The Case For Rob Johnson

Mike Salk · July 19, 2010 at 11:28 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

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.”

Their feet?

“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.


78 Responses to “The Case For Rob Johnson”

  1. eponymous coward on July 20th, 2010 10:24 am

    Of course, most MLB players, managers and sportswriters didn’t really think that batter walks were important measurements of skill for a lot of baseball history, so “well, they play baseball so they know this better than you nerds in a basement” is a pretty specious argument.

    The bottom line is Rob Johnson’s performed poorly compared to his peers in every statistical cetegory you can come up with, and he’s older than Jose Lopez, so he’s not exactly a young player with huge breakout potential. As a backup catcher who is full of intangible goodness and mostly sits on a bench, he’s not a serious problem, but he’s a terrible starting catcher on a major league ballclub.

  2. Jay R. on July 20th, 2010 10:41 am

    Good article- thanks for contributing. Doesn’t change the fact that RJ is cover-your-eyes awful at every physical part of the game. He very well could make a good coach or manager, but he is not a major league catcher.

  3. henryv on July 20th, 2010 10:43 am

    Thanks for the article, Mike.

    While I can’t say I agree with you, it’s good to see the other side. We spend a lot of time preaching to the choir.

    Also, sorry about having to work with Brock. Do you wear sunglasses in the studio to compensate for the glare? If you’re looking for another creepy-looking blond guy to have in the studio next year, I think Garrett Olson should be available.

    Anyways, I want to write about media prejudice. Perhaps prejudice is the wrong word… Favoritism is better.

    Anyways, when a player is accessible and affable towards the media, the members of the media tend to have a (sub-conscious?) more positive viewing of that player.

    For instance, on your show you have been tearing apart Ichiro for the last week. Basically for no other reason than being accessible to the media. His play has been good, and his base running gaffes have been no worse than all the other players on the team.

    But I’m not here to defend Ichiro. That’s too easy. I’m here to bitch about the media.

    I don’t particularly care what players on the members are nice to you, or your colleagues. As long as they aren’t complete dicks, I’m okay with them not talking to you very much. I mean as long as they don’t punch you as they walk out of press conferences, they’re okay with me, generally. And if they punch Geoff Baker or Steve Kelley, I’m still okay with that, too.

    I hate when media come on the radio and complain about the media booths. What the hell does that matter? Perhaps it’s because there is too much sports coverage with the TV, radio, blogs, newspapers, etc, that there is nothing else to talk about… But I don’t know that it is true, seeing as how we should be talking about Tacoma and West Tennessee, but aren’t. Well, mostly Tacoma, now. Perhaps talking about free agents in the next year… Something… But the constant whining I am hearing on the radio about player availability is getting on my nerves, especially on the B&S show… Ha ha… BS… Never noticed that.

  4. Pat O'Connell on July 20th, 2010 10:44 am

    The next time he catches watch him when the pitcher in in their wind up. He holds his glove parallel to the ground and only flips it open right before the ball gets their. Horrible form. Watch Pudge or even Bard. A catcher is supposed to present a target to the pitcher. A clear target. Glove open and facing the pitcher

    @Wak Attack
    You’re wrong. He uses proper form for a professional catcher. His pitchers pitch to his mitt and body; they don’t need to see the inside of his mitt. Holding the mitt parallel to the ground and then flipping up when the ball approaches allows his hand to be in a better position to catch and frame pitches (especially low ones).

  5. henryv on July 20th, 2010 10:52 am

    I play goalie in soccer, and every now and then I have a guy shoot on me who’s shots have the same type of movement that these pitchers have. You only have a half second to try and track a ball that somehow goes up and down and back up and left and dips. I HATE those shots. I’d rather have a guy blast a 110 mph straight shot at me that rattles my hands then a 70 mph shot that knuckles like that.

    I play keeper, too, and also caught pitchers up to the high school level, as well as being a practice catcher for an independent league pitcher, too. Didn’t actually play much because I was too dedicated to swimming, but I still loved catching.

    I agree that catching a ball with movement is hard, but it’s not impossible.

    Yes, hard. But it should be hard for a professional catcher, that Rob Johnson is, kind of.

    We are using minor-league excuses for a major league pitcher. There isn’t, to my knowledge, a catcher in MLB that is as bad at catching as he is. And it’s not like he’s just dropping curves, or stuff in the dirt. He’s dropping straight fastballs in the middle of the zone.

    And his problem isn’t little things. It is the fundamental way he catches the ball. He catches the ball like an outfielder. He rotates his mitt when he doesn’t need too. His feet don’t move well enough. He barely moves his feet at all. He doesn’t block the ball forward. When a ball is in the dirt, he doesn’t drop down fast enough. He is playing defensive catcher at the low-minor level, and hitting terribly, and is getting to the majors because he “calls a good game”. Well, if it’s true that he does, he better be calling the best games in MLB history, because his two measurable skills are terrible.

  6. henryv on July 20th, 2010 10:55 am

    Holding the mitt parallel to the ground and then flipping up when the ball approaches allows his hand to be in a better position to catch and frame pitches (especially low ones).

    I politely disagree. Very few MLB catchers will rotate their glove like this. In reduces the width of the catching surface, because as you turn your glove, you can’t keep it open as wide. Additionally, it is hard to track a ball into the glove as the glove is moving and rotating.

  7. Paul L on July 20th, 2010 10:57 am

    The only case for Rob Johnson is that we currently have no one better than him in the organization.

    I’m guessing that Moore will get significant playing time as soon as he’s healthy, and unless he collapses in spring training will be the starting backstop next April.

  8. killer_ewok18 on July 20th, 2010 11:14 am

    “Everyone likes him” is not a compelling reason to like Rob Johnson. You’re appealing to the majority.

  9. JMHawkins on July 20th, 2010 11:37 am

    I’ll chime in with Kudos for Mike Salk as well – nice write-up and good job digging into a question a lot of fans have been asking.

    Johnson seems like a nice enough guy who works hard and tries to get the most out of his abilities, and it’s one of the unfortunately things about life that sometimes nice guys fall short. Compared to 99% of the population, he’s a damn good ballplayer. Compared to MLB starting catchers, he’s not.

    But the M’s don’t really have anyone better at the moment, so I was thinking about recalibrating myself and not complaining about Johnson for the rest of the year. He’s the best we’ve got, doesn’t seem to be a horrible person, so why not just root for the guy to squeeze everything he can out of his skillset and enjoy the occasional 2B or RBI.

    But this is something Zduriencik needs to address. The M’s need a better-than-replacement-level starting catcher, and Johnson isn’t going to grow into that. He’s at his peak now, he’s not going to get better. C is a tough position to fill, and if the M’s need to trade for one, it’ll cost them.

    So they really need to figure out if Moore can fill the role or not. As long as he’s not hurt, he should be back up with the big club and starting the majority of games for the rest of the year.

    So then RESOLVED: I will not complain about Johnson’s limitations with the bat or glove and will enthusiastically enjoy any moments of grandeur he may have. But I will complain about him starting more than two or three games a week as long as Moore is not on the DL.

  10. MarinerFanMike03 on July 20th, 2010 11:41 am

    So Johnson’s professionalism is whats keeping him in the games? Hmm let me think about this. Most people who cant actually “play” the game any more but have great “professionalism” are the managers/coaches. Are we suggesting that RoJo should be a catching coach or something?

    Professionalism != Playing Ability

  11. Raapba on July 20th, 2010 12:05 pm

    Wakamatsu sees himself in Johnson. He was a good defensive catcher with one season of .226/.250/.226. He was a student of the game and became a big league manager.
    Johnson’s line is .204/.285/.310 and he may be a good manager some day also.
    Since this is a lost season they will play Smoak every day–good deal.
    Well, play Adam Moore everyday and see if he can be a regular catcher. We all know Johnson can’t.
    What else does Adam Moore have to prove playing in Tacoma–play him now!

  12. Xteve X on July 20th, 2010 12:08 pm

    Rob Johnson is an awful player and an awful catcher, and no amount of platitudes about his character or professionalism can mitigate that.

    I categorically reject what has, sadly, become the Seattle Mariner way: accepting or even praising mediocre, substandard, or past its prime talent and/or performances using the “he’s such a nice guy/steady presence in the clubhouse” canards. And it’s even more reprehensible that local media just sits back and accepts it.

    I agree that at some point it does reflect back on the front office and franchises’ commitment to fielding a competitive product.

  13. Coug1990 on July 20th, 2010 1:18 pm

    I like how Salk says that the pitchers and Johnson are almost always on the same wavelength, then he makes the case that several of the passed balls are not Johnson’s fault because he was crossed up.

    Hmmmmmm!!! Trying to have it both ways?

    I heard Salk make the same argument on the radio a little while ago and laughed then and now.

  14. kinbote on July 20th, 2010 1:32 pm

    Enjoyable read. Thanks.

  15. groundzero55 on July 20th, 2010 1:36 pm

    I categorically reject what has, sadly, become the Seattle Mariner way: accepting or even praising mediocre, substandard, or past its prime talent and/or performances using the “he’s such a nice guy/steady presence in the clubhouse” canards. And it’s even more reprehensible that local media just sits back and accepts it.

    I think management and the media are under the impression that good guys sell tickets, like Seattle is some hippie community of tree-huggers who would rather have the team be known more for their smiling faces and cameraderie in the clubhouse than for winning games.

    Not to poke at tree-huggers or anything, I’m pretty green myself, but Seattle is not the backwater it’s often made out to be.

  16. kinbote on July 20th, 2010 1:44 pm

    Which is why the Bradley deal never made any sense to begin with.

  17. groundzero55 on July 20th, 2010 1:50 pm

    That’s why they signed him, thinking that being around all the other good guys would make him a good guy too.

    I can’t really comment on that – since his early season incident, he’s been uncharacteristically harmless.

  18. SODOMOJO360 on July 20th, 2010 2:25 pm

    Felix wasn’t at the top of the “wild pitches” leaderboard when Johjima was around.

