From galumphing around the mound wearing an expression of vague irritation to attacking hitters with a low-90s fastball, Erik Johnson looked like his old self in his return to the White Sox against Kansas City on Sunday.
He also hit all the right marks for his teammates and bosses. Staked to a 3-0 lead before he even took the mound, Johnson made the Royals get back in the game themselves by throwing strikes and avoiding walks. The Royals weren't quite up the task, although by hitting three solo shots they inadvertently proved Jeff Samardzija's point about the relative harmlessness of home runs with nobody on base.
First things first, everybody please rise for the return of Johnson's velocity. Whether looking at the average readings for his four-seamer ...
... or two-seamer ...
... he had his good heat back. It's hard to overstate the importance of this, because Johnson's history shows a positive correlation between velocity and command, which suggests his mechanics are back, which, in turn, suggests he's also physically OK. Better yet, his good fastball and mechanics generate a bigger disparity with his changeup and slider.
That answers the biggest question about the state of Johnson's game. Thanks to the large margin on the scoreboard, we still don't quite know how well he can execute pitches under pressure.
His pitch chart from Sunday is highly unusual for the scarcity of anything low, especially over the first three innings, which is the picture of attacking hitters:
This approach worked for him, because the only dot that cost him one black dot above the zone to Sal Perez, who simply greeted a good pitch with a better swing. Johnson went with more curves and sliders the second time through the order, but his location was more erratic:
And the homers he surrendered in the sixth inning were a result of that inability to locate. Jarrod Dyson pummeled a higher slider over the heart of the plate, and Mike Moustakas crushed a grooved fastball on a 1-2 count.
Then again, Johnson didn't have to rely on precision. His fastball had some early jump on it, and the changeup complemented it well. By the time the Royals started seeing his mistakes better, they were already in a huge hole. Maybe they finally had Johnson's number, but Ventura wisely picked a good time to call it a day for his starter (after six innings, which concluded with Johnson getting hit by the barrel of Alex Gordon's broken bat).
This approach might not work for Johnson every time, but it was appropriate for the circumstances on Sunday. Hopefully we'll get to see him make a few more starts to better understand just how much of this mode is a conscious decision, and whether it's truly tenable. Those are way better questions than the ones he dealt with last season.