Erik Johnson looked like a busted prospect for the White Sox until he took ownership of his plan and became a better and more efficient pitcher. Is his path one that could help prevent other pitchers from getting hurt?
Whose arm is it anyway? That question—whether the club or the player controls when and how much a pitcher throws—may have reached a tipping point this year with the very public intervention of agent Scott Boras into the innings-limit sagas of clients Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey. But amid such tumult, a more important story played out with almost no fanfare. It’s the story of how White Sox pitcher Erik Johnson, on his own, rescued his failing career. It is a story Johnson still does not tell with full disclosure.
“First off, I’m going to say I’ve found a few things I like to call my edge,” Johnson said. “For me those things I keep very close to myself. As far as sharing with other players, that’s my edge over other guys. Some of those things I will not share.”
Pitchers now throw harder than ever before but hold up worse. Last year, 735 pitchers appeared in a major league game, setting an all-time record for a third consecutive year, and a 21% increase in just 10 years.
This is the real story of why pitchers break down. And it’s the story of what pitchers, rather than their clubs, can do about it on their own.
“I’ll say this,” Johnson said. “Each player needs to take it from someone like myself: [I took] ownership of my own career and really enforced that decision and what adjustments and transitions I needed to make. After that 2014 season, I felt like I needed to take ownership and to make these changes being the motivated, focused guy that I am.”
Johnson was the can’t-miss prospect who missed. He was drafted in the second round in 2011 out of Cal, threw 93–94 mph and reached the majors just two years later at age 23, when Baseball America ranked him as the organization’s second best prospect, behind only Jose Abreu. My Year-After Effect analysis, however, red-flagged Johnson for regression or injury in 2014; the year before, the White Sox had pushed him 62 2/3 innings beyond the most he had thrown in a season.
Johnson did crash hard in 2014. His velocity dipped to 89–90 mph, and he posted a 6.46 ERA in five starts with the Chicago. The White Sox then demoted Johnson to Triple A, where he continued to get hit hard. He pitched to a 6.73 ERA there until the team shut him down with a sore shoulder.
“It’s very hard to point to the amount of pitches and innings because so many of us have so many different pitching styles,” said Johnson when I asked him after the effects of the increased workload. “Each one has a level of strenuous activity put on the arm and body.
“For me, I couldn’t pinpoint what I was feeling, although I was feeling different. My arm action became longer and I had an earlier release point that year. The consistency as far as repeating pitches and being on time with my body and arm, it just wasn’t there for me. You could see that in the velocity, the balls and strikes ratio, the hits per inning, almost every imaginable category.”
I have been tracking innings jumps for young pitchers for almost two decades, trying to identify the risks of pushing young arms. By now, out of injury precaution concerns, every major league organization maps out innings limits for their young pitchers, though how they establish such soft caps is a matter of proprietary information. Some, for example, prefer to increase a pitcher’s year-to-year innings log by no more than 20-25%.
The growing incidence of Tommy John surgeries on younger and younger pitchers has complicated the target lines. When Washington shut down a healthy Stephen Strasburg in 2012—he had the operation in '10, then threw his first competitive pitch 11 months later—he had increased his career-high workload by 36 innings, or 29%. Boras wanted Harvey shut down at 180 innings—the Mets' ace had taken 17 months off between competitive pitches—but Harvey went 37 2/3 innings beyond his previous high, or 21%, as New York advanced to the World Series.
The more I learned about these pitchers who were breaking down, however, the more I learned that the risks went beyond just age and innings. As I’ve written about before, the two greatest risks of arm injuries are fatigue and poor mechanics. In recent years, teams have become so conservative with pitch counts and innings limits that few pitchers work in an obviously fatigued state. Poor mechanics appear to be growing as a risk factor, especially as pitchers compromise mechanics for the sake of chasing velocity,
Johnson defined this growing trend, though no one paid much attention to a rather anonymous righthander. The danger of Johnson’s 2013 season wasn’t just that the White Sox increased his innings by 62 2/3, or 59%. The danger also was found in pitching so many more innings with poor mechanics. In 2014, he was an accident waiting to happen.
“It was not sustainable,” Johnson said. “I had reached a fork in the road.”
He needed to find help.
The good news is that help is everywhere these days. Finding good, reliable help is another story. The entire amateur pitching market is driven by one factor: velocity. Showcases and tryouts are nothing more than expensive, elaborate versions of the radar gun booth for out-of-shape fans at minor league ballparks: see how hard you can throw. If you can break 90 mph, you will get attention, no matter how poor your mechanics or how wild your pitches.
“Velocity will get you very far,” Johnson said. “I know growing up velocity was the ticket to the next level, especially in high school. You see guys drafted very high in pro ball just because of velocity.
“But consistency and being the same guy out there will get your career to a higher level. For high school and college and the lower levels, velocity can definitely help a lot of guys. But if you’re thinking about playing in the big leagues, if you’re a younger pitcher, let health be your guide. You don’t make any team on the DL.”
The message baseball sends to teenage pitchers is to throw as hard as they can. Who among them wouldn’t risk mechanics—pull the arm back a little farther, “reach back” or “reach up”—just to squeeze out a few more miles per hour? And when increased velocity results in more swings and misses, the compromise is further validated.
