One of college baseball's most respected and accomplished pitching coaches is leaving for a job in professional ball. Baseball America learned Sunday that Vanderbilt associate head coach Derek Johnson will become the Cubs' minor league pitching coordinator.
Johnson, the 2010 Baseball America/ABCA Assistant Coach of the Year, deserves a great deal of credit for helping Tim Corbin build Vanderbilt into an elite program on the national level. Johnson joined the Vandy staff a year before Corbin was hired as head coach in 2002, and Corbin made the wise decision to keep him on the staff. In the last decade, Johnson has earned a glowing reputation among his peers and the scouting community for his ability to develop power arms, including David Price, Mike Minor, Sonny Gray, Jeremy Sowers and plenty of others.
"He's had as much impact on our program as anyone," Corbin told BA in the fall of 2010. "I think what D.J. has done with these kids is far-reaching. He's kept them healthy, he's made each one of them better. You look at the kids, the pitchers specifically, that have come out of our program, being able to pitch at the next level—it goes without saying . . . We would not have our success without having him on our staff."
And it goes without saying that Johnson leaves a gaping hole on the Vanderbilt coaching staff. But under Corbin, Vandy has proven it can attract the best and brightest assistants—it replaced former recruiting coordinator Erik Bakich with Arizona State's Josh Holliday, and it replaced Holliday this summer with another highly regarded Sun Devil, Travis Jewett. Vandebilt assistant positions are among the highest-paying in college baseball, and the job will be attractive for many of the same reasons playing for Vandy is attractive: the school, the campus, the city, the head coach and the resources.
Expect the Commodores to set their sites on one of the nation's very best pitching coaches. That list of potential targets could include power-conference assistants like North Carolina's Scott Forbes, Florida State's Mike Bell or Mississippi State's Butch Thompson. But there are also some outstanding pitching coaches at mid-majors that could be very good fits, such as Kent State's Mike Birkbeck or Missouri State's Paul Evans (whose staff led Division I in ERA this year).
So the coaching carousel spins on.
From the Cubs' perspective, this is an exciting hire. Johnson is a gifted teacher with a knack for adapting to the individual needs of his pitchers—he does not adhere to a one-size-fits-all philosophy. But he does believe in the benefits of long-tossing, so this hire could mark an organizational shift toward longer throwing programs.
He isn't the first college assistant to take over as a minor league pitching coordinator—most notably, Troy Buckley left Long Beach State to be the Pirates' pitching coordinator before heading back to LBSU as head coach. But certainly, it is uncommon for a pro organization to mine the college ranks to fill such an important position. Johnson just happens to be an uncommonly qualified choice.
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