Erik Johnson's search for his best self

Erica Albright: Well, why don't you just concentrate on being the best you you can be.

Mark Zuckerberg: Did you really just say that?

Erica Albright: I was kidding. Although just because something's trite doesn't make it any less true.

--The Social Network

“Be the best you can be.”

It was a cliche that was everywhere when you were young. You’d hear over the PA systems at your elementary school, from your parents over dinner, see it on a vibrantly colored motivational poster in a hallway at school.

The phrase frustrated me throughout most of my youth. I felt patronized by it. Of course I was being the best I could be! It wasn’t until I was older that I realized what it meant. It didn’t mean “be perfect” or “push yourself to be the best there is”, it was almost an oversimplified expression I was reading too far into. It meant exactly what it said, be the best you can be. Push yourself to find your strengths and your weaknesses and exploit them. Don’t set your success bar based on where the person next you has theirs. Find comfort in what you are and be the best at it.

Having endured many tumultuous trials during his short time in the majors, Erik Johnson may understand these sentiments better than others.

What those life lessons teach you is how you move forward in the face of adversity. You can either decide that this is the course that fate has set forth for you, or you can choose to rebuild your path. Erik Johnson has chosen the latter.

On the final day of SoxFest 2016, I sat in on a late afternoon seminar before I wrapped up the weekend. I didn’t go in with the idea to write this piece, but to simply listen and maybe fish out a quote-worthy Don Cooper moment or two.

But then, Erik Johnson spoke.

On paper, Johnson may not be the type of pitcher you give anything but a hesitant head shake to going into a season as crucial as 2016 is for the White Sox. But when you listen to the man behind the poor numbers and the rocky past speak, you feel his determination in his words.

“I look at it as a challenge, and a goal of mine,” Johnson said, “This is what I was trained to do my entire life, this is what I want, this is where I want to play, this is what I want to do, and I think the maturity and me growing as a pitcher has occurred, and I think at this standpoint in my career I’m ready for the challenge.”

Johnson doesn’t see himself as a timid man who will let his past shortcomings define him. He exudes strict determination. Failure is not an option in his book. Even should his season not go as planned, he will get back to the drawing board again and again because he is ever confident.

As Don Cooper sat beside the sturdily built 6-foot-3 righty, he stressed to the crowd how important he believes confidence is in the game of baseball, and in life. “It’s just funny how confidence — I’ve seen guys, you know they didn’t have many gifts but they really believed in themselves — they had confidence and they took their game [to the next level].” Cooper said. “I’ve seen guys that didn’t believe in themselves so that 95 [they were throwing] wasn’t really 95. Without confidence, I don’t believe you function at the highest levels, in anything, you gotta believe in yourself.”

That’s some motivational poster wisdom if I’ve ever heard it.

Jason Bennetti, who hosted the seminar, sensed the composed maturity in Johnson as well. “Where does that maturity come from?” Bennetti asked Johnson.

“I think experience and knowledge, I think the pitcher that I am here today is 2.0, 3.0, it’s seeing both sides of the coin,” Johnson responded. “It’s been there, been back and I think I’ve established my own individual routine, that I’ve adjusted and maintained and I think what I’ve done and what Coop does for me, the feedback he gives me, the teammates that give me feedback as well, the more knowledge [and] the more experience you have, the more well prepared you are when you get into the game and I think I’ve gone out and I’ve taken ownership of what I’ve wanted to learn, what I thought I needed to do.”

“He could not have answered that any better.” Cooper chimed in, sounding like a proud father.

Of course, as inspirational as all of the determination and confidence that Johnson has might be — this is still baseball — and it takes more than that to succeed. But it’s that which lays the foundation to be able to understand what you must do to succeed. That seemed to be what Cooper was trying to convey in his message.

“Routine is ultra important … It’s all in the preparation” Cooper said.

Johnson is well versed in the idea that routine is, as Cooper says: “ultra important”.

“For me, I think having a day-to-day routine, and having your non-negotiable things that you’ve got to take care of on a daily basis to be that same guy, every fifth day or every appearance for Nate [is important].” Johnson said, also speaking of teammate Nate Jones who sat next to him. “It goes into the day after you throw — your bullpen session, your drills on the side, what you’re doing in the weight room. One of the most important things is recovery, if you can recover from your start, your next start will be the same and feel the same, you’ll be consistent, you’re going to be able to repeat, you’re going to be able to have the same stuff each time you go out there.

“It goes right back to what Coop was saying, you know, being consistent on the mound each time you go out there, being the same guy.”

That’s a promising outlook from a man who often had trouble with consistency and repeating his delivery just a few seasons ago.

Confidence, determination and routine are all nutrients a pitcher may need to prepare to succeed on the mound, but when it comes down to that moment you toe the rubber — those elements can only watch from a distance, hoping that you adequately utilize the mark that they’ve left on you. From that moment when a batter stands before you, 60 feet and 6 inches away, you’re on to phase two of the process; and one of the elements of that phase are your mechanics.

