talking about Evan Longoria at the time). If you see the ball well, chances are good that you'll swing at good pitches to hit and lay off of bad ones. There aren't many players who draw tons of walks but are poor hitters. The two outcomes, hits and walks, stem from the same source, assuming you can swing a bat with any proficiency: that source is pitch recognition.

Johnson is famous in Tampa Bay Rays' lore for hitting the franchise's most famous home run—well, most famous till last night's. Back in September 2008, he went yard, pinch-hitting, on the very evening of the day he was called up from Durham, with his flights delayed and re-routed and so on, off of Jonathan Papelbon—who blew the fateful save for Boston last night—to keep the precarious Rays in the American League East Division lead; they went on to win the pennant. (Johnson would hit another big game-winning homer to beat Boston two seasons later. In the Rays' blogosphere, he earned himself the nickname "The Great Pumpkin."

You may know the remainder of this drill. Johnson played in Japan in 2009, returned to the Rays in 2010, had a titanic season in Durham—he won the league MVP Award, easily—and earned himself that $1 million contract for 2011. The starting first base job was open, but Johnson was dismal early, Casey Kotchman started to have his best season ever, and DanJo found himself back in Durham again. Although he never quite seemed to get hot as a Bull this season, his final numbers were actually pretty good. He had a grind-it-out season (and talked about being a grinder after last night's/this morning's game). For most of 2011, he wore a wrap on the hand that got hit by a pitch back in April, the event that he believed sabotaged his production and got him sent down to the minors. Everyone figured out that you could throw him a changeup in a hitter's count and get him to swing over it. He turned 32, old for a minor-leaguer. He was moody.

But there he was, called up on September 14 for no apparent reason. The site "Cool Standings" estimated the Rays' playoff chances at 4.8% on September 14.

Fast forward to Wednesday night: Rays and Bosox tied, somehow, for the wild card spot in the American League playoffs. Ben Zobrist's first-inning error, a Little-League failure to keep his glove down on a pretty easy grounder, had let in an unearned run. But it wasn't going to matter. A desperately ineffective David Price gave up a grand slam to Mark Texeira, then a solo homer to Texeira; then reliever Juan Cruz gave up a solo shot to Andruw Jones. It was 7-0, Yankees, halfway through the game.

Boston, meanwhile, took a lead over Baltimore. Well, it was a good season.

But the Yankees helped out. Manager Joe Girardi, resting his starting pitchers for the playoffs—New York clinched the American League's best record a comfortable number of days ago—did a Johnny Wholestaff routine, using an incredible nine pitchers in the game's first eight innings. And although he started most of his everyday position players, he began removing them, like face cards from a deck, as the game progressed. By the time Dan Johnson hit his game-tying homer, Teixeira was gone, Jeter was gone, Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson were gone; Girardi was basically presiding over the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees.

Joe Maddon, meanwhile, was playing a lot of Durham Bulls. Just trying anything, he began to shuffle his deck, as Girardi had, albeit for a different reason—he needed someone to do something for him, anything to get the team going. Dane De La Rosa got to pitch, and threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings. Cesar Ramos, one scoreless inning. At one point, Maddon even gave Russ Canzler a try at bat, and Canzler did a Canzler: the righty slugger looked at five straight pitches from left-hander Boone Logan and was called out on strikes. Barely even took the bat off his shoulder. Justin Ruggiano, who never plays anymore, replaced Canzler and played right field for an inning. John Jaso, who never plays anymore, had a pinch-hit single. Elliot Johnson, who never plays anymore, pinch-ran for Jaso and stole a base.

By the time Elliot Johnson stole that base, the Rays had made it 7-6, thanks in large part to two walks and a hit batter courtesy of Yankee relievers Logan and Luis Ayala—those Yankees, more than any Ray, had given the Rays their opening back into the game. The thing about relievers (to repeat the old saying) is that the reason they're relievers, most of them, is that they aren't good enough to be starters. So if you use 11 of them in a single game, as Girardi wound up doing, it's quite likely that a few of them will struggle.

So when Evan Longoria belted a three-run homer off of Ayala to make it 7-6 in the bottom of the eighth, there was every reason to think optimistically about the ninth, because it was pretty certain that the greatest reliever in the history of baseball, the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, was getting the night off.

Sure enough, in came Cory Wade to close it out in the ninth inning. Wade pitched very well for... the Durham Bulls (?!) for the first two months of the year. He compiled an ERA under 2.00 but didn't earn a callup to Tampa—whereupon he exercised an out-clause in his contract on June 15. Wade signed with Yankees almost immediately after that and soon established himself as an effective and trusted reliever in Girardi's bullpen, even more so when Joba Chamberlain was lost for the year with a torn ulnar collateral ligament (he'll have Tommy John surgery).

One thing about Dan Johnson's homer off of Jonathan Papelbon back in 2008: It came on a 3-2 pitch. Johnson got to see five pitches from Papelbon, and that sort of diligence and patience is Johnson's forte.

Johnson looked at the first four pitches from Wade: strike, ball, strike—Rays down to their last strike now—then another ball. The count was 2-2. Johnson fouled off Wade's next pitch. He'd seen five pitches.

The sixth was a breaking ball, maybe a changeup, and and not a very good one, whatever it was. It moved right over home plate, and Johnson turned on it and drove it down the right field line. In the replay, the one where the camera stayed on Johnson as he ran toward first base, you could see him trying to suppress a smile not 40 feet down the line.

There was a shot of Rays manager Joe Maddon in the dugout following Johnson's homer, and although I'm not a professional lip-reader, I'm fairly certain that I saw him shape these two words: "Holy sh*t."

My friend Matty texted me those two words from the bar he owns minutes later. (I'll be bartending there this weekend.) Matty has watched about 50 Bulls games this year.

Dane De La Rosa used those same two words as a hashtag on Twitter a few hours after that. Like the Tampa Bay Rays currently own the phrase "holy sh*t."

Three innings after Johnson's game-tying homer—three innings during which 2011 Durham Bulls Brandon Guyer, Jose Lobaton, Brandon Gomes and Jake McGee all played; during which the Red Sox blew a ninth-inning lead (no) thanks to Jonathan Papelbon and also to departed-Ray Carl Crawford's inability to make a sliding catch he would probably say he should have made—three innings later, Longoria hit his second homer of the night (another line drive down the line, like Johnson's, this one to left field, making for a nice symmetry) and the Tampa Bay Rays had their final win of the regular season and a spot in the playoffs.

The Rays' final win of the year, like the first, back on April 8, was rescued by Dan Johnson.

Dan Johnson hit two home runs in the major leagues this year. You just read about both of them.

Dan Johnson batted .108 in the major leagues this year. He had nine hits. The Rays had 10 hits last night.

Dan Johnson isn't going to be on the Tampa Bay Rays' post-season roster.

Is he?

Dan Johnson is The Extra 2%.

Can the post-season roster carry 25.5 players?

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Dan Johnson's (deep breath) pinch-hit, two-out, two-strike, ninth-inning home run—off of Yankees reliever Cory Wade, a teammate of Johnson's in Durham earlier this year—saved the Rays' season.

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