From the Pages of Vine Line: New coordinator Derek Johnson is making his pitch
(Photo courtesy Vanderbilt Athletics)
Pitching guru Derek Johnson has spent years working with talented pitchers at various levels of the collegiate game. This offseason, the 41-year-old signed on to be the Cubs’ minor league pitching coordinator, which means he is ultimately in charge of all the arms in the organization from Triple-A on down. For the May issue of Vine Line, we talked to Johnson about coaching the college game, adapting to the professional ranks and cutting through communication issues with international prospects.
It’s no secret there has been some serious turnover in the Cubs organization since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer left the Red Sox and Padres, respectively. A year into the Chicago job, one of their most important—though unheralded—new hires is minor league pitching coordinator Derek Johnson.
Johnson’s experience working with young pitching talent stretches back almost 20 years to the end of his career on the mound as a college pitcher. Johnson, 41, won All-Mid-Continent Conference honors at Eastern Illinois University before moving into coaching at the school in 1994. He followed that up with three seasons at Southern Illinois and four at Stetson before taking over the pitching program at Vanderbilt in 2002. There, he won pitching coach of the year in 2004 and national assistant coach of the year in 2010.
After a long, introductory spring with the Cubs in Arizona, Johnson took a little time off before diving back in with the minor league affiliates.
“The first week after Spring Training, I got to go home and recover,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot of fun now [that the season has started], because I’m going to see some things I didn’t get to see in Spring Training and interact with players some more—and coaches too. That’s probably more my style, and more what I was hoping to do when I took the job.”
His role with the organization is a marked departure from his coaching career at Vanderbilt, where he oversaw the development of Rays ace David Price, Braves lefty Mike Minor and four other eventual first-round picks. As a coach, it was easy to be hands-on, working directly with every pitcher in his care. As the farm system’s pitching coordinator, numbers and geography dictate he doesn’t get to see every hurler every day. Plus, he’s not just working with the players, but also with the coaches at every level.
“I spend a lot of time with video. I’m not used to it yet,” Johnson said. “I spent a really long time having my hands on everything [as a coach], and now I have to adjust to that—trust the pitching coaches that are at the different affiliates, trust their judgment and get an idea of what they’re seeing to put that together with my thoughts to come up with some sort of a plan. It’s a very different kind of challenge.”
He’s also working with a more diverse collection of talent than in college, including pitchers from Asia and Latin America, and communication can be difficult. But Johnson is excited about the challenge.
“There can be a communication gap, so it can be a challenge to get your point across,” he said. “At the same time, it’s easy, because you get great young men from all different walks of life, backgrounds, speaking different languages, with different maturity levels. … I challenge myself to communicate better, to put things more simply to help communicate to players the direction we want to go.”
With so many pitchers under his care, Johnson has to deal with an inevitable bottom-line question: Who is he most excited about in the system? A week into the minor league season, Johnson refused to pick favorites.
“I saw them all in Spring Training, and I saw them all on video before that,” he said. “I like our nucleus. We have some guys who are a little bit under the radar, where things could really happen for them. At the same time, it’s a little bit hard to tell that without first being at the affiliate, watching them play, watching how they go through the season, how they fight through adversity. So it’s early to say, but I think we’ve got a lot of guys in the system who can turn the corner.”