Commanding the Commodores
Derek Johnson has been the pitching coach at Vanderbilt University for the past 6 seasons. I first got the chance to meet him at a baseball clinic in 2005 where he graciously shared the ins and outs of Vandy's pitching program. That presentation first reflected his dedication to his players, but also showed his open-mindedness and courage to implement ideas that may not necessarily be common practice.
"DJ" recently took the time to chat with me and his in-depth answers cover a lot of ground: success at Vanderbilt, his philosophy as a pitching coach, the development of top-notch pitching prospects, throwing mechanics and even two cents on hitting.
Jeff: ESPN.com recently did an article on the rise of Vanderbilt baseball. What's your quick take on the success of the program?
DJ: I think the first thing you look at is the guy that runs the ship, Coach [Tim] Corbin. He's the guy that makes things go. He's a boundless energy guy and a guy that I really admire. I've seen first hand what he has been able to accomplish. And then secondly - you can't overlook this - is better recruiting. We've been able to get better players in here that have obviously helped us climb the ladder.
Jeff: Vanderbilt was ranked #1 for much of the year, but your season came to an end in the regionals with a loss to Michigan. Do you view the 2007 season as a success or failure?
DJ: To be honest with you, both, but in the end you look at what our team accomplished: 54 wins, a conference title (in arguably the best college baseball conference in the country), which we not only won outright but also the tournament. So I look at it more as a success than a failure or disappointment. At the same time, we feel like we are one of the best teams in the country and we just didn't get a chance to show that in Omaha at the right time.
Jeff: You were pitching coach of the year in 2004, and in 3 of the last 4 seasons your staff has lead the SEC in ERA as well as being in the national top 20. I want to ask about your approach to bringing pitchers along in your program.
DJ: Going back to what I said earlier, first and foremost is being able to get in quality guys. Recruiting goes well past my scope of being a pitching coach, but once they get here it is about development. It's a process that I take very seriously; it's meticulous, it's not a fly-by-night thing. I work hard at trying to understand what best suits each individual. I think a lot of coaches maybe pay lip service to that, but I take it very seriously because I think that in the end it's about the kid and it will always be about the kid. My job is to help him explore options to better himself, so I would say that is the most important feature of what we are trying to do here.
Jeff: You just had a great talent there, David Price. From a coaching standpoint, how might your approach differ with a player like that?
DJ: That's a good question and it's fair. It's a good question from the standpoint that you treat guys the same, and you do in a lot of ways, but you don't in some others. David was a talented kid from the beginning and he was a guy that had a ton of ability coming in. Bottom line is making sure that any adjustments we made were prudent decisions that would work in his favor. In terms of the way you treat him as a pitcher, you've got to treat him like another number in terms of your expectations for him and what he needs to do on and off the field. But that's a good question and I think it is fair to say you do have to treat those guys a little bit differently because they are a different breed. It's a completely different ball game, but still stay within the guidelines of what is fair and what is right.
Jeff: Not only has Vandy been winning games, but 9 pitchers have been drafted in the past 5 years plus 6 more this year. Is it part of your goal to not only win games, but to also prepare pitchers for the next level?
DJ: Absolutely. I don't know how other people think, but that's why we coach. We want to win a national championship, there's no doubt about that, but at the same time we want to be able to say to our recruits coming in and to be able to hang it on our shingle that we develop players, we keep them as healthy as we can and that they are going to the next level. I think that's fair to the kids because every kid that signs with us wants to play professional baseball. I don't think we've had one kid who could just take that or leave it. Every kid we've signed here, that's their goal, that's what they want to do. Yeah, it's about winning ball games - and we've been able to do both, which is nice - but at the same time I think both are equally important.
Jeff: Have to figure that if you can develop professional talent, that guy should be able to help you win games too.
DJ: Absolutely, they really do both go hand in hand.
Jeff: Former Commodore, Jeremy Sowers, went 6th overall in the 2004 draft but his stuff is quite different from Price. Do these fellow first rounders share anything in common?
DJ: Yeah they are both left-handed [laughing]. Their approaches are quite a bit different. Sowers is more of a 'pitch to contact' pitcher, where David is a 'miss your bat' type. In terms of physical, they are completely different animals. They do both have what I consider good arm action - arm action that can play at the next level, arm action that can be improved. David, I think, is a good example of a guy who got stronger and I thought his arm action improved as he was here. I know he went from being an 88-91, maybe 92 occasionally to a guy who was sitting more 93-96. Jeremy, same thing; good arm action and kind of had to understand tempo when he got here. I'm big on that. I'm big on trying to speed guys up and get them going. Jeremy was a guy we did that with and we did that with David, too. David was a little bit tougher because he is 6'6" and weighs more. So, I'd say those would be the two common things to get them to understand, and also to help their arm action to develop over time. Those were the important things for their development.