Bad mechanics are something that plague many talented pitchers in baseball today. They create a false illusion on the mound, putting something once so anticipated through a new lens and often leaving baseball hopefuls perplexed and discouraged. Johnson was once a top prospect in the organization, but success in the majors quickly seemed more like a fantasy than a reality for him in 2014.

Just after last season came to a close, Tom Verducci wrote a very compelling piece for on Johnson and how he transformed himself into the pitcher he is today. Johnson had been an obvious victim of poor mechanics in 2014, and Verducci delved deeper into the topic, exploiting many flaws in Johnson’s delivery that could have eventually lead to a demise in Johnson’s health had he not taken action to mend them when he did.

“For me, I couldn’t pinpoint what I was feeling, although I was feeling different. My arm action became longer and I had an earlier release point that year. The consistency as far as repeating pitches and being on time with my body and arm, it just wasn’t there for me. You could see that in the velocity, the balls and strikes ratio, the hits per inning, almost every imaginable category.” Johnson told Verducci last year.

Verducci, who often writes about the intricacies of pitching mechanics, pointed out a few specific details of Johnson’s form on the mound that plagued him. The biggest change in relation to the future of Johnson’s arm health was the way he held the ball before delivering it — his arm angle.

During his time as a victim of poor mechanics, when Johnson would get into the “loaded and raised” position, he would hold the ball from from his head leaving his arm at a ninety degree angle, as Verducci describes. This leads to what is called a packed humerus and forearm flyout; common instruments of poor mechanics. These can be a direct cause of arm fatigue and stress on your shoulder muscles, something Johnson complained of in 2014.

Johnson now holds the ball at less than a 90-degree angle when preparing for delivery, alleviating one of the many stresses he had suffered and reducing his potential for injury, while also increasing his accuracy.

The biggest change I noticed in watching video of Johnson, was simply how much cleaner and refined his delivery seemed; specifically how much his follow through had changed. Take a look at the difference in his follow through in 2014 vs. 2015.

2014 vs. 2015


That’s quite the change. Verducci pinpointed exactly everything he cleaned up in the SI piece, and quite well.

“He didn’t want to specify all the changes he made, so I ran past him all the changes I noticed on video: the way his hands stay in front of and closer to his chest before taking the ball out of his glove, a shorter arm swing, the way he no longer pulls the baseball behind his back, a more packed humerus, no forearm flyout, a more neutral stride, better timing with his hips, the way the ball comes out of his hand later. It’s a much more efficient delivery.” Verducci wrote.

So what was it that led to all of these pivotal changes for Johnson, who was on the verge of irrelevance should he have continued on this path? He hired a pitching coach in the offseason, and completely changed his game for the better.

That surely isn’t meant to discount the knowledge and achievements of Cooper, though. As I noted in my piece on Carlos Rodon in which I spoke to Cooper — he isn’t the best at articulating mechanical lingo. That being said, his pitchers are successful and have always stayed extremely healthy. Johnson going outside the White Sox organization for aid simply expands on how much determination he has to succeed within this organization.

Of course, Johnson still isn’t quite on par yet. He will be battling it out in camp next month for the fifth spot in the rotation, which will become a tighter race with the recent addition of 2015 major league journeyman Mat Latos. Should Johnson make the 25-man roster on Opening Day, he will have to work to earn the right to keep his spot in the rotation each start.

Johnson still faced issues with his fastball command in 2015, allowing eight home runs — almost entirely on high fastballs — leading to an elevated HR/FB% of 15.1 percent. A few ill located, hanging sliders left in the middle of the zone were the culprit of his long ball mishaps as well.

Johnson has lost a few ticks off his velocity from 2014 to 2015, but as long as he is getting movement on his pitches and missing bats, that won’t be too much of a cause for concern. Johnson has had trouble with leaving his sinker in the zone, and not inducing swings with the pitch — causing him to leave it behind in 2015. His slider remains a successful pitch, though maybe not quite as sharp as it once was, still shows the ability to be effective and miss bats. Due to the low velocity of his four-seamer (now sitting just around 90 mph), he will need to be quite careful with the pitch and ensure that he locates it well.

Johnson’s changeup remains a dark knight for him, as he’s shown an improved whiff rate with the pitch in 2015, and even brought his velocity on the offering from 81.6 to 82.3 mph in 2015.

“We’re trying to tap into Erik’s positives, Erik’s strengths,” Cooper said at SoxFest, “It’s a hit the glove game … so we’re just trying to see how often we can throw fastballs, sliders, breaking ball, changeup to the glove. Because if we throw it to the glove, there’s a good chance they’ll get the hitters out.” Yet another simple, but wise, Cooper-ism.

Confidence and routine help nurture your mindset as a baseball player, and pitchers are no exception. If those are the beginnings of being as well-equipped as possible on the mound, good mechanics are the next step. Johnson has now found a way to be the best he can possibly be in all aspects of his game – to be confident and prepared each night on the mound with precision, effort, and focus on what he needs to execute in order to succeed. No matter what the outcome of Johnson’s future is as a major league pitcher, with the type of drive and determination he has; it’s impossible for him to be labeled a failure.

Follow Cat Garcia on Twitter @TheBaseballGirl and The Catbird Seat @TheCatbird_Seat