Scottsdale, Ariz. -- Not everybody in pro baseball is a power pitcher, and the sooner some young hurlers realize their strengths may not lie in velocity, the more likely they can move their careers forward another way. Drasen Johnson, a righty in the Colorado Rockies' organization, learned that lesson quickly.
"There are obviously certain situations during the game where you need to get a punch out," Johnson told Purple Row after his appearance in an intrasquad scrimmage at the Rockies' minor league complex. "But with, say, a runner on first base with one out, I’m really not trying to strike that guy out,. If it happens it happens, but I’m trying to trust my stuff to get a ground ball so they can roll two and we can get out of the inning."
Trusting his stuff is more or less the lane in which Johnson operates, and his predominantly sinker-changeup combination of pitch offerings produces ground balls left and right when he's in the right place with his location and mechanics. A 26th round pick out of the University of Illinois last summer, Johnson turned some heads when the Rockies assigned him to short-season level Boise for the summer.
Fifteen games (four starts) later, he was 2-4 with just a 2.37 ERA over 38 innings pitched, with better than a 2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a phenomenal 2.33:1 groundball-to-flyball split. Peripherals like that may predict some future success for the righty—or at least put him in a good position this summer thanks to his strong pro debut—but the process was more or less the same as it's always been for the former Illini baseball leader.
"I like to pitch to my strength, which is my sinker-changeup combo, to keep guys off balance and off that fastball so they can’t time it up," Johnson says of his approach to hitters, estimating he throws his sinking fastball nearly two-thirds of the time. "And if I use my slider, which I do quite often, I’m looking for swing and misses, or weak contact like I got today."
The "today" he references is the Rockies' minor league intrasquad scrimmage we filmed (below), in which Johnson dispatched of hitters fairly quickly... well, after Ryan McMahon doubled on the first pitch of the outing. Then again, coming out of short-season ball, it's not exactly a demerit to have given up a double to a hitter of that caliber.
Listing Johnson at 6'3", 200 lbs., as the Boise Hawks do, might be slightly generous, but with the type of sinker-slider game he plays, it's not like he needs to explode with otherworldly leg drive towards the plate, anyways. And while there's ever so slight a hitch in his motion as he separates the ball from glove—perhaps it could allow hitters to pick up the ball even slightly earlier—Johnson's effectiveness comes by not trying to do too much, and trusting his stuff to work down on its own.
"You can’t control where the ground balls go, but as long as I get them, I’m happy with that," Johnson says. "But I've learned a lot about myself in making the adjustment from college to facing professional hitters. I feel like I’ve really stepped my game up a little bit, and I really understand what hitters are trying to do, so I’m trying to keep them off balance and get weak contact."
As Johnson comes to better understand hitters, too, he's realized it's not just the sinker-changeup combination that can work. In fact, while that combo works well on right-handed hitters, lefties can give him fits by leaning out over the plate, knowing the 24-year-old can't easily challenge them on the inside of the plate. That is, until he started wholeheartedly improving his slider in the last year.
"The slider improved a ton last summer, and that added to my success, that third pitch that I could rely on at all times," Johnson admits. "I started to throw it for strikes or as a strikeout pitch. Once I show lefties I have the slider, they have to stay honest. I can go inside off the plate with a fastball to get them to back off, too, and then come back with a back door slider."
"There are tons of options to get guys out," Johnson acknowledges. "It’s just reading the hitter and being able to execute it."
Johnson also has a highly valuable component to his pedigree; though he may not come from quite the same type of college baseball program as, say, Parker French, Johnson was a big contributor for four years at the University of Illinois, and taking his Big Ten baseball experience to the Rockies has been invaluable.
"I think the Big Ten competition, especially the upper half of it, really got me ready for this," notes Johnson, who was 10-3 with a 2.01 ERA in 16 starts for the Fighting Illini last spring. "The Big Ten has been pretty solid these last couple of years, starting with Indiana going to the College World Series, and we were good last year, too."
Big college or not, though, Johnson is still a 26th-round 24-year-old just finishing short-season ball and looking around camp at prospects bigger and younger who throw harder with more upside. Just don't expect it to faze him on the mound.
"Obviously I know who the first rounders are, so when they get into the box I know that maybe I need to do something a little extra to get those guys out," Johnson says, "but when you step on the field, everyone is equal, and you’re just trying to play to your strengths."
Spoken like a man who knows how to pitch his game.
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