The resurgence of Erik Johnson

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Heading into the 2014 season, Erik Johnson was rated as the second best prospect for the Chicago White Sox, trailing only Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu, who went on to be American League Rookie of the Year that year.

In preparation for the 2015 campaign, Baseball America failed to include him as a top ten prospect in the organization. There was really no reason why he should have been on that list either, appearing to be another 4-A player for the White Sox (too good for AAA but not serviceable at the big league level, e.g. Zach Stewart).

Last year, Johnson pitched to a tune of a 6.46 ERA with a 18:15 K:BB ratio and a 1.775 WHIP in 23.2 innings for Robin Ventura‘s White Sox. Those numbers are a far cry from a 2013 season split between the AA Birmingham Barons and AAA Charlotte Knights when he dominated, going 12-3 with a 1.96 ERA and a 131:40 K:BB ratio in 142 combined innings.

So why was 2014 such a disaster? It seems as if Johnson simply could not find the strike zone to save his life, even after being demoted to AAA Charlotte. Yet, as quickly as that ability escaped him, he regained it.

The former second-round pick transformed back into a force this year, en route to being named the International League’s Most Valuable Pitcher.

Perhaps seeing long time teammate (dating back to their college days at Cal-Berkeley) Marcus Semien, who was traded away flipped a switch in Johnson that reminded him how much of a business this game is. Maybe he simply got his mind straight or fixed a mechanical flaw in his delivery. Whatever he did in the 2014-15 offseason, he needs to repeat it this upcoming winter because it appears he will get a second crack at an Opening Day spot in the rotation (detailed more here) as the White Sox look to rebound in 2016.

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Since getting promoted to the major leagues as a September call-up, Johnson has made two starts, going 1-0 with a 3.27 ERA in 11 innings pitched. He pitched well against the Kansas City Royals this past Sunday, striking out three while failing to walk a single batter.

That progress was hampered as the 6’3″ right-hander struggled with control yesterday against the Minnesota Twins, walking five in as many innings. The positive there was that he was able to work around the unnecessary baserunners, only allowing one run which was aided by his six strikeouts.

So long as Johnson does not turn into Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (reminiscent of John Danks) I could live with his line against the Royals, 6.0 IP, 3 ER, 3 Ks, 0 BB, 1 W, as a consistent number four man in the rotation.

Johnson won’t be a top-of-the-rotation guy, but the beauty is that he doesn’t need to be with Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Carlos Rodon slated to be taking the ball every fifth day for the foreseeable future on the South side. Johnson has earned another shot to make the rotation in Chicago and this time he will be looking to replace Jeff Samardzija.

A repeat of 2015 isn’t out of the question, but control will be key for the 25 year old’s career projections. He won’t strike out ten batters per nine innings, but if he maintains a three:one K:BB ratio (which was consistent among his 2013 and 2015 seasons), a long career awaits him at the major league level.

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