Minor gains for Erik Johnson in second start

Doug Pensinger

He pitched deeper into the game thanks to fewer walks, but his arsenal remains limited

Entering his second start, an apparition visited Erik Johnson with a word of warning:

Doncoopergonnakillyou_medium

Whoops! I meant this one:

Don Cooper didn't want to talk about the walks as an epidemic plaguing the pitching staff, but rather as a problem with a few select individuals over a small sample. Johnson was one of the pitchers he singled out as potential cautionary tales:

"If you’re not going to throw it over, we will have to get somebody else," Cooper said. "If you constantly don’t throw it over -- major league pitchers throw it over."

So if preventing free baserunners took top priority in Johnson's second start of the season on Wednesday, then he probably passed the test. He walked one batter and plunked one batter, and both were the same batter. He basically bypassed Justin Morneau, but he made the rest of the lineup swing the bats. The result wasn't a beacon of optimum efficiency, but it was an improvement across the board:

Date IP H R ER BB SO HR HBP BF Pit Str
April 4 4.2 10 7 7 3 2 0 1 28 98 55
April 9 5.2 9 4 4 1 4 0 1 26 107 61

His radar-gun readings didn't make as much progress, though:

April 4 April 9
Pitch Avg Max Count Avg Max Count
Fastball 90.9 92.7 37 91.1 92.8 34
Sinker 90.3 91.8 19 90.1 92.2 8
Slider 87.5 89.4 27 87.0 89.1 41
Changeup 80.7 82.0 9 81.2 82.5 4
Curveball 75.5 76.8 6 73.2 73.2 1

According to Brooks, both stadiums' guns are on the slow side -- Kauffman's is one of the coldest, while Coors Field's is less significant. Adding half to a full tick makes them look a little better, but even after a correction, he's still missing 2 mph or so off the fastball he showed last season.

Cooper will be the first to say that velocity isn't everything. Johnson could definitely stand to tighten up his command, and I think his best command is better than he's shown. But those missing miles per hour makes it harder to be an effective fastball-slider pitcher, because that combination typically demands more oomph.

So, where does Johnson go from here?

Regain the missing velocity: This is possible. As Dave Cameron noted in his celebration of Chris Sale, velocity is usually below the season average in April.

Improve command: This is also possible, because it was a strength in the minors. However, it probably takes the confidence that, say, added velocity could buy.

Try more off-speed pitches: Johnson's curve seems to have been relegated to "show-me" status, which is fair. It looks pretty out of his hand, but MLB hitters don't have a hard time tracking it. His changeup is considered essential to his development, and either he's been just as resistant to throw it, or Tyler Flowers doesn't want to call it.

Whatever Johnson's most pressing problems are, they're probably compounded by the early holes. He's allowed runs in the first and second innings in both starts, and I'm guessing that makes it difficult to lean on third pitches with conviction. Watching him battle early on, it looks equally hard leaning on a fastball-slider combo without the biggest fastball, so it seems like something has to give. Throwing more strikes is a good start. Throwing a wider variety of strikes might be the next step.

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