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.

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.

How do you balance individual development knowing that you have access to some 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.

Where do you stand on calling pitches?

When I was at Vanderbilt, there were periods of time where I called pitches, and there were other periods of time where I didn’t. One of my goals always was for our catchers to learn how to call a game so they are prepared for it at the next level. Pitchers also need to learn how to be responsible for their own pitches. Obviously you teach as much as you possibly can in terms of sequencing and why certain pitch makes sense, scouting reports, and come up with a plan of attack.

But there’s that other side of it too, it forces the responsibility on the players, and I think that’s a good thing, especially if you have guys who are going to the next level. Another thing is the game where I see it from the side isn’t the same as the game that’s being played from the catcher and the pitcher’s perspective.

We spend a lot of time helping pitchers and catchers understand why a hitter reacts a certain way, how to read a foul ball, body language, understanding how sequencing and tunneling work. We still spend a tremendous amount of time on it.

What are some basic things that you do to help pitchers throw more strikes?

That’s a million-dollar question. Certainly everyone’s looking for ways to increase command and maintain stuff. I do feel like we’ve created a group of over-compensators, guys that don’t have a great perspective on the adjustments they’re making from pitch to pitch. They over adjust, they think that from one side of the plate to the other is much further than what it really is; those are micro-adjustments at best. With those guys, you’re going to see a lot, for example, the front side flying out trying to get from one side to the other. They ended up getting too big, they’ve made the play too big in their mind, and their body followed suit.

We talk a lot about the ‘center-out’ approach. Fill it up from the middle to the bottom of the zone, from the middle to the inside part of the plate, from the middle to the outside part of the plate, and from the middle to the top of the zone. Those are all really small adjustments. If I can get the ball to the middle, then I can learn to understand how to make small adjustments. We’ve had pretty good luck at helping guys understand that, and they’re able to make better pitches as a result. It just takes time and a little bit of understanding.

Another reason ‘center-out’ isn’t a bad place to start is if I try to throw the ball 10 times down the middle, chances are all 10 aren’t going there, the ball’s going to veer one way or the other on a few. Understanding that we’re just trying to tighten up that adjustment to where our body’s kind of doing the same thing and our hand’s maneuvering from one side of the plate to the other.

How about off speed development?

We have technology that tells us how the ball is spinning, the axis, spin rate and all that good stuff. We also have high-speed cameras that capture what the ball is doing out of the hand. Those are great, but I think you also need to see the big picture. Your hand does a certain thing with the ball, but there’s a whole lot of movement in the delivery before that. So we’re trying to get a bird’s eye view of how guys move, of why the ball’s doing what it’s doing. Grip changes can certainly help in some cases, and we’re always measuring spin and axis and ball flight.

You take all of that together and develop a plan. Our goal from there is pretty simple. Instead of taking 10 pitches to get it right, can we figure it out in 5? If we do that often enough, we are positively impacting our return on training time, which is crucial for pitchers.

Are you a drills guy at all?

I think every drill can have a positive impact, I think every drill can have a negative impact. One thing we’re probably moving away from more and more is a singular drill set that we expect everyone to benefit from. I think there are certain non-negotiables for any throwing program, especially people who are first learning themselves and the way to throw the ball properly. But once you get to that point, you need to start to individualize as much as you possibly can. A drill that’s great this week can become corrupted really fast and end up being a really poor drill the next week or the next month after. Our players are learning, they’re moving forward and in some cases they’re going backwards.

We have to change the drill up. You can tweak it, make it a little bit more efficient for the player. And your players might end up saying, ‘gosh, this drill, it’s not what it once was.’ So take it away! I think you have to be okay with doing that.

In terms of dry throwing, towel drill, that kind of stuff, I think that one thing we can all agree upon is that if we film that act, we realize that we don’t move the same way as we do when we throw the ball.

The same can be said for flat ground. The way you throw the ball on flat ground is going to be different than the way you throw it off of a slope, and in some cases that’s okay. Now, if one of my players comes to me and says, “Hey, I love the towel drill,” I’m going to let him do it, simply because he loves the towel drill. If they ask my opinion on the towel drill, I would say I don’t care for it a whole lot and suggest a way they can use it that might help a little bit more. There are some security blankets that pitchers come with that non-negotiables, and I think you have to honor that as a coach, especially if you feel like it’s not impeding their performance.

What are the non-negotiables you alluded to for the developing player?

Just the way that the arm works in time and space, the efficiency of the arm action. The better thrower you become, the better pitcher you can become. Wherever you’re at, how can we make your throwing 1% better? How can we make it 1% more efficient? I think by doing that, what you end up doing is connecting the body a little bit more inside the delivery.

I think rhythm and tempo are really big pieces of throwing and pitching. Those are things that can be developed within a throwing program. Being target aware and training your eyes is another big thing.

You have to find that happy medium, a delivery you can snap together and ultimately get the ball to go where you want, be more efficient, throw harder, make your breaking stuff better and on we go.

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.