Erik Johnson, displaying poor strategy and showing everyone the grip he’s using. // Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Following a fantastic 2013 campaign that saw Johnson dominate both of the minor league levels he visited, the White Sox awarded him with a September call-up where he showed White Sox fans a mixed bag of performances. Johnson only pitched 27.2 innings in the majors at the end of the 2013 season but was still penciled in as the fourth starter by Don Cooper at the beginning of Spring Training. Even though this is a miniscule sample size there may still be some information that we can glean from his five 2013 starts that can give us an idea of what to expect in 2014.
Stat Line: 6.0IP, 7H, 1HR, 3ER, 3BB, 1K
This was Erik Johnson‘s major league debut. The first inning started off well with two quick outs to Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter. However, this was promptly followed by a home run, walk, double and another walk before Ichiro Suzuki struck out. He gave up only one single until the fourth inning, which turned out to be a game changer. After Alex Rodriguez and Suzuki reached base, the Yankees were able to score four more runs on a double, triple, and single. Johnson stayed in the game to pitch two more uneventful innings before being relieved by Daniel Webb in the seventh.
Stat Line: 3.2IP, 7H, 1HR, 2ER, 3BB, 4K
This abbreviated outing wasn’t pretty. Johnson started out well by striking out Austin Jackson to start the game but it went downhill quickly after that. Andy Dirks scored the first run of the game on the first of three errors by Conor Gillaspie. This was followed by a single and a sacrifice fly to make it 2-0 in favor of the Tigers. Johnson settled in and didn’t run into trouble again until a Prince Fielder home run in the third inning, which was followed by a single and another error, this time by Paul Konerko. Alex Avila singled, knocking in another run before the end of the third. After yet another run scored in the fourth and a wild pitch allowed Fielder to advance to second, Johnson was replaced with David Purcey.
Stat Line: 6.0IP, 4H, 0HR, 0ER, 2BB, 8K
I would call this Johnson’s magnum opus in a White Sox uniform thus far. The first inning started off a little shaky as Eduardo Escobar reached on a fielder’s choice. He then walked Trevor Plouffe but was able to get out of the inning by sandwiching a wild pitch in between two strikeouts. Going into the second inning with a 7-0 lead, Johnson cruised through the next five innings only giving up four hits and a hit-by-pitch while striking out six batters before being pulled in the seventh for Donnie Veal.
Stat Line: 6.2IP, 9H, 1HR, 2ER, 0BB, 1K
Despite giving up nine hits, this was another good outing by Johnson in which he out-dueled Anibal Sanchez into the seventh. He eased his way through the Tigers’ lineup only giving up a single and a double until Prince Fielder teed off in the fourth to tie the game at one. It looked like his outing was falling apart after he immediately allowed two more singles. However, Johnson was able to right the ship not giving up anything else until the seventh when he was pulled after giving up three singles and a run on a sacrifice fly. Donnie Veal came into the game to replace him.
Stat Line: 5.1IP, 5H, 2HR, 3ER, 3BB, 4K
Johnson began the game by retiring the first eight Royals he faced. He continued to cruise until a Mike Moustakas home run interrupted his flow in the fifth inning. Johnson made it out of the fifth inning with a 4-1 lead but he wouldn’t make it through the sixth. After giving up a single to Eric Hosmer, he allowed a two-run home run to Billy Butler. The ensuing single and walk sealed his fate as Charlie Leesman was called in from the bullpen with two outs remaining in the sixth.
You could definitely see flashes of potential in each of his five starts. However, there was one major area that didn’t seem to align with his past performances. Throughout the minors, Johnson typically struck out between 20-25% of the batters he faced. In his cup of coffee last September he struck out only 14.1% of the batters he faced. If it wasn’t already implied I think this is as good a time as any that all of these observations are subject to the issue of small sample size. Just for perspective, former White Sox spot starter Eric Stults struck out 15.3% of the batters he faced in 2013 and if you recall his fastball was lucky to reach 89mph. This is really taking it down to small samples but if you remove the Twins game when he struck out eight batters, Johnson only struck out 10% of the batters he faced in the remaining four starts (10K/100TBF in the remaining starts). No qualified pitchers came within 2% of striking out that few batters in 2013 so this is likely a trend that won’t continue.
With Johnson’s track record of being a high strikeout pitcher in the minors, in addition to the fact that he throws a fastball that averages 92-93 mph and a slider averaging 88 mph, I would expect that Johnson will induce plenty of swings and misses in his first full campaign. He will also need to work on limiting walks as this was in issue for him in both the majors and minors. Furthermore, while it may be a cliche among White Sox circles, Don Cooper can develop pitchers. Being under Cooper’s tutelage for a full season will unquestionably be beneficial for Johnson’s development.
Unfortunately though, we are unable to paint a very clear picture of Johnson’s 2014 season. Even though Johnson has an extensive track record of dominance in the minor leagues, the majors are a different animal. There are plenty of pitchers who have the stuff to be dominant in the majors but can never put it together when they get called up. If Johnson lives up to his Steamer projection, which predicts he will have a 4.84 ERA over 163 innings, we all might be a little disappointed. However, the amount of development he would gain over those innings would be invaluable especially given that the White Sox are not expected to contend in 2014.
All statistics used in this article are courtesy of Erik Johnson’s Fangraphs page.