It's been a bit of a wait to see Erik Johnson resemble a pitching prospect. Between diminished velocity, poor control and hard contact, all Johnson could rightly convince onlookers of in the first two weeks is that this was his indeed first full season in the majors.
But in his third start of the season Tuesday night, in horrific temperatures, Johnson busted out the most impressive and bat-missing outing of his career, racking up a career-high nine strikeouts on 14 swinging strikes against a capable Red Sox offense, after racking up six and nine combined in his first two outings.
The difference certainly wasn't velocity. As Johnson wrapped up the end of his 6.2 innings, he was regularly settling for 87 mph on his four-seamer in the frigid temps. But despite the conditions and the continued absence of some of the gas he packed last season, all of his early whiffs came when he was pumping in and establishing his fastball at 91-92 mph. More than anything else, Johnson was locating on the edges night, the traditional cover for mediocre stuff.
Especially after his first time through the order, Johnson began switching up to this hard slider that he's been touting for a while, to the chagrin to those of us who miss the more showstopping results his slower breaker used to get. He initially demonstrated it coming into David Ortiz's kitchen for a first inning pop-up, and in doing so revealed its purpose. As a harder offering that bores into left-handed hitters, it gives Johnson a weapon to go to war on his previously poor platoon splits with.
Against right-handers, Johnson started dumping his slider--which Pitch FX was re-classifying as a cutter after the game--in a more tradition low-and-away location, but at 86 mph with regularity. If this holds up, Johnson could wind up having it both ways. He could throw his slider/cutter to bust lefties on their hands, but still re-fashion it as his wipeout pitch against same-handed hitters. Here he is below abusing Mike Napoli.
Johnson's location was so good on his putaway pitches that he was dotting the corners to everyone. It kind of muddles the examination of his stuff when so much of what he threw was dancing just out of reach.
We might need to see if Johnson can miss more bats in the zone, or if this can usher in a decent stretch of command after an atrocious beginning of the season, or if he needs to go to war with competition not suffering through second-degree frostbite during at-bats. If the downside of following pitching prospects is having to roll with the punches as they fall on their face, then the benefit should be the possibility that every new success is a breakthrough.
Johnson can't waste his days away nibbling looking for some of the perfect sliders he had Tuesday night, but if that level of command and slider deception can become regular features going forward, he's a player.