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5 silver linings from Daniel Johnson’s 5-strikeout game

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DJ got the worst game of his career out of the way early

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

In just his second game of the season, outfielder Daniel “The Jet” Johnson struck out in each of his five at-bats, earning him a Platnimum Sombrero (also occasionally called “The Olympic Rings”), the lesser-known cousin of the more popular four-strikeout Golden Sombrero.

While this technically wasn’t Johnson’s MLB debut, it was just his second appearance in 2021 and it’s still very early in his career. This promotion was exciting on the surface because as he has plucked away at the alternate site, Cleveland has insisted on putting Josh Naylor in right field, instead of first base, his more natural position. So, while we’ve watched Jake Bauers and Yu Chang attempt baseball at first, Johnson has been stuck in minor-league limbo. He has the tools to at least be an interesting player, but he hasn’t gotten the shot to prove he can do it yet. This was, in essence, his shot to do that.

This wasn’t an example of a top prospect bursting onto the scene because of his outstanding play, though. In theory, he’s only up because Franmi Reyes went on the paternity list and it made sense to move Naylor or to DH and bring someone to fill in at right field. Or, in Sunday’s case, give Eddie Rosario a day at DH and play Daniel Johnson in left.

That’s also part of the appeal of Johnson — he has the versatility to play all three outfield positions. The question is just if he can hit well enough to stay in the majors. Yesterday’s outing was a tick in the “no” column of that particular tracker, as he whiffed in all five of his at-bats and earned every bit of the dreaded Platinum Sombrero.

Since 1901, there have been 196 instances of batters striking out at least five times in a single game. Johnson is the most recent, of course, and he’s the third since the start of the 2021 season, with Avisail Garcia and Yoán Moncada also sharing the unfortunate achievement. There were only two players to achieve a Platinum Sombrero in the shortened 2020 campaign: Michael Chavis and Matt Chapman.

This was also the fifth Platinum Sombrero in Cleveland history, putting Johnson alongside a couple of the franchise’s most notable players on this less-than-prestigious list. Jim Thome is the most recent, when he went 0-for-5 with a walk and five strikeouts on April 9, 2000 against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He’s also the only Cleveland batter to ever draw a walk in the course of striking out five times.

Larry Doby had a Platinum Sombrero on April 25, 1948 against the Detroit Tigers. This was less than a year after Doby broke the color barrier in the American League and the 1948 team went on to win the World Series, in large part because of Doby’s contributions at the plate. Needless to say, he gets a pass.

Rick Manning, who was the color commentator during Johnson’s Sombrero yesterday, had his own against the White Sox in 1977. It was a brutal season overall for Manning, who was never an offensive powerhouse but bottomed out with a .226/.282/.337 slash in 283 plate appearances that year. It was also the only year in Cleveland that Manning didn’t play at least 100 games in a season, as he suffered a fractured vertebra sliding into second base that required a back brace for several weeks.

Cleveland won all three of those games, as well as Johnson’s game yesterday. The only time they’ve lost when a player struck out at least five times in a game was in 1904 when Bill Bernhard struck out five times and Cleveland fell to the Philadelphia Athletics, 2-1.

No amount of toiling away in Baseball Savant will make such a game feel less bad, but I think it’s worth finding some silver linings in this case. Nobody needs to be piled on after striking out five times in a game, so why not try and find something positive in such a rough afternoon?

I will admit up front that nothing about finding these silver innings is rooted in objectivity or even sensibility. I just like Daniel Johnson, and I want to believe that one bad outing in early May will not define his career in Cleveland.

He saw more pitches than anybody

Ok, granted, this just kind of comes along with the territory of striking out so many times. But still, Johnson saw a total of 27 pitches, nine more than Eddie Rosario, Jake Bauers, and Austin Hedges each saw. Lucas Giolito pitched well through his 5.1 innings of work, but maybe if Johnson didn’t have a seven-pitch at-bat in the third inning (including fouling off a tough two-strike fastball on the outer edge of the plate), maybe Giolito doesn’t get worn down as fast?

Say what you want about Johnson struggling today, you’ll mostly be correct, but there were no 1-2-3 at-bats. He battled. I mean, he lost every battle, but he still battled. We remember The Battle of the Alamo, we can remember The Battle of Daniel Johnson Facing the White Sox.

He took some good balls

Johnson laid off a couple of tough fastballs that painted the upper edge of the zone. This goes back to seeing a lot of pitches and battling through it — he wasn’t cheated all that often. In a game where you strike out five times, laying off a couple of high fastballs is an accomplishment.

There doesn’t appear to be a book on him yet

This one is pretty subjective, but I just don’t see a dominant strategy against Daniel Johnson being employed here. It was just kind of “throw a good pitch”, as opposed to hammering one zone with changeups or avoiding high fastballs.

Compare Johnson’s pitch chart to those of Cesar Hernandez and Amed Rosario below. The ball was kept down and away against Hernandez as much as possible, and down and in against Rosario.

And then there’s Daniel Johnson, where it’s just a standard approach — throw your high-spinning fastballs high, keep your off-speed pitches low, work the outer edge of the zone. White Sox pitchers wanted him to chase at everything up and out of the zone, and he did a good job laying off of it.

Part of the lack of a true plan is just because he wasn’t making contact on anything anyway, so you can just hope he’ll chase or swing and miss on anything that’s a strike. But this is like the early stages of machine learning where the AI in training still thinks a duck is actually a skyscraper. It’ll narrow it down eventually, but it hasn’t yet.

I could see a weakness forming if he keeps swinging and missing low in the zone, but it wasn’t enough to be exploited in his second game of the season. I’ll count it as a silver lining.

No errors!

Daniel Johnson had three hits come his way in left field and he snagged them all. They were all pretty routine, but it was a windy day in Chicago and I’ve seen some routine plays made difficult by Cleveland outfielders this season.

Cleveland won

Ask any player if they’d rather strike out five times and win, or hit five home runs and lose. Most of them would probably say the former (the better question would be how many actually would prefer the latter, but that’s neither here nor there). That’s exactly what happened in DJ’s case.

Cleveland’s offense, led by José Ramírez and The Unrelated Rosario Brothers, scored as many runs as Johnson had strikeouts. Zach Plesac and the bullpen held Chicago to as many runs as Johnson had hits. At the end of the day, winning is good, and that’s part of the reason Johnson’s whiff-fest is a non-story today.

If nothing else, winning the game makes five strikeouts easier to digest and move on from.