Johnson aims to keep improving
The 2013 season is finally over for Cleveland Indians right-handed relief prospect Jeff Johnson.
The season started when he reported to Arizona for spring training in early March, continued when he pitched for High-A Carolina and Double-A Akron over the course of the five month regular season, and then recently finished with a showing in the Arizona Fall League.
Johnson, 23, had a stellar showing this season in 46 combined appearances between Carolina and Akron going 0-1 with a 2.25 ERA and held batters to a .221 batting average. In 48.0 innings he allowed 40 hits, 2 home runs, 15 walks and had 50 strikeouts.
Even with his first time assignment to Akron, Johnson was arguably as good as he has been in his short pro career as he transitioned well with a 2.49 ERA, .158 batting average against and very good 5:24 walk to strikeout ratio in 21.2 innings.
“I had a pretty good season,” Johnson said. “I pretty much just worked on throwing strikes and commanding both sides of the plate. Being able to throw my fastball to both sides of the plate was the biggest part of my season as it set up my other pitches to try to get a groundball or finish them off with a strikeout.”
Johnson pounds the zone with a low 90s fastball, but it is his nasty split-finger which is his best offering and a pitch he uses to put hitters away. It is a swing and miss offering that has very good late tumbling action and one he likes to use to finish off hitters with a strikeout or get them to roll over and make weak contact.
“[My splitter] looks just like my fastball and is usually around the mid-80s,” Johnson said. “They really can’t recognize it and it has a really late break. By the time it gets to the plate it is already pretty much buried and they are swinging over it.”
Johnson worked to improve a lot of things this season, but the improvement of his fastball command was his main priority. Even though he made a midseason transition to a higher level, he made considerable strides with his strike throwing ability and his ability to locate his fastball, all of which led to a significant drop in his walk rate and improved first strike percentage.
“It was mainly about working my fastball to both sides of the plate, but also kind of recognizing tendencies of batters,” Johnson said. “If they are leaking out over the plate I will go inside, or if they are looking to pull a ball I will throw a fastball away, or throw something offspeed and they chase. It was just basically about trying to read swings and hit both sides of the plate.”
One thing that was a concern near the end of the season was a notable dip in velocity for Johnson as he was at 88-90 MPH in a lot of his outings, a good 2-3 MPH off his normal range. Some of that has to do with his pitch selection, but some may also have to do with a tired arm – which appears to be the case as he did not appear in a game in the Arizona Fall League after October 21st.
“I started off the season low to mid 90s, but in the second half of the season I was mainly in the low 90s,” Johnson said. “But I think my control is even better, so that is the biggest part. I was able to control my fastball really well and I think that was probably the biggest part of my success this year.”
Johnson also started throwing his two-seam fastball much more this season, which may have contributed to some of his velocity loss.
“I throw a four-seam and this year I threw a lot more two seams than the previous years, so that is probably a reason why my average fastball velocity was down a little bit,” Johnson noted. “I mainly threw the two-seam in college. Last year, I didn’t really have command of it and then toward the end of the year I got it back. And then this year I had it at the start of the season so I used it a lot.”
With the regained trust in his two-seamer, it gives Johnson two different variations of his fastball that he can attack both righties and lefties with. While his splitter is a deadly two-strike pitch, he lacks a good, consistent breaking ball to really attack hitters with, although he is making some strides with his slider.
“I threw a lot of two seams this year and I have a lot of trust in it as it has a lot of movement and it fools a lot of hitters,” Johnson said. “It gets lefties chasing away as they think it is down the middle and the next thing you know it is off the plate sway. Usually when I get strike one I will throw a slider to get from strike one to strike two. Sometimes if I think a guy is aggressive early and swings first pitch I will drop in the slider.”
The wear and tear of a long season undoubtedly had its effect on Johnson, which probably was another factor in his late season dip in velocity and also his Arizona Fall League season being abruptly cut short. To help combat any fatigue issues with his mind and body, he is committed to getting himself in the best shape possible this offseason.
“[I want to work on] my physical health,” Johnson said. “I want to try and get as strong as I can and in as shape as much as I can. If I can do that I will add a couple of MPH and recover faster and be healthier.”
Now that the offseason is finally upon Johnson, he has as much time as he needs to rest his body, relax his mind, and then start preparing both for next season. But he knows that spring training will creep up on him fast and that there is little time to waste.
“I just kind of lay low and relax as much as possible,” Johnson said about his offseason plans. “I get my work in right when I wake up and then go home and hang out. I don’t take a lot of vacations or anything, I kind of just sit at home and play video games and keep my mind off everything else.[The full season grind will return pretty quick], so I try to take advantage of it by making the offseason go as slow as possible.”
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I completely agree, the Tribe simply cannot afford to turn out talent without getting something in return ala TJ McFarland and Hector Rondon. Both were 'odd' cases of sorts McFarland had been an unimpressive but decent SP and Rondon was returning from injury...both undervalued talents, but also, questionable roster decisions (Juan Diaz, & Tim Fedroff) played a role, IMHO. What I'm really pointing out here is the necessity to protect talent over position, but obviously, sometimes there will be a exception or two.
Personally, I'd rather see the Tribe trade a cpl of guys like Jeff Johnson or Enosil Tejada, than to lose them in the rule 5 draft. There are always teams interested in young bullpen arms that are near ready and the Indians seem to have a slew. The Tribe could be creative adding a pair of arms to a deal to get it done, maybe trading an arm or two for another younger prospect, or utilizing them in a deal to pickup a major leaguer returning from injury or even looking to acquire another undervalued talent or utilizing one or two young arms to pickup a salary dump (w/ the opp. team kicking in some $$$). The point is, the Tribe can be both aggressive and creative in effort to fully utilize their farm system to produce big league talent. I mean that is what the player development system is for right?