Heading into Spring Training, it was expected that Erik Johnson would be one of the starters for the Chicago White Sox this season. Johnson had skyrocketed from the AA Birmingham Barons all the way to the major leagues, where he performed well down the stretch. In his five starts for the White Sox, Johnson was 3-2 with a 3.25 ERA. While Johnson did have a 1.554 WHiP, he was expected to perform better over a full season in the majors.
Yet, thus far in Spring Training, the results have been mixed. After giving up eight runs (seven earned) on eight hits and two walks in four innings in his most recent start, Johnson has a 7.36 ERA and a 1.727 WHiP. Although those numbers are skewed by his rough outing on Wednesday, that performance could give indicate the type of growing pains that Johnson may have this season.
When attacking the opposition, Erik Johnson is mainly reliant upon his fastball and cutter. Last season, in his limited trial with the White Sox, Johnson used the fastball 44.73% of the time, while his cutter was used 22.86%. Johnson also mixes in a curveball and sinker, as well as an occasional changeup. His fastball, which averaged 92.78 MPH, is not likely to be enough for Johnson to be the strikeout pitcher that he was in the minors. At the major league level, Johnson will need to find another way to get batters out.
The most likely way for that to happen is for Johnson to continue his ground ball throwing ways. During his minor league career, Johnson had proven adept at getting groundballs and popups on the infield. Overall, in his two minor league seasons, Johnson was able to induce opponents to hit ground balls in 46.5% of their at bats, while getting infield popups at a 8.4% rate. Both marks are above average overall.
With his limited strikeout potential, Erik Johnson is likely to continue to rely upon that ability to generate weak contact in order to be successful at the major league level. Naturally, that can also lead to Johnson having games such as that woeful outing on Wednesday, but that is to be expected from a contact focused pitcher.
Erik Johnson is likely to have games where he looks like a groundball generating dynamo, and then have games where he gets hit hard. Given time, he may slot into the middle of the White Sox rotation and prove to be a solid innings eater, capable of giving six to seven decent innings each time he takes the ball.