When Tim Corbin was hired as Vanderbilt’s head coach in 2002, he had the opportunity to bring in a new coaching staff, just like most new head coaches.
“Todd Turner at the time was the athletics director, and he said, ‘You can hire whoever you want, but I will tell you they’ve got a special pitching coach on this staff, and I don’t want you to look at Vanderbilt’s past struggles and think it’s because of what he did. You can hire him or not hire him,’ ” Corbin recalled.
That pitching coach, Derek Johnson, had joined the Vandy staff a year earlier following a successful four-year stint as Stetson’s pitching coach. Corbin and Johnson had crossed paths on the recruiting trail but did not know each other well. It didn’t take Corbin long to realize Johnson would be a great fit for the program he was trying to build, so he took the unusual step of retaining the pitching coach from the previous coaching staff.
“I felt an easiness with him because he was a Midwestern kid, which was appealing to me,” said Corbin, a native New Englander. “I liked his background, the fact that he had to grind for what he had. I just thought he was so genuine, he had such a great knowledge for the game of baseball and pitching, and I just said it would be seamless to hire this guy.”
It was seamless. Corbin, Johnson and former assistant Erik Bakich (now the head coach at Maryland) quickly built Vanderbilt into a perennial contender. The Commodores ended a 24-year regionals drought in 2004, when they also won the first regional in program history. Vandy won another in 2010, in its fifth straight tournament appearance.
Johnson, the 2010 American Baseball Coaches Association/Baseball America Assistant Coach of the Year, has a great deal to do with the program’s rise.
“He’s had as much impact on our program as anyone,” Corbin said. “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.”
Armed And Dangerous
Under Johnson’s tutelage, four Vanderbilt pitchers have been drafted in the top 10 overall picks: Jeremy Sowers (No. 6 in 2004), David Price (No. 1 in 2007), Casey Weathers (No. 8 in 2007) and Mike Minor (No. 7 in 2009). Price and former Commodore Jensen Lewis have gone on to pitch in the World Series, while Minor and Sowers have reached the big leagues. Current Vandy ace Sonny Gray has a strong chance to become yet another top 10 overall pick in 2011.
Of course, Johnson won’t take credit for all of his pitchers’ success.
“The first step in that process is that we have recruited very, very good pitchers in my time here at Vanderbilt,” he said. “I hit the ground running, but I was able to do that with a guy like Jeremy Sowers, who was a first-rounder out of high school. Really a lot of my job, at least initially, was to not do so much that it was going to screw him up so he wouldn’t be a first-rounder again.”
Over the years, Johnson said, his style has become much more hands-on.
“It’s gotten to that point where I learned I didn’t need to be afraid of someone who was a high draft pick, that they’re a kid and they still need to learn, too. Jeremy taught me that,” Johnson said. “Having guys like David Price, you end up having guys that teach you things as a pitcher, and that probably sounds really cliche, but when you have kids who are very high-level athletes in your program, they kind of teach you what you can and cannot do.”
Johnson’s eagerness to learn is one of his finest qualities as a coach, according to Corbin. Johnson has picked up different things from every coach he’s worked with.
After finishing his playing career at Eastern Illinois in 1994, Johnson landed his first full-time coaching job as an assistant at Southern Illinois, where he learned how to handle and treat players from head coach Dan Callahan and assistant Ken Henderson. At Stetson, he learned about managing the game within the game from head coach Pete Dunn, and about recruiting from assistant Tom Riginos. At Vanderbilt, Johnson said he has benefited from Corbin’s attention to detail, energy and passion for learning and improving.
Several years ago, Johnson was invited to attend a “pitching hot stove” discussion at the ABCA convention. Naturally, it was right up Johnson’s alley.
“It was a group of guys who would go into a corner and talk about pitching,” Johnson said. “I thought that was neat, and I wanted to take it a step further.”
Johnson approached ABCA executive director Dave Keilitz about getting a room for the event, and with Johnson’s guiding hand, it has steadily grown every year since—sometimes lasting from 6 p.m. until the middle of the night. Johnson loves picking things up from other coaches, and he is free with his own pitching knowledge and philosophies. Of course, his style and his strengths as a coach are not easily pigeonholed.
“I think a coach’s responsibility is to involve every facet of the game that he possibly can,” Johnson said. “My passion has always been pitching—to try to help young kids get better. What I’m striving to do as a coach is to become as proficient in every area as I can. Mechanics become important, skills and ability, throwing and enhancing velocity, pitch development, and pickoff and (fielding) type of development. I don’t know which one I’m best at, but which one I like is: all of them. I want to become a better coach in every area.”
That’s exactly the mindset that has made Johnson one of the best pitching coaches in college baseball.