Johnson’s mechanics had grown worse in 2014. He suffered from several flaws that not only were leading to poor results but also were straining his shoulder.
Upon taking the ball out of his glove, Johnson would swing it down to his knee and then pull his entire arm behind him, with his elbow leading toward first base. This dangerous maneuver is called “crossing the acromial line,” which refers to an imaginary line between the acromia, the bony points atop the shoulder blades.
Johnson would then rotate the ball upward to the loaded, raised position. But Johnson would keep the ball far from his head, leaving the bend in his elbow at more than 90 degrees. The proper angle should be less than 90 degrees, forming what pitching experts call a “packed humerus.” To understand this concept, hold a five-pound weight in your throwing hand with your elbow at shoulder height and bent at an angle of more than 90 degrees. Your arm quickly fatigues because of the stress on your shoulder muscles. Now bend the arm to create an angle less than 90 degrees. You can hold the weight much longer without fatigue. Your shoulder is stressed less. Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux, Jamie Moyer and Bartolo Colon, for instance, all lasted two decades or more pitching with a packed humerus.
Johnson, with the baseball far from his head in such a manner, suffered from flaws known as “elevated distal humerus” and “forearm flyout.” Complicating matters, and stress, Johnson landed with his front foot slightly open, which caused his hips to open sooner, a timing flaw that created more work for his shoulder.
Johnson, fearing he was close to being released by Chicago, hired a personal pitching coach over the winter of 2014–15; he prefers not to identify the coach. I can think of several hitters who completely rebuilt their swings after they reached the major leagues, and did so by going outside their organization for help: Chris Colabello, Josh Donaldson, Jason Heyward, J.D. Martinez and Ben Zobrist come to mind. The list of conventional major league pitchers (non-knuckleballers or non-sidearm hurlers) who underwent an overhaul to how they throw is less obvious, though I would expect it to grow. Just as with swing coaches in golf, there are many smart people who have studied the biomechanics of a specific athletic movement, and it does not matter whether they pitched professionally or not or whether they are employed by a club or not.
You can look around baseball and see many pitchers who are getting hitters out but with poor mechanics. It’s only a matter of time before their elbows or shoulders give out. But if they are getting results, and if they can last long enough to get one multi-year contract, they can make generational money, meaning there is little incentive for them to change. Johnson changed because he had a sore shoulder and a 6.75 ERA in Triple A.
Johnson came back in 2015 a different pitcher. He didn’t want to specify all the changes he made, so I ran past him all the changes I noticed on video: the way his hands stay in front of and closer to his chest before taking the ball out of his glove, a shorter arm swing, the way he no longer pulls the baseball behind his back, a more packed humerus, no forearm flyout, a more neutral stride, better timing with his hips, the way the ball comes out of his hand later. It’s a much more efficient delivery.
“I know those are all changes you can see,” Johnson said. “I just have to say it like this: ‘What’s the most efficient way you can get the ball to the plate, from point A to point B, from the moment you start your delivery to the moment your arm slows down?’ I think of it as the path of least resistance. It’s a shorter path. From what you’ve explained, it seems like I’ve cleaned up some things.
“Over the course of a season, the ideal thing is to maintain your mechanics. Sometimes what gets neglected is your arm path. That’s where your consistency comes from. You focus on that because that’s the end of your whip. You can be very consistent with your legs and core, but if the end of your whip, your arm, is taking a different path over the course of the season, you are not going to be consistent.”
Johnson knew right away in spring training that he was fixed. He could tell by the way the ball came out of his hand. He could tell by how good his shoulder felt. He could tell by how easily his body recovered between starts. He went back to Triple A, and this time he dominated. He posted a 2.37 ERA, increased his rate of strikeouts per nine innings from 5.4 to 9.2 and was named the Most Outstanding Pitcher of the International League. The White Sox called him up in September. He made six starts and went 3–1 with a 3.34 ERA. His fastball sat at 90–93 mph, but with life like he never had before. He threw four-seam fastballs 73% of the time—much more often than ever before—and hitters batted only .203 against it.
“I could feel the difference,” Johnson said, “and see the different way the ball came out of my hand and the movement, location and the reaction of the hitters. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many guys late on fastballs, and in fastball counts as well. I know the White Sox preach it, and so many organizations preach it as well: The fastball is your foundation. You’ve got to establish your fastball as your baseline pitch.”
Johnson, once fearful of his release, pitched himself back into the picture for Chicago's rotation in 2016.
“I think I put myself in a good spot,” he said. “I’m going to camp looking to win a starting position. I’ve got to show up in camp ready to go, physically and mentally. It’s exactly what I’m preaching to you: always checking in with myself, with my body and my arm, to see what minor things I may have to adjust. It’s about just being in tune with myself to carry on the learning.”
Whose arm is it? This story leaves no doubt that in this case it is Johnson’s. On his own, he found another way to throw—one that made him not just better, but also healthier. Baseball has mastered the quest for velocity, and a generation of pitchers literally has the scars to show for it. Maybe this informed way, with health also in mind, is the way forward.