Exit Interviews: Erik Johnson


Sep 10, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox pitcher Erik Johnson (45) throws the ball in the first inning during the game against the Detroit Tigers at U.S Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

These “exit interviews” will be going over the entire 40-man roster and looking to see how each player does or does not fit into the White Sox future.

The term “exit interview” is usually used when an employee is leaving the company. I took that into consideration…and kept it.

Erik Johnson – Almost undoubtedly a member of the 2014 starting rotation.

Age by 2014 Opening Day: 25

Contract: Less than a year of service time still. League minimum.

Relevant stats: Five games (all starts), 27.2 IP, 32 H, 3.25 ERA, 5 HR, 18 K, 11 BB, 1.64 K/BB, 133 ERA+

Interpretation: Good results from awful peripherals, from good stuff.

Emblematic split: Oh, nothing to see here, just a .521 OPS point difference between Johnson against righties (.178/.224/.267) and lefties (.348/.418/.594).

Pre-season expectations: Johnson was hardly anonymous going into the year. Just his second-round pick status and tearing up the lower levels as a 23 year-old was enough to place him in the upper-half of most top 10 prospect lists, but since Johnson still had Double-A to conquer (the graveyard of many pitching prospects) and the big club started the year with plenty of starting depth, it would have been premature to expect to see Johnson on the South Side.

Good health and maintaining his control were the two main wishes for Johnson’s 2013.

Quote of the year: “This is where I want to be,” Johnson said. “It is another start to build off of. Each time I go out there I try to learn something new and build off of your last start.”

Erik’s story: Johnson might be the truest White Sox prospect who ever lived. A college arm already with considerable refinement upon entering the system, a quick cleanup of his mechanics gave him a couple more miles on his fastball and then he went and justified the organization’s typical developmental schedule to top it all off. Johnson didn’t obliterate Double-A hitters, striking out 74 in 84.1 innings, but relied on escaping jams and smoothly transitioning into the stretch for a 2.23 ERA.

Abhorred by the concept of wasting time, that was enough for the Sox to promote Johnson to Triple-A, whereafter a five-walk debut, he ostensibly improved upon his Double-A performance. After allowing one home run and striking out 57 in 57.1 innings with Charlotte, Johnson was promoted; a September call-up, but also not a September Call-Up.

When Johnson arrived in Chicago, it was then he started bucking White Sox traditions. After two years of Jose Quintana and Hector Santiago succeeding when it seemed pretty clear that they shouldn’t be, Johnson stepped in and flashed an 88 mph slider that bore in on left-handers’ thighs and mid-90’s heart, but couldn’t pitch over defensive mistakes against a Yankees lineup that challenged the Sox for the title of ‘Worst in the American League’ in his debut.

At no point could Johnson reliably steal strikes with his looping curveball, or keep it from getting punished. Possibly as a result, he tended to get predictable with his fastball in tight situations and compounded his control problems by nibbling. After getting mauled thanks in large part to White Sox defense in his first two outings, Johnson only dripped with potential in obliterating a stripped-down Twins offense in a eight-strikeout, six shutout innings performance in his third outing.

He wrapped up the year by dancing around punishment despite not getting much in the way of swinging strikes against a Cabrera-free Tigers lineup, and had a perfectly decent finale against the Royals marred when he fell apart all at once after four shutout innings. Since he was past his professional career-high in innings swiftly after arriving in Chicago, fatigue could certainly be a factor.

Not getting credited for much of the runs either of the first two trainwrecks left Johnson with a 3.25 ERA, but ugly peripherals. And while there were ugly peripherals, the stuff looks like it should bring far more strikeouts in the future. He’s a mixed bag, but that can happen in the first five starts. The platoon splits are exceptionally nutty, and make his change-up a point of focus for the Spring.

Assessment: Johnson seems more engraved into the 2014 rotation than even penciled in. With how much attention the rest of the White Sox roster demands and how much success the organization has had in plugging in internal solutions to the starting rotation, leaving a slot open to someone who successfully graduated from the minor league system is perfectly fine, if not the only sane solution.

It’d be nice to see Johnson display more pyrotechnics, but it would even nicer to have a major league catcher, or a starting first basemen with an OPS over .700. It would be nicer to see someone throw Dayan Viciedo a fastball 18 inches outside and not have to watch struggle to stop himself from swinging, or for Alejandro De Aza to go a month without getting doubled off. Even the concerns to be registered about Avisail Garcia are more sincere than the quibbles with Johnson, who if not commendable should at least be a usable starter.

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan