The Case For Rob Johnson
Mike Salk is the co-host of the Brock and Salk show, which can be heard weekday afternoons on ESPN Radio 710. Starting on August 9th, they will be moving to the morning time slot, and you will be able to hear them from 9 am to 12 pm. You can read also check them out at their blog, where Mike puts his thoughts when he’s not contributing here. You will also find posts from me on their blog each Thursday.
Over the past few months, Mariners fans have disagreed on plenty of topics. But it seems that the one thing they agreed on is that Rob Johnson stinks. According to the calls, emails, texts, posts, and Tweets: he can’t catch, he can’t hit, and he shouldn’t be playing.
And yet he does keep playing.
So let’s assume for a moment that there is a good reason why. I set out to find it.
Before I go any further, I should come clean about the fact that I am a Rob Johnson fan. I think he is heckuva good guy and he has been very helpful to me over the past two years. He has always been willing to come on the show and has answered countless questions for me in the clubhouse about the game of baseball in general and catching in particular. I try not to let that get in the way of my analysis, but I will admit it sometimes gets clouded. That being said, I tried to take my personal feelings out of this and what you will read below is based on what others have told me, rather my own personal opinion. I won’t prove he deserves to play with stats (that’s not my role here), but hopefully the thoughts I’ve compiled will help you look at this in a more nuanced way.
Back to the question: why does Rob Johnson continue to get playing time despite the complaints of some fans?
Don Wakamatsu is the man responsible for awarding that playing time and he uses pretty simple reasoning.
“He fits our priorities, which start with getting the best out of our pitchers. And that starts with our best guys. Felix wants him; so did Cliff Lee. The pitching staff has a belief system in his game calling ability.”
Leaving aside Wak’s incessant use of “belief system,” he hits upon the best case to be made for Johnson: his pitchers consistently request him as a battery-mate. When we first learned about this last year, I was critical of the pitchers, saying that their relationship with him off the field should not factor into the decision. At the time, I thought the pitchers were making decisions because they liked having dinner with him or hanging out with him on the team plane.
I was wrong.
What the pitchers meant was that they liked the way he took time to build a professional relationship with them. He takes time to learn about their strengths and weaknesses. That is important to them.
This year, the requests of his pitching staff hit a different level. Both aces wanted to throw to him. Hernandez was understandable – the pair had grown comfortable with each other last season. But Lee was a little more surprising.
“He just has a good knack for the feel of the game,” Lee told me when I asked him why he had chosen Johnson. “ He understands the flow of what’s working and what isn’t. He sees what hitters are doing and it’s easy to get on the same page with him. He prepares well, but it’s more that he can make the adjustments.”
We have all heard that pitchers like to be comfortable with their catchers. And being on the same page seems to be a big part of that. But that doesn’t tell the whole story here. The thing that stands out in Lee’s statement is that Johnson excels in watching hitters and making adjustments to them. In a game of adjustments, that is important.
“It’s huge to watch a hitter,” explained Lee. “You watch their feet in order to tell what they’re looking for, then you adjust accordingly.”
“Yup. As a catcher, you need to call for the opposite of whatever the hitter’s feet tell you they are trying to do. And Rob is great at that.”
According to Johnson, “the feet are the window to the brain.” He believes “the hitters’ feet will tell you what direction they want to go. It’s especially helpful with guys who are cheating to try and cover a part of the plate.”
Former big league catcher (and current Single-A Bakersfield manager) Bill Hasselman agrees.
“It’s important to watch the whole body, but especially the feet and hips,” he told me. “Good hitters will usually have their front foot come down in the same place. But you can tell what they’re trying to do. If the foot is open, the hips are usually open and it means they are out in front and you can get them with something soft and away. If they are stepping across a little, you can try to cross them up with something hard inside. You can feel it in your peripheral vision. Sometimes you can just sense it.”
Pitchers prefer Johnson for more than just his ability to adjust in a game. They appreciate the way he calls a game and they like his defense.
As the staff ace, Felix Hernandez can throw to whomever he wants. He chooses Johnson because they are on the same page.
He believes Johnson “calls the right pitch every time. He always calls the pitch that I have in mind. He does it every time.”
OK. So Felix likes throwing to him. But, you might say, what is his frame of reference? He always throws to one guy so maybe they get in sync because they are so used to each other.
