Find any discussion among White Sox fans about the 2015 pitching rotation, whether online or over a beer. The guys firmly planted for next season will come up: Sale, Quintana, Danks. Other arms who got starts will be mentioned: Hector Noesi, Scott Carroll, Chris Bassitt. Suggestions to trade for a pitcher outside the organization will likely elbow their way into the discussion. Some fans with a deeper knowledge may even bring up prospects like Carlos Rodon, Chris Beck, Frank Montas and Tyler Danish. But one name will likely never be uttered; and he was a top 5 prospect in the system just a year ago.
Erik Johnson was seen throughout 2013, and even going into 2014, as a future mainstay in the White Sox rotation. Scouting reports spoke glowingly of a 91-94 mph 4-seam fastball with pinpoint command, an above average to future-plus slider, a change-up the White Sox saw improvement in and a playable curve. Later reports talked of a maturing 2-seam sinker added to his arsenal. Statistically, Johnson appeared to have no trouble getting hitters out at any level of the system. The 2011 second rounder blew through all four full-season levels in two seasons with ERA’s that started with a 1 or a 2, K/9 rates in the 8’s and very low walk rates. Possible or probable mid-rotation starter was the word on the street. And he showed flashes of that during a brief stint in Chicago in late 2013.
Then 2014 happened. Stats sometimes lie, but in this case they belied major underlying issues. In five major league starts to open the season, Johnson’s walk rate was more than double anything he posted in the minors, he got hit hard and wasn’t missing as many bats. He was demoted back to AAA Charlotte, where he missed even fewer bats, and still struggled to find the strike zone en route to a 6.73 ERA and late season shutdown.
But the AAA stats aren’t the concern in and of themselves. What was unexpected and so concerning were the scouting reports. Johnson’s fastball was no longer 91-94, but now more often 87-90, which is a significant drop-off. Mechanically, it appeared his delivery had changed, and continued changing during the season. His slider lost its bite. For a 24 year old to see his velocity drop that precipitously and pretty much stay there all year, despite not throwing a ton of innings the year before, the first thought is usually injury. But the White Sox and Johnson himself insisted on more than one occasion that he felt fine. That is until they shut him down in mid-August.
Could it be an injury, despite protestations otherwise? There are conditions that can occur which may not result in pain for the pitcher – a loose ligament in the shoulder for example. It’s not impossible he’s injured but doesn’t feel any discomfort from it. Are the mechanical changes a symptom, or the cause? He was getting under the ball noticeably, which would indeed account for a loss in velocity and bite. Is it just simple weakness or lack of conditioning in some way? He did go from 92.1 to 165.2 innings from 2012 to 2013, and maybe his body just didn’t handle that well.
There are four plausible scenarios:
- It’s mechanical: If the mechanical (or delivery) issues are the cause and not the result, this suggests a decent chance that Johnson comes back strong next year. Of course if this was the case, one would think the coaching staff has already addressed it with him, but sometimes pitchers need time to make significant changes. He had it right before, so in this scenario, you’d have to think he could get it right again.
- He’s got a “dead arm”: If the 80% increase in innings the year before and/or a simple biomechanical weakness are the cause, then again there is a good chance Johnson can regain some or all of his velocity and sharpness. In this scenario, it was probably the smart move to keep him pitching despite being pummeled, so that he could condition himself for the future. In addition, any offseason strength and conditioning routines the team will undoubtedly demand should also help.
- He’s injured, they find it and can fix it: This is a little more complicated, but does leave significant room for a major league future. Most pitching-related medical problems encountered in the pros nowadays can be addressed through some combination of surgery and physical therapy. This could cause a delay of months or even years in his arrival, and could necessitate a move to the bullpen. But recovery rates keep improving across baseball.
- He’s injured, and they can’t find the cause or can’t fix it: This is the worst case scenario. It seemed likely throughout the season that an injury was involved, but it also appeared the medical professionals could not find anything. If an array of doctors involved cannot find the problem – or if it is a problem that cannot be fixed – then Johnson’s pitching career may be over. Obviously we all hope this isn’t the case.
In three of the four scenarios listed above, there is plenty of hope for Erik Johnson to still have a future as a major league pitcher. So, one thing can be said with some certainty: this is not a pitcher that should be written off at this time. No one would suggest he should be relied upon for a slot in the 2015 rotation. But is very possible this once highly-ranked pitching prospect can still provide value to the major league club in the next year or two.
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