Johnson interested in what drives hurlers
Minor League pitching coordinator making jump to pros after 11 years at Vanderbilt
MESA, Ariz. -- One of the Cubs' biggest offseason additions may be someone who'll never play at Wrigley Field.
The Cubs were able to lure Derek Johnson from Vanderbilt, where he had been a successful pitching coach for 11 seasons, and hire him as their Minor League pitching coordinator. Several other Major League teams pursued Johnson, who won National Pitching Coach of the Year honors in 2004 and was named top assistant coach of the year in '10.
"I grew up a Cubs fan, and that's the first thing," said Johnson, 41, a native of Normal, Ill., about going from college to the pro level. "The second thing was the vision. After I came for the interview, the vision I saw from [president of baseball operations] Theo [Epstein] and [general manager] Jed [Hoyer] and the ownership, it was a situation for me where it's like, if I'm going to make a leap into the next phase of your life, you'd want to do it with guys who were around you like that."
Epstein and Hoyer have stressed the desire to have homegrown players. Who develops those players is key.
"Yeah, he's coming from college, but this college program he's coming from is one of the most prolific in the country," Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio said of Johnson. "People I've talked to who know him say this guy has an unbelievable mind; he's very creative, he's innovative.
|"He's got great baseball instincts, a great baseball mind."|
|-- Pitching coach Chris Bosio|
"All we want to do is make this organization into a championship organization, and he's been a joy to work with," Bosio said. "What we have to go on is our instincts. He's got great baseball instincts, a great baseball mind. This guy has fit in very well for the organization."
Johnson helped Vanderbilt reach the College World Series in 2011, when the pitching staff led the Southeastern Conference in ERA and strikeouts. Eight of the Commodores' pitchers from that team were selected in the First-Year Player Draft, including first-round picks Sonny Gray and Grayson Garvin. Six Vanderbilt pitchers coached by Johnson have been selected in the first round, including the Rays' David Price, the No. 1 overall pick in 2007.
"I've talked to a couple of Cubs guys and they say he's doing very well," Price said. "And that is a very big transition, going from college kids as opposed to the kids he has in pro ball. It's a completely different structure. I know what went on at Vanderbilt, and it has a lot to do with the way I am today. So I think coach Johnson can fit in anywhere. It doesn't matter where he is."
Jensen Lewis, a non-roster invitee in Cubs camp, pitched for Johnson at Vanderbilt, and he talked to his coach about making the transition to the pro level. Lewis' advice? Be yourself.
"The resume is out there, the respect is there," Lewis said. "You've got a pipeline of guys who have come through. David Price, what better guy to be a blueprint? Guys will see him and say, 'I want to be that guy.'
"He's a unique teacher and a very good listener," Lewis said of Johnson. "He doesn't change you, per se. He gets to know you as a person first. He wants to know how you work and how your mind works. He'll work with that to understand, 'OK, if this makes him tick as a person, perhaps we can use that as a stimulus to get him to come around to things as a pitcher.'"
Johnson has the players complete a questionnaire to get a little insight. He'll hang around the pitchers, talk to them, listen to them.
"Not that you're going to throw them on the couch and act like a psychologist or anything," Johnson said, "but it's really just trying to read them the best that you can and trying to understand where they're at based on the questions you're asking. And [it helps as far as] just trying to get to know them as well as you possibly can so the changes you are trying to make, you make them at the right time and you do the right thing by them."
The toughest thing will be the numbers. Instead of 15 pitchers, Johnson now has to get to know more than 90 as he oversees all of the Minor League hurlers.
"It's not just how you move your arm or your leg or what you do in the weight room and all that," Johnson said. "It's about the person inside, it's about trying to maximize as much as you possibly can out of someone, and the only way you do that is get to know them."
Every coach tries to get some insight into the players; Johnson has perfected it.
|"He believes with the right work and right mentality, everyone can achieve what they want."|
|-- Pitcher Jensen Lewis|
"He never treats anybody any differently, whether a superstar or not," Lewis said. "Everyone is their own individual guy. He believes with the right work and right mentality, everyone can achieve what they want. He's a great motivator. He finds these different ways with different personalities to get to the same goal."
And the coaching won't end once a Minor League player leaves Johnson's watch. On July 4, 2009, Price served up six runs on three hits and five walks in 1 1/3 innings against the Rangers. He called Johnson.
"I gave up fireworks at the Ballpark at Arlington before the sun went down," Price said. "I remember walking back to the team hotel -- at that time, we stayed right across the street from the ballpark -- and I talked to him the whole way. I had nothing. I didn't know what to say. I didn't know what I was doing wrong. And he just talked to me, made me feel better about myself. And that's something he can do. He can do it over the phone or through a text message. He knows his guys and he remembers them, he stays in contact with him. He's great."
Lewis, who pitched for the Indians from 2007-10, said he usually talks to Johnson at least once a year.
"Because we had that foundation, and knowing me as a person, he knew how to talk to me when I was struggling and bring my confidence back," Lewis said. "It was a simple five-minute phone call and put me back on track.
"I would say the Cubs organization is extremely fortunate to have him, especially the young kids who will be here and have an opportunity to learn from him," Lewis said. "What a gem. What a treasure to have."
The timing was perfect. Johnson, who would go to Wrigley Field a couple times a year as a kid, remembers watching Cubs games on television with his grandfather every day in the summer. They bonded over baseball. Now, he's mentoring young Cubs pitchers.
"This is a great challenge," Johnson said. "It's why I wanted to do the job. You get to a point in your life, not that you wanted a change -- I loved it where I was at -- but it's being able to do something different and challenge myself, as much as anything."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.