If so, consider David Aardsma, who comes into games in the ninth inning and inherits whichever catcher is already behind the plate.
“I love his knowledge of hitters and situations,” says Aardsma, who thinks Johnson does an excellent job. “It takes the pressure off me as a pitcher to know that my catcher knows what he is doing. It allows me to just concentrate on me. It allows me to focus on my delivery and my release point and worry less about pitch selection. But he almost always calls what I was thinking of anyway. And if there is a difference, I always see why he is calling what he is calling.”
Need a specific example?
“Just Sunday, he recognized that Howie Kendrick was looking for a first pitch fastball so we started him off with a slider away. He came out to the mound to talk about that one. Right before that, he got the sense that McAnulty was pressing so we didn’t give him anything to hit, especially with a base open. It worked. In fact, I would say virtually every big hit against me with Rob catching has been because I missed my spot, not because of a bad call. It’s always been a flaw of execution.”
If you are noticing a common thread in all of these quotes, it’s probably the importance of trust. What Wak refers to as his “belief system” is essentially what we all call trust. Pitchers are generally fragile creatures with self-confidence issues. Trust is important to them.
And I know what you’re going to say next. How can you have trust in a catcher when he continues to let balls get past him at an alarming rate? And how could you have gone this long without addressing our biggest concern?
Look, the passed balls are a strike against him. I’m not going to ignore that. But there are a few mitigating factors.
The first is injury. Let’s try not to forget that Johnson had surgery on BOTH hips just a few months ago (not to mention his wrist). This is the same guy who played through those injuries all of last year, not even telling his team about them until after the season was over. Debate the merits of his silence if you want, but realize that this is a tough guy who will play through pain.
“He is still re-educating his body from those surgeries,” according to team trainer Rick Griffin. “Whereas other guys might have spent the off-season getting stronger, he was just rehabbing.
“He really could have taken this whole year off. Jason Vargas had the same surgery on one of his hips and missed a whole year then took a while to get all the way back in the second year. You won’t see the real Johnson until next season.”
He’ll never admit it, but those injuries may have kept him from getting to a few of those balls that got past him.
And of those passed balls, his teammates aren’t too concerned.
“I don’t worry about his passed balls,” says Aardsma. “Many of them are either because of Felix or [Brandon] League. Those guys have balls that move all over the place. Felix might have more movement than anyone in the game – it’s like catching a knuckler. And League might be even worse. I catch him every day on flat ground and it’s almost impossible. Even he doesn’t know which way it’s going! I always have confidence throwing it on the dirt.”
So does Felix who says, “I believe he will block the pitch so I have the confidence to throw it in a tough spot. It’s not easy to catch me, you know?”
Johnson leads the majors with eight passed balls. A few are from Felix, a few from League. One or two were crossups (when the pitcher threw the wrong pitch). I’m not arguing that he deserves a Gold Glove, just that maybe the defense is better than we give him credit for.
The last knock against him is his hitting. A .200 average with a .600 OPS is certainly nothing to brag about. Actually, it’s essentially indefensible.
But remember this. Catching in the big leagues is hard. Harder than playing any other position. It’s especially hard for a young player and even more so for one who is expected to run a pitching staff at times without the help of a veteran backup.
As director of player development Pedro Grifol told me, “it’s so hard to be a young catcher. They have to know 12 pitchers and their repertoires. They have to work on their receiving, blocking, throwing, controlling the running game, calling the game, reading advance reports and preparing for opposing hitters. Then we ask them to hit and drive in runs too!”
I’m not saying that excuses his hitting. Just that it might explain why it’s SO bad. Johnson is probably never going to hit .280 but he might hit .250. And if he does, his bat will be just fine.
“Catchers have to do everything,” says former catcher Wakamatsu. “They have to control the pitchers, the running game. They have to have the memory of an elephant – they have to remember what each batter did in the first inning when they see them again in the ninth. And Rob does that well.
Remember, he is only in his second full year and he’s still dealing with the recovery from his hip injuries. Catchers develop a little later and playing has helped him a lot.”
Johnson may never turn into a star. He may never even hold down an everyday job in the majors. But he’s also not the bum so many people think he is. He’s a guy that other players, pitchers and managers seem to like. And those guys see a lot of baseball. Maybe they’re on to something.