TCS Morning 5: About that Erik Johnson piece

1. Tom Verducci's latest piece, very surprisingly on the topic of Erik Johnson, contains some hard information on his, up to this point, mysterious decline and surprising return to almost form. After his disastrous 2014 filled with velocity loss, control problems and a summer of getting tuned up at Triple-A Charlotte that left him fearing he was on his way out of the organization (which seems a bit panicked), Verducci reports that Johnson sought the help of a private pitching coach to clean up his mechanics.

A year later, and we're talking about Johnson in the rotation again because he's throwing strikes--well, more strikes than before--and at least is sitting in the low-90s, even if the breaking stuff looks pedestrian and a lot of the peripherals are ugly.

With this and the Jeff Samardzija disaster, you have a pair of high-profile disconnects between Don Cooper and important starting pitchers in the organization. Cooper has a unique complement of proteges, but clearly a patterned approach--standing tall in the wind-up and falling forward toward the plate, heavy emphasis on cutters--which didn't vibe well with the sloppy and crossfiring Samardzija, and doesn't seem to have connected with Johnson either. 

He can't click with everyone, but given how the Sox pitching staff is built in Cooper's image, it's unsurprising that falling out of his good graces is a lonely feeling for pitchers in this organization. Johnson deserves a lot of credit for the lengths he went to find a solution and how far he's come, and Verducci's point that pitchers have to take ownership of their own body rings very true for him.

2. That said, the way Verducci is using Johnson narratively here is truly bizarre. The information on Johnson exploring mechanical changes is buried deep in an article where Verducci gives himself credit for predicting Johnson's struggles with his now repeatedly debunked Verducci Effect model, and a larger treatise on the emphasis on velocity in pitching scouting leading to poor mechanics and injuries, for which Johnson is a curious example even as just a single anecdote.

Baseball Prospectus has published multiple studies showing the lack of correlation between the pitchers Verducci identifies being at-risk for injuries after large jumps in workloads and actual increased injury rates, and Johnson shares a spot on the staff with Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, who defied the risk factor with ease (Sale set his career-high in innings during his Verducci risk year). Johnson was put on the list because the Sox submitted him to an 169-inning season in 2013, which was only a big jump because they soft-peddled him in 2012, after he exceeded 100 innings during his last year at Cal.

Verducci's piece is very long and touches on many elements, and I invite everyone to read it to get the larger tone of criticism toward the emphasis on velocity at the expense of mechanics in pitching scouting and development, and his weaving in of Johnson's career narrative throughout it, but I believe it's misguided. While Johnson certainly has as much insight on the topic as anyone who has progressed through the industry, the Sox drafted him after three years of being a college workhorse with a pretty full view of the pitcher he was, not because he was a teenager who needed to light up the radar gun to get a major league deal. Verducci clearly is of a different mind than Cooper about "biomechanics," but is picking a weird test case for a pitcher exposed to injury risk with a guy who fell through the cracks at the best organization at maintaining pitcher health in the sport, which just wrapped a nearly flawless year of health for its entire starting rotation.

Defending Cooper is a blind spot for pretty much any Sox blogger, myself very much included, and you don't need to look farther than 2014--when he was given a bunch of seemingly favorable reclamation projects and it resulted in a bad rotation and an atrocious bullpen--to know that he's fallible. But Verducci is jamming far too much into the redemption of Erik Johnson--who probably is going to need to find something more than the return of a 90-93 mph fastball to not be completely awful--to carry the weight of such broad indictments.

3. In something resembling a major league roster move, the White Sox traded 21-year-old right-hander Yency Almonte to the Rockies for hard and wild throwing righty reliever, 26-year-old Tommy Kahnle. Kahnle has thrown 102 major league innings, all in the last two years, and has struck 102 batters, but walked 59 and recorded a 4.41 ERA.

Almonte had since-tarnished prospect shine when he was with the Angels, but did just a record a solid, if not overpowering or particularly intriguing season where he recorded a 3.41 ERA over 137.1 innings across Low and High-A. This trade certainly make sense for a Rockies--adding a fringy arm for lower minors prospect depth--for a team that won't be competitive for the next...well, who knows.

Kahnle, on the other hand, is a more of a quick dice roll on some bullpen help for the Sox (three-year window!). He throws upper-90s and misses enough bats with his slider to be a major leaguer. He got a ton of action in 2014 because he was a Rule 5 pick taken away from the Yankees, but when his control went south in 2015, the Rockies had less reason to tolerate it and he spent half his time in Triple-A. If the Sox are able to sort him out and keep him from dropping his elbow, Mau Rubio of 2080 Baseball thinks the Sox could have a decent 7th-inning guy.

4. Geovany Soto has been obviously gone for a while, and is now officially gone on a $2.8 million deal with the Angels. The Sox stopped playing Soto down the stretch, and his pairings behind the plate with Carlos Rodon and Jeff Samardzija were the site of notable disasters (which he probably more failed to help than actually did much to cause). But while the Sox didn't make much use of his hitting renaissance, it was enough to get him a guaranteed major league deal after he entered 2015 camp on a MiLB contract, so everyone involved should be satisfied.

The next backup probably won't hit as well, but the Sox will probably make sure the pitcher(s) he caddies for aren't totally thrown off by the pairing.

UPDATE: The next backup, and/or part-timer is Alex Avila, who is reportedly coming in on a one-year deal.

Avila has been limited by accumulated injuries the last few years and was pretty bad at the plate in 219 PA in 2015, hitting .191/.339/.287 with a lack of power that probably won't let him maintain that walk rate. He hit .295/.389/.506 in 551 PA in 2011 but wore down as that season stretched on and that bat hasn't been seen since. Even though he's still just 29, the Sox are better off giving him reserve duty against right-handers with bad platoon splits.

This isn't a big-ticket improvement, but searching for one in the catching ranks probably wasn't a smart play. Avila can defend the position and will be just fine so long as he isn't too beat up to even stay on the field.

5. Korean third-baseman Jae-gyun Hwang, fresh off a surprise breakout, 28 home run season at age 28, is now due to be posted after his Lotte Giants teammate didn't receive any bids. Sight unseen, I believe Hwang is better than Mike Olt, so he should at least be in the conversation for Sox third base options.

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