Joe Mauer Joe Mauer Joe Mauer

Erik Johnson finds his groove


Sep 10, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox pitcher

Erik Johnson

(45) reacts to a Tigers score in the first inning during the game against the Detroit Tigers at U.S Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Midway through Erik Johnson slicing up a Twins lineup missing Joe Mauer due to injury, Justin Morneau due to a recent trade, along with Brian Dozier, Ryan Doumit, it stirred up memories of a time not that long ago when another 23 year-old White Sox snapped out of his struggles and dominated a rundown Twins lineup.

But comparisons to Zach Stewart must be attacked with sticks and driven out of the city limits for two reasons. First, it’s best to assume that something not as absurd as Zach Stewart’s near-perfect game is taking place on any given night. Second, tempering excitement for Johnson breakthrough based on the level of competition doesn’t have to mean he’s never going to make a quality start in the major leagues again–like Stewart. I’m sorry for bringing up Stewart. It’s my fault.

But to bring up Stewart again, who flummoxed a lineup mostly of Rochester Red Wings regulars with his fringy slider and by painting the corners with low-90’s heat, Johsnon succeeded with a familiar stripped-down approach It’s one of the benefits of having four pitches, but Johnson certainly succeeded without his typically large compliment of stuff. In fact, every single one of Johnson’s strikeout came on fastballs, largely tailing away or running upstairs, or just blowing it down broadway and still getting whiffs somehow.

It’s something that can be done when a pitcher is capable of touching 95 mph like Johnson, but when he blew away Chris Hermann up and out of the zone with 90 mph, it harkened back to countless Jose Quintana and Hector Santiago starts where they played with their sequencing, and raised hitters’ hands at the very end in lieu of a traditional out-pitch.

So far, Johnson’s struggles could be boiled down to not figuring out how to get left-handers out. Even after Monday night, lefties are hitting Johnson to the tune of .359/.444/.632 compared to .143/.226/.179 for right-handers. There’s plenty of small sample noise in both figures, but there’s a clear problem here and how Johnson deals with it going forward is the thing to watch going forward.

Curiously, one of the first positive things Johnson showed in his major league debut was a hard slider in the high-80’s that bore in on left-handers. Since then, not much else has emerged for Johnson as a tool for retiring lefties than a slider that  didn’t seem like it would. Johnson’s changeup is largely dormant and the next time he strides out and uses his big, looping curveball to steal strikes repeatedly will be the first.

Bryan Anderson, Johnson’s catcher for the night and probably an intriguing option if the White Sox could afford to completely punt a position offensively, was at least highly confident about more being available in the future.

"“That was only a little sample of what his real potential is,” Anderson said. “Most nights, his slider/cutter is really effective and his changeup is usually pretty good, too. (Monday) we mostly stuck with fastball, curveball. All four of his pitches are really good and he doesn’t give in.”"

Yet for a guy who’s first couple of impressions has just been “a mess,” establishing fastball command is a big step, and showed off some of the natural talent that Johnson boasts between those perennially slumped shoulders of his. His fastball has some natural tail to it as it skirts to the outside corner, and he’s smacking the glove on both sides of the plate throughout this clip.

Not bad.

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan