2019 MLB Coach Of The Year: Derek Johnson
Sometimes the best technique a good coach can apply to help a struggling pitcher is to wait and say nothing.
Advice needs to be given. Potential remedies to fix problems need to be proposed. But the right advice at the wrong time is not helpful. A potentially good idea may be rejected because of the state of mind of the pitcher at the time of the conversation.
As Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson explained, figuring out when to say something is often as important as figuring out what to propose.
“The number one thing in my professional baseball career is understanding patience . . . You kind of get the idea, maybe the best approach is poking the bear so to speak. You are giving guys some advice, then you are putting that aside and waiting on whether they want to take that advice or not,” Johnson said. “You are trying to read people and situations. You are also putting yourself in the players’ shoes. That’s not always easy to do, but it is definitely a skill worth trying for.”
So suggestions are floated, but then left for the pitcher to mull over. Instead of pushing, Johnson has learned the power of patience. If the pitcher buys in, tweaks may be made. But if the pitcher isn’t enamored of the idea, Johnson has learned that it’s best to find another avenue.
“I think you want the player to lead. You want him to lead in terms of his development,” Johnson said. “Once you get to know him, you do want to help push guys in certain directions. That’s where poking the bear comes into play. It’s prodding and leading guys into certain situations or certain thought processes that you feel are going to maximize their stuff.”
Johnson’s approaches have generally worked. The Baseball America Major League Coach of the Year has been coaching for 25 years. Over that quarter of a century, pitchers have consistently gotten better working with him. It was true at Vanderbilt. When Johnson became Vanderbilt’s pitching coach in 2002, the Commodores hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in 22 years. Tim Corbin arrived the next season, retained Johnson and together they helped Vanderbilt get to the NCAA Tournament in 2004. Vanderbilt soon started making regular trips to Omaha.
Vanderbilt had one pitcher ever picked in the first round before Johnson arrived. In Johnson’s 10 years in Nashville, the team had six.
At the time, it appeared that Johnson’s destiny was to be one of the best pitching coaches in college baseball. Coaching in the majors wasn’t an avenue for coaches with Johnson’s pedigree. The soft-tossing lefthander had a successful career pitching for Eastern Illinois, but he wasn’t drafted. And he quickly realized that if he was going to stay in the game, it would be as a coach, not as a player.
Johnson became an assistant coach for his alma mater and moved on to become Southern Illinois’ pitching coach in 1995. In 1998 he moved on to Stetson and he was hired at Vanderbilt in 2002.
In 2012, the Cubs took a chance and offered Johnson their minor league pitching coordinator role. It also set the stage for Johnson to become a major league pitching coach.
“At the time, there wasn’t a whole lot of space for a guy who didn’t play pro baseball to become an MLB pitching coach . . . There weren’t a whole lot of guys transitioning to pro ball from college ball,” Johnson said.
The Brewers hired him as their big league pitching coach for the 2015 season. At the time, he was the only pitching coach in the major leagues without pro pitching experience.
In Johnson’s mind, not playing pro ball wasn’t a detriment to his coaching. It was an asset.
“My first year I made a lot of mistakes,” Johnson said. “I learned a lot about myself about coaching at that level. I really learned how to give a great deal of respect to the guys who made it. It’s really a lot harder to do than what a lot of people think it is.
“You have to honor the idea that they got themselves there. They had help along the way and I’m sure they would be thankful for those who have helped them to that point. But I do feel like the majority of guys I have been around are self-made players. They put in the time, they put in the work. They have a specific way of thinking about the game. It’s served them really well . . . It really is their career, not yours.”
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The Brewers’ ERA went from 11th best in the National League to seventh in Johnson’s first year as pitching coach. They were fifth best in 2017 and fourth best in 2018.
This year, he joined the Reds. Cincinnati then added reclamation project Sonny Gray, who had pitched for Johnson at Vanderbilt, and Tanner Roark. The Reds’ improvement in 2019 was remarkable. In the previous five seasons, the club had finished in the bottom half of the NL in ERA five times. In 2019, the Reds finished fourth in the NL in ERA.
“A coach is a teacher. (Johnson) is a tremendous teacher. That’s what you want out of a coach,” Reds general manager Nick Krall said. “If you are good teacher, you will be a great coach.”
What Johnson did in Cincinnati in 2019 was emphasize improving his pitchers’ ability to miss bats and finish off hitters. Using his logic, you can prevent home runs by preventing contact.
“What I was interested in was knowing that guys can’t hit home runs when they miss the ball. We’ve talked organizationally about groundball pitchers. That’s something they were after for a long time. That makes 100 percent sense. I wanted to take that further, how can we make guys miss more?”
The Reds’ strikeout rate of 9.7 per nine innings was fourth best in baseball in 2019 and tops in the NL. They ranked 23rd in the majors in 2018 with just 7.9 per nine. The Reds had not finished in the top half of the league in strikeout rate since 2014, when they ranked 10th.
“You find those small things that you poked the bear with, so to speak, and you found that it worked. It makes you really happy. It makes you really fulfilled,” Johnson said. “You have to also remember all the things that didn’t work. The places you had to go to get to that point.
“I have been doing it for a long time and there are things I just don’t know. I think it’s being real with the player and understanding that you are on that journey with them. You are not against him. That’s what makes it really enjoyable.”
Sonny Gray returning to the form he showed several years ago was a big part of the Reds’ improved pitching in 2019, but another significant factor was the improvement of young pitchers who were already in Cincinnati.
Here’s the ERA and strikeout rates for every Reds pitcher who logged 20 or more innings with the team both in 2018 and 2019.