Johnson was born June 27, 1983 in the appropriately named Johnson City, New York. He shares a birthday with Jim Edmonds, Jeff Conine and 2011 fourth-round pick and potential Bluefield Blue Jay Tom Robson. Johnson City was also the hometown of the late Mel Queen, a former Reds and Angels pitcher who later became a coach for the Blue Jays and revived the career of Roy Halladay.
He grew up in Endicott, near Binghamton, and was selected by the Orioles in the fifth round of the 2001 draft, three picks after Ryan Howard and two picks after C.J. Wilson.
Johnson entered the Baltimore farm system in 2001 in the Gulf Coast League, then moved up to Bluefield in 2002. In 11 games (nine starts), he went 4-2 with a 4.37 ERA as the Baby Birds ran up the best record in the Appy League at 45-23. They won the division, but the Bristol White Sox beat them in the Championship Series two games to one.
The righty stayed in Bluefield for 2003 and lowered his ERA to 3.68 in 11 starts.
Johnson moved up to high-A with the Frederick Keys in 2005. He went 12-9 with a 3.49 ERA with 168 strikeouts and only 139 hits in 159.2 innings to earn Carolina League Pitcher of the Year honors. He made the All-Star team and the Futures Game.
He was an Eastern League All-Star with Double-A Bowie in 2006 and got himself a brief call-up for his major league debut a couple weeks later. At home against the White Sox, he was roughed up for eight runs in three innings before being sent back to the Baysox.
There was another one-game trip to the majors in 2007 in which he gave up two runs in two relief innings against the Red Sox. Outside of that one game, he spent the season with Triple-A Norfolk.
Jim finally cracked the Baltimore roster for good in 2008. He started in the bullpen and opened the season with 18 consecutive scoreless innings before allowing a walk-off single in this game on May 5.
He was terrific in '08 and emerged as one of the best middle relievers in the game. Here are the ERA leaders from that season among pitchers who worked 60 innings and finished fewer than half of their games (to eliminate closers):
Note that Johnson was third in that group with a 45 OPS+ against and was the only one that didn't allow a homer.
He was promoted to the closer role in July of 2009 when George Sherrill was dealt at the deadline to the Dodgers and converted eight of 11 save chances to finish the season.
2010 got off to a bad start for Johnson, who was rocked in ten April outings before being placed on the DL with inflammation in his right elbow. He made it back in September and was lights out upon his healthy return as the eighth-inning setup man. In 16 games he allowed three earned runs in 16.2 innings (1.62 ERA).
Despite that success, the Orioles felt compelled to sign Kevin Gregg to be the closer for 2011 and it inevitably did not work out well.
Johnson took over as closer in September and was great, allowing only two runs in his last 11 games. He saved three big games at Fenway during Boston's epic collapse. In the famed Game 162, he worked a scoreless ninth to keep the game at 3-2. That set the stage for this.
Here are the top ten setup men in 2011 by bWAR (relieved in 80 percent of appearances and finished fewer than half of their games)
Johnson was given the ninth-inning job in 2012 and he has stepped up and been one of the best closers in baseball this season. He's a big part of the Orioles return to relevance and as of today (May 23), Baltimore sits atop the American League East and is even outpacing Texas by one game for the Junior Circuit's best mark.
His 16 saves are the most in baseball and his 1.3 bWAR is tied with Aroldis Chapman and Oakland phenom Ryan Cook for second in the majors among relievers behind his setup man Pedro Strop.
Arizona's Brad Ziegler is the only reliever with a better ground ball rate (72.2%) than Johnson's 70.7%.
Dating back to last August, Johnson has converted 24 consecutive save chances. It's the longest active strak and the second-longest run in Orioles history behind Randy Myers' 34-gamer in 1997.
The fact that Johnson is the only active player on the All-Time Bluefield Team speaks to the Baby Birds' struggles over the past several seasons. While the Orioles departing Bluefield after 53 years was disappointing, at least the Blue Jays should provide a better product on the field. Last year's success under Dennis Holmberg could be a sign of things to come.
Jim Johnson is one of a few great relievers to come through Bluefield en route to big league success. The all-time team has a phenomenal infield with two Hall-of Famers, a should-be Hall-of-Famer and three other All-Stars, but the other strength of the team is its bullpen and Johnson fits right in.
|SP 1||Dean Chance|
|SP 2||Mike Boddicker|
|SP 3||Bill Monbouquette|