    I just realized it would be nice if Johjima was still around but that contract was outrageous.

  19. mymrbig on July 20th, 2010 2:31 pm

    Surprised no one else mentioned this, but over at Prospect Insider (behind the subscribers firewall), Jason Churchill mentioned that a couple teams admired Johnson and “it would not surprise many if he were traded this summer or during the coming winter….” He mentioned 4 specific teams as having interest.

  20. GripS on July 20th, 2010 2:42 pm

    Belief system…. so sick of reading that garbage. How about a ‘Performance System’? Meaning that you perform…. you continue to play.. you don’t and you ride the pine.

  21. Wakamaniac on July 20th, 2010 2:44 pm

    Lets be honest Rob isn’t studying the batter to anticpate what they’re trying to do, he’s trying to figure out why they can hit a baseball and he can’t.

  22. groundzero55 on July 20th, 2010 3:06 pm

    The reality of it is that if we did that now, we wouldn’t have a roster. We don’t have a choice other than starting underperforming players. Even if we had young replacements for these guys, the union would probably cry foul.

  23. diderot on July 20th, 2010 3:16 pm

    The thing that annoys me most about this is the idea that other players decide playing time…not the manager.

    So let’s do a hypothetical with the same reasoning:
    Fister walks into the clubhouse one day and says, “I really don’t like Ichiro. He never talks to me. I don’t think he gets the same jump on the ball that he used to, I saw him make a stupid baserunning mistake the other night, and he doesn’t hit for power. I’d be a lot more comfortable on the mound with a right fielder who could hit for power”.
    Wak: “Well, who would you like?”
    Fister: “Bring Tui back up. I know he’s young, but I played with him in Tacoma, he’s a good guy, and once in a while he can get ahold of a pitch”.
    Wak: “Well, I’m all about your belief system. You got it. Ichiro’s on the bench”.

    Yes, an exaggeration. But I think the analogy is relevant.

  24. jimbob on July 20th, 2010 4:34 pm

    At first, I thought this post was a cruel sarcastic hoax then realized it was serious. The Mariners will never be true contenders until they have solid catching like New York, Boston, Minnesota, etc. The “Good Guy” veteran stuff is for losers and it’s pathetic to even discuss it. Johnson and other M’s do seem brilliant when compared to Figgins trying to play 2nd. I never imagined “little ball” meant “little defense” when the season started.

  25. littlesongs on July 20th, 2010 4:47 pm

    Thank you Mike.

    We all like Rob as a person. We all hate Rob as a player. You make a solid case for Johnson to have a few more chances as a backstop and a nice long coaching career.

    If he is traded, fans of his next team will find this post on Google. They will have a few warm fuzzies to ponder before they throw empties at the television.

    Either way, his future is probably not with the Mariners. It is just a matter of time before less is replaced by Moore. The writing on the wall is in your own blog:

    “[Adam Moore] just needs more time,” explains director of player development Pedro Grifol. “It’s not just the offensive side of his game that needs to be in tune. We need his defense to be ready as well. We want his next call-up to the majors to be his last one.

    “It’s so hard to be a young catcher,” says Grifol. “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!

    “It’s almost impossible and for most young catchers, the offense is what suffers. They are responsible for so many things during a game, often they don’t even focus on their own at bats. After a game, they often couldn’t even tell you how their at bats went.”

    Grifol is confident Moore will succeed.

    I’ve watched him for years and he has always had good at bats. He takes a lot of pitches, works deep in counts. He has a very high percentage of Quality Plate Appearances.

    I’m sold.

    We are hoping to be sold on Mr. Moore as well.

  26. harry on July 20th, 2010 4:52 pm

    There are realities to managing. You have to make do with what you have sometimes; people are not 100% fungible. You play your hand, and when doing so, you act like you have the best damned hand you could hope for. That’s called respecting your co-workers, and not being a whiner.

    That said… Johnson’s got to go. It was understandable when the team was not 20 games below .500, when being competitive meant that Johnson was the best of a bad lot. Now that winning can only really hurt the future, it’s time to play Moore and for Johnson to sit. Get Felix used to pitching to someone else, because The Future demands it.

  27. Fat Ichiro on July 20th, 2010 4:52 pm

    Johnson is what he is. He is a Scott Bradley, Hasselman, Burke and Marzano. He is a starting catcher on a 100 loss team. We just do not have a Dan Wilson or McCann.

    Do not hate on the player hate on the fact we have not produced a player to put Johnson in a position that he should be in. Every team needs a backup we are just starting him.

    What none of you seem to notice is that Mr Moore is sitting in Tacoma and not vesting his arb eligible season. Why bring him up and lose a whole year at 26 when we can have an extra year down the road.

  28. sbrune40 on July 20th, 2010 11:00 pm

    keep up the writing mike. we need to get the word out there that rojo is unbelievable with the pitchers and maybe we can get a taker for him. if lee doesn’t win his next game maybe z can convince texas lee is nothing without rojo

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.