Derek Johnson, Cincinnati Reds

How would you describe your coaching journey?

I’ve been on every rung of the ladder, so to speak. I played junior college baseball, I played Division 1 baseball. I coached at a small Division I school, at a pretty big Division I school, was a coordinator and now with the big-league staff. I think I’ve got a pretty good perspective on a lot of parts of the games and a lot of the levels of them.

Some of the internal battles coaches fight include situations where they’re teaching players who are more talented than they were, and keeping a feel for playing the game years after their playing careers are over. How do you handle those within your philosophy?

The good part for me is that everyone I work with is better than I was! I think every coach starts out the same way, “this is what I did when I played, this is what worked for me.” The further away you get from that, you’ll realize that a lot of the players you’re working with aren’t like you at all. Everyone is different, and that you have to treat them that way.

That’s really how you develop your coaching style. It’s what I did and how I did it, and hopefully you start to evolve into other areas and realize pretty quickly that it’s not about you at all. It’s about the player.

I’ve got a lot of players in my memory bank, and the best part about that is I can use some of those experiences that I’ve had previously with a player I’m working with right now. I think that’s where you have to start as a coach.

What’s one thing that has stayed the same with the game over the years, and what’s one thing that’s different?

Players are more knowledgeable than they’ve ever been in terms of technique-oriented aspects of the game. What this means as a coach is you can’t fake your way through it. You’ve got to know, because there’s a really good chance that the players that you’re working with are researching just as much as you. There’s more material out there than ever, and it’s right at your fingertips. It forces you as a coach to make sure that you’re up to speed.

One thing that’s the same is the fact that players definitely want to get better. They are really motivated, and they’re looking to you for help. That makes me want to get up in the morning and try to find answers for them.

How do you handle player development with access to so much information and technology?

I think your job is to take as much information as you can and use what’s pertinent, and then disseminate down to the point where we can simplify it. To do that, we also have to be smart enough to hold back some things, at least in the interim, so that we can get to the next step. Once we get to the next step, maybe we can give a little bit more. That’s a big part of coaching now is planning; what can we use in the short term, and then what can we use in the long term?

We have to base that plan around who the player is, where they’re at right now, how are they performing. The worst thing that you can ever do when a player is performing really well is trying to go to the next step too soon. Then all of a sudden like they’re not performing well anymore. We he had good intentions but we overloaded them from a short-term perspective, and now you have to retrace your steps and try to get them back to a good and comfortable spot.

We’re all looking for the same thing- we want competent players who are at the cutting edge of their ability. At the same time, we may go too fast, and each guy is a little bit different in the type of information that he can take in and utilize.

What do your bullpens look like?

A lot depends on what we’re after. Are we over the rubber or over the plate? That separates what our goal is. Being over the rubber means we’re working on some part of the delivery, some aspect of the way a pitch comes out of our hand, a pitch itself. When that’s the case, we can’t really be interested in how much we execute. It’s about feel, it’s about changing some sort of movement pattern, or a part of the delivery. That’s going to be the emphasis when we’re ‘over the rubber.’

When we’re over the plate, we’re focused on executing pitches, putting ourselves in the position where we know where our fastballs are going to go, what our breaking ball is going to do, where the change up needs to be located, those sorts of things we need to get people out.

Sometimes we get greedy, we want a little bit of both. We want to work a piece of our delivery and on a certain pitch all at the same time. That puts us in a position where we’re doing two things instead of one, and can predispose us to not getting as much out of that bullpen.

Understanding what you want to get out of it gives us a lane we can stay in. It helps the player and as much as anything it helps me. Coaches want to do a lot, we have a tendency to go to areas that we shouldn’t, so it keeps us in line, it keeps the emphasis clear for the player, and we’re able to have better bullpens as a result.

What’s a mound visit like in big leagues?

Not as inspiring as what you might think! It’s really just kind of a break in action maybe as much as anything, but definitely not a whole lot of earth-shattering talk going on. I can promise you that.

Each guy is different in what they need and what they want. A lot of times it’s looking them in the eye and reminding them that the pressure is still on the hitter. I talk about that a lot, I talk about damage control, about being one pitch away from getting out of this jam, about how you want to lead a hitter, scouting reports, how we can attack.

And sometimes it’s not about any of that, it’s just about a break. Settle down, take a deep breath, get back on the rubber and get back to being aggressive again.

It varies from guy to guy and from situation to situation. I don’t love mound visits, to be honest. It’s not because I don’t think they’re ever necessary, sometimes they are. But I’ve seen guys- and I’ve been guilty of this too- who have overdone it. I’ve gone out there too much. I’ve tried to influence the game more than what I should, and it’s made me realize the game is not about you. Your impact on it at that moment isn’t as great as you think it is.

What’s your observation about the fastball up in the zone?

I think it’s cyclical. You’re seeing more fastballs up now than what you did probably seven or eight years ago, and eventually hitters will catch up to that. The best part about pitching is the hitter has to react to what we throw. We start the action, and the hitter is reactive in nature.

The number one thing is still making hitters responsible for as many areas as possible. Good pitchers will do the same things forever and ever. They’re going to throw the ball down, they’re going to throw the ball up, they’re going to change shapes, and they’re going to change speeds. You’re going to see some other pitchers that are kind of stuck in one or two areas.
If I can make a hitter responsible for different areas of the zone with different speeds and shapes, then I’m still going to be a little bit better than that hitter is most of the time.

On professional development, what’s your advice to coaches who are just starting out?

Be curious, and be okay with being wrong, that’s been an eye opener for me. It’s understanding that’s all part of this process. Discovering that there’s better information out there- more technology, someone who is smarter than I am, that understood this concept way better than I did- it’s a really healthy thing.

You’ve got to be careful with it, but there are a lot of people that put good material out on the internet, so I think it’s wise to try to be on as many of those platforms as possible. I treat clinics like the ABCA as continuing education. Talking to people, calling people who have had success, visiting with people who are smarter than you about certain areas of the game.
Your players just want to know what you know. The more I can learn, the more I’m open to different things, the better off I am.