I recently had the opportunity to speak with Cubs Minor League Pitching Coordinator Derek Johnson about pitching, Cubs prospects, and his new book, "The Complete Guide to Pitching".
A Quick Review of the Book
Here's a short summary of why I loved this book and why I would recommend it highly, especially if you...
- are learning how to pitch
- know someone who wants to be a pitcher
- would just like to learn everything there is to know about pitching, from proper mindset to mechanics to the art of pitching to training and injury prevention, everything in between, and a whole lot more. Just as importantly, it teaches you how it all fits together.
- are interested in Derek Johnson himself and his approach to evaluating, teaching, and training pitchers. Derek is a huge part of the Cubs future and if you read the book, you'll know their pitchers are in extremely capable hands.
As for why he wrote the book, he told me he was looking at the books on pitching that were out there and thought there was some things missing in all of them, so he wanted to write something that covered all aspects of pitching.
Personally, I learned a lot from Derek Johnson's book. Some of it added to my knowledge and, as you'll see from our conversation, some of what he said surprised me (in a good way) and had me looking at things from an entirely new perspective.
I will continue to reference the book throughout our conversation, so I'll add more detail there, including information on how and where to purchase the book, which is at the end of the article.
A Conversation with Derek Johnson
As is usual when I try to interview people in person or by phone, it quickly turns to conversation and this was the case with Johnson who is engaging and about as nice a guy as you'll ever meet. So I can't present it in it's entirety, because frankly, it could almost be a second book! Instead, I've tried to capture the gist of the conversation here. I'll be happy to answer any additional questions if I can.
I started off asking Johnson a little bit about what he does for the Cubs. The short answer is that they have him doing a lot of things in a lot of places. The Cubs obviously respect his tremendous knowledge of pitching and have him helping out everywhere.
Right now I'm traveling from place to place, checking on our inventory with the focus being more on evaluation right now.
He also mentioned he is doing some training and teaching but right now it's more about setting a foundation. Interestingly, he's also responsible for evaluating coaches around the system and making sure everyone is on the same page. As I mentioned earlier, he's headed off to Mesa to see some of the Cubs young pitchers as we speak.
Being the draft geek that I am, I asked him it was exciting to get a chance to work with all those new pitchers the Cubs drafted and if he was at all involved in the process.
He replied that he was very excited. Johoson said that's the future and right now the focus is putting them in a position to succeed. As far as participating in the draft process,
I did get to see some video on a couple of the (draft-eligible) pitchers and that's something I hope to become more a part of in the future.
The Cubs are already utilizing Johnson everywhere so the thought here is that they probably don't want to throw too much at him right away. But it's exciting to think of the possibility of Johnson having a larger role in the draft someday, especially when it comes to his input on pitching prospects.
I mentioned to Johnson that I really liked how thorough and in-depth the book is -- and I also like how it all ties together. It takes things one step at a time and yet, in the end, there is also this global view of pitching. One example is when he talks about intent.
Intent provides connection from the mind to the task.
You see the word connect a lot, including in some of the mechanics. Sometimes we tend to compartmentalize things and don't realize how it all fits together, so I asked Johnson if it is easy for pitchers to learn or is it more natural for some than others?
It is a hard concept for young pitchers to grasp. It's a failing a game -- a hard game. Everything intertwines, the mental, the physical. What we mean by intent is to have a goal. It's about the process. We teach them to set small goals -- to think about the next pitch and execute that goal. Then go to the next pitch and execute that goal. And then go to the next pitch...
Have goals, take care of the process and the results will come. Like the sound of that.
One aspect of pitching that intrigues me is deception and in his book, Johnson mentioned that some pitchers do pitch with deception and sometimes that it can be tough for hitters to pick up some pitchers. A scouting friend of mine once told me to not just look at velocity, but also pay attention to the hitters. They'll tell you whether a guy is tough to hit by how they react. One guy that comes to mind in that respect is Zach Rosscup. The radar gun might read 90 mph but the hitter sometimes reacts like it's 98 mph.
Zach is a great example (of a deceptive pitcher) and sometimes you watch a pitcher and you can't explain why or how he is doing it. Your friend is right, sometimes the hitter will tell you.
Interestingly Johnson mentioned in the book that sometimes that deception is created by a flaw in a pitcher's delivery (i.e. throwing across his body). So I asked him if it was desirable to fix such flaws and Johnson responded that you don't want to take away too much from a pitcher if it's working, so it can depend on whether they think it creates a possible health risk. In that case they may have to clean things up a little. It also depends on whether the pitcher is a starter or a reliever. A reliever can get away with a slightly flawed delivery since he doesn't need to pitch as long and likely benefits from the deception that delivery creates.
So it seems fixing it really depends on the circumstances. There isn't a one-size fits all answer. Then I wondered the opposite. Can a pitcher learn to be more deceptive?
You can teach a pitcher to disguise his pitches better, there are some things you can do with his delivery, or you can do it with pitch selection. Throwing one pitch to set up the next one. A relief pitcher needs only a couple of pitches but a starter has to turn over a lineup 3 or 4 times. He has to be able to cover more of the strike zone.
In the last part of the book Johnson talks about arm strength and injury prevention. With regard to arm strength, we hear about some guys who are "projectable", such as Paul Blackburn, while others already come with plenty of arm strength, such as Duane Underwood.
According to Johnson, some of it is strength training and things they can teach but some of it is natural as pitchers naturally mature and gain strength. He mentioned Blackburn as a possibility to continue to do that but he emphasized that he is a guy who can already throws strikes who is also a very good athlete. They think he has a great future ahead of him. With regard to pitchers who already throw very hard, the goal is more to teach them to contain it, to throw more strikes.
Another big topic of interest is keeping pitchers healthy. We are all aware that the rate of attrition with young pitchers is high. How much can be done to prevent it -- or at least slow it down?
Unfortunately, injuries are a part of the game so if a player is afraid to get hurt, he probably shouldn't play. You can step out and get hurt at any time. I think what you're saying is to help pitchers become more durable and there are things you can do. We can control pitch count. We make sure he gets enough rest. In the off season we can put them through a strength and training program; we can have them throw more.
My last question was about youth league pitching, something Johnson touches on in the book. My nephew is learning to pitch and he has asked me to help him out. He's just 11, so what should I be teaching him at this stage?
Just throw (laughs). Don't even have him worry about throwing strikes. I know that sounds strange but you want him to develop his ability to throw first. You don't want him to lose athleticism. We tend to worry about skills too early. We can always teach them that later.
This is one of the times I was a little surprised, but upon further reflection, it makes all the sense of the world. Just have young pitchers find their natural throwing motion and work on increasing arm strength and the general ability to throw a baseball. Johnson added that some guys naturally throw strikes. He mentioned Blackburn again as an example of a pitcher who is throwing hard yet has been able to throw strikes from very early on in his development.
As we conclude I want to thank Derek for taking time off from his very busy schedule to tell us about his book and teach us a little something about pitching.
Where to buy the book
Again, I highly recommend you buy "The Complete Guide to Pitching". Here's information on how to purchase the book:
People can buy the book in all major bookstores. It is also available through the Human Kinetics website:
And there is an enhanced edition available for the Amazon Kindle: