As September begins, major league squads have expanded to forty members, allowing for young talent to saturate MLB clubs across the league. We’ve already seen a number of youthful arms take the stage this season, and this Sunday brought buzz for a fresh pitcher in Chicago with Erik Johnson. Through the minors this season, Johnson has had a spectacular year with a 2.37 ERA and a 9.23 K/9 across 22 starts for the AAA affiliate. I wanted to see for myself what the 25-year-old right-hander was capable of and sat down for his debut. Here is the GIF Breakdown of that start against the Kansas City Royals.
As always, let’s begin by looking at his strikezone plot for the evening:
This plot tells a detailed story. Johnson was effective at staying in the strike zone, constantly pounding the zone with Fastballs early in counts – he was 18/23 in first-pitch strikes – and was also able to use his Slider to make sure he didn’t fall behind. He avoided throwing the ball armside, reinforced by setting up on the left of the rubber, giving him a better angle to feature his Slider off the plate. He constantly was able to stay on the outer-third of the plate with his Fastball, though he will need to develop the ability to command both sides of the plate to be effective. Additionally, he needs to focus a bit more in lower-third of the plate in the future, but it’s a minor gripe and not a necessity for success. Overall, it’s a good plot and displays Johnson’s solid command for the afternoon.
Now let’s take a look at his pitches individually across the outing:
Note: Usage percentages and velocity numbers represent Sunday’s game only and were taken from Brooks Baseball.
Fastball: 62.8% thrown, Average 92.4 MPH, Max 94.9 MPH
Johnson was able to establish his Fastball in the first inning and pound the zone with strikes early and often. It quickly became apparent that Johnson’s approach was to avoid walks and force the Royal hitters to be aggressive. Just watch him groove this Fastball in the second inning to Alex Gordon:
And he was still sticking to his plan in the fifth inning:
You may notice that both pitches were intended to hit the low-inside corner and tailed across the plate. Johnson had some difficulty consistently hitting that spot, but when he did miss, he often generated enough horizontal movement to miss a bat, or catch enough of the plate to get a called strike. Johnson also showed the ability to nail a spot in order to generate outs, like hitting this location on the outside corner to earn a strikeout against Paulo Orlando:
As I mentioned before, Johnson had difficulty coming inside to right-handers. Watch where catcher Rob Brantly is set up, and note where this pitch crosses the plate:
Johnson will have to make this adjustment for future starts or hitters will begin not only to be more aggressive earlier in the count, but also look for pitches glove-side. Still, it’s very encouraging to see a pitcher with a the approach to trust his stuff inside the zone, preventing hitters’ counts and limiting free passes. This Fastball command is what makes Johnson have a better floor than most young pitchers.
Slider: 19.8% thrown, Average 84.5 MPH, Max 86.9 MPH
The primary breaking pitch of Johnson’s repertoire is a Slider that has also been labeled as a Cutter due to a lack of ferocious bite. Instead of acting as a deceptive pitch designed to miss bats like a typical Slider, its primary function is help Johnson gain strikes and keeping hitters off-balance when expecting a mix of Fastballs or Changeups. He didn’t show above-average command of the pitch, but he was able to throw it for strikes:
And generate occasional whiffs with the pitch, like this 2-1 slide piece to Omar Infante:
It’s good to see Johnson throwing the pitch in a hitter’s count, but often the results didn’t justify his confidence. There were moments when the pitch would float over the strikezone and make hearts skip a beat. Sometimes the pitch worked like this flyout…
…and sometimes it didn’t.
What you just witnessed was Johnson hanging a Slider that Jarrod Dyson – that Jarrod Dyson – crushed for his 2nd HR of the year. It’s the perfect exhibition of how ineffective his breaking pitch can be, and it presents questions for Johnson’s future outlook. He will need to work hard to improve his Slider to take the next step forward, as it is the pitch that is holding him back.
Changeup: 11.6% thrown, Average 82.1 MPH, Max 83.9 MPH
If you’re looking for the pitch that makes Johnson alluring, look no further than his Changeup. The most impressive element of Johnson’s debut was his command of his Changeup that perfectly mimicked his Fastball at over 10 MPH slower. He’s able to generate a great amount of deception with his slow pitch, catching batters on their front foot for weak contact:
Or completely missing bats all together like this whiff from Mike Moustakas:
I want you to rewatch those GIFs this time noticing the previous pitch in the strikezone at the bottom right. The yellow dot in both GIFs are Fastballs thrown at nearly the same location the pitch before. Johnson is able to replicate the pitch with a Changeup at 10 MPH slower, making it difficult for batters to recognize the change of speed to make the proper adjustment. It’s a mature combination that is surprising to see from a young pitcher like Johnson, and hopefully he features it more prominently moving forward. Working this one-two punch often can turn Johnson into a formidable threat to any offense.
Curveball: 5.8% thrown, Average 74.5 MPH, Max 76.0 MPH
In addition to his Slider, Johnson also features a Curveball that he infrequently throws, and for good reason. Here he is using it as a “show-me” pitch to earn a cheap strike early in the count to Kendrys Morales:
You can catch that the pitch doesn’t have a hard break, looping towards the plate instead of diving heavily to sneak under player’s bats. Johnson only threw the pitch four other times, and while he later tried to use it as a putaway pitch in the dirt in an 0-2 count, it was fouled off and not effective enough to generate a whiff. It’s possible that this pitch could morph into a strikeout producer further in his career, but at its current point, it’ll be reserved as a rare pitch to grab a quick strike and keep batters honest.
Final Line: 6.0 IP, 3 ER, 5 Hits, 0 BBs, 3 Ks.
What I saw was a solid #3/#4 pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. He doesn’t have the wipeout stuff to dominate hitters and rack up plenty of strikeouts, but by being aggressive inside the zone, Johnson was able to generate quick outs and shorter at-bats, allowing him to keep his pitch count down and go deeper into the game. His Fastball command was above-average, though he struggled locating arm-side and didn’t feature much movement. His Changeup is his best pitch with excellent deception when paired with his Fastball, and should be thrown more frequently for improved results. Johnson’s breaking pitch is a Slider that can be effective, but doesn’t have enough bite to generate whiffs and was often found floating up in the zone. In this game, the Royals were patient at the plate, playing right into Johnson’s approach of grooving Fastballs early to get ahead in the count. If batters adjust and attack pitches earlier in the count, it could spell quick trouble.
For fantasy purposes, Johnson doesn’t have enough upside to earn a spot on standard rosters, but his decent floor allows him to be a streamer and a possible two-start candidate. As with many young pitchers, there is room to grow, but unless he develops a much better breaking pitch, his upside is limited. I don’t see Johnson breaking the Top 50 in the near future.