Jeff: You've told me that you've been criticized for Price's workload, but that you also feel he was ready for it and even refused to come out of many games. Does he do anything special to keep himself prepared physically?
DJ: What we try to do here is put stress on their arm in-between starts. What I mean by that is to target the elbow and shoulder area and try to create stress there. It's not throwing stress, per se, but it is stress on those areas with some medicine ball work, some weighted ball work. Once they throw a baseball, once they go out into a game, their arm is going to have "been there." I say "been there" meaning it's felt that stress and strain through their preparation. By doing that, I never felt that David was at a deficit. I never felt like David was that guy who you saw early in the game throwing 93-96 and then by the end of it was throwing 86-87. He maintained his velocity well. I kept very good track of what he did to prepare his arm, as I do with all of our guys. So, you know, I understand the criticism, but at the same time you have to understand where we were coming from and where we were at - where David's arm was at - when we were making those decisions.
Jeff: It seems common for coaches to baby their pitchers and not treat them like athletes, but that does not seem to be the case with you guys.
DJ: That's a great point because that's what they are. They are athletes. If you're doing your job as a coach you're making them a better athlete by the things that you prepare them with, so for me it was about an athlete going out and being athletic, pitching athletically and being able to take advantage of what God gave him. At the same time, people could criticize based on what a pitch count is or maybe what the popular theory today is on how to maintain an arm. What they didn't know was how he prepared his arm. I think that's the difference in what we're trying to do here and maybe what a lot of people are or aren't doing outside of us.
Jeff: You mentioned how Price improved his tempo and arm action. What is your opinion on what he may need to continue improving in order to succeed at the Major League level?
DJ: I think he uses the center of his body very well. I'm talking about his torso - from belly-button to mid-thigh. He does that very well and it is something he can continue to improve upon. Every pitcher could. Rotation is kind of the name of the game and it's being able to use that rotation and still get everything that you need to get behind the ball while still being able to throw a strike with it. I still think he can improve in those areas, but the thing that I hope for him is that they continue to let him work in those areas. I like where his tempo is. Could it be faster? Well, yeah it could be but at the same time I think it suits him. I think just being able to use the center of his body more is something that may help him take another step. From a pitchability standpoint, it's about refining the third pitch, the change-up and being able to refine command. Last year he had okay command, this year he had very good command, so I still think he has room to improve and grow.
Jeff: Tim Lincecum made the jump from college last year to MLB this year. Do you think Price is another guy who could make the transition that quickly?
DJ: Yeah, I do. You know, I obviously don't want to jinx him or anything and I don't want to speak out of line because I don't know exactly what the Devil Rays have or don't have. But I would find it hard to believe that David is that far away from being at that level. If you would have seen game in and game out with him, I'd say that you would agree. I just haven't seen a college pitcher dominate quite like I saw him and as consistently as he dominated, really this whole year. I just haven't seen that. Now it doesn't mean it hasn't happened, I just personally have not seen it.
Jeff: Your closer, Casey Weathers, also went in the first round. Tell me a little bit about him and what Rockies fans should expect.
DJ: An unbelievable story, really. He was basically a JUCO outfielder who bet that he could throw harder off the mound than his buddy. Long story short, he threw harder than his buddy and they turned him into a pitcher. Casey has legitimately pitched for about two-and-a-half years, and when he got to us I thought he was very raw, rough around the edges. Command wasn't quite as good as what it needed to be. He didn't factor for us until about midway through his junior year, his first with us. He factored in later in the year, had a good summer and kept developing or blossoming I guess would be a good way to word it. At times, he was unhittable this year. He gave up two or three [two] extra base hits all year...
DJ: ...gave up a HR in the second to last weekend in the SEC and that was actually the first extra base hit that he gave up.
Jeff: I saw that Price had a .199 BAA, but Weathers was even better at .154
DJ: Right, guys just did not get good looks off of him. This is a kid with an unbelievable arm and upside. He's still really learning what to do. In Casey's case it was confidence. It was a mental approach that needed to be honed and still does. The kid is a good worker, has a good attitude towards what he is doing and has found a new passion for something that had never really been there before. You talk about a guy with just pure arm strength, he's got a lot of it.
Jeff: Must be nice.
DJ: That's not something really that I had to talk about a whole lot with him. He came in 90-92 but couldn't harness it. Got stronger, some tempo changes, couple tweaks here and there and all of a sudden his command started to get there. His confidence got better and the 92 now turned into 95 and 96. In the conference tournament, and I can't say this for a fact, but on at least one other gun other than ours, I think he hit 100 four times.
Jeff: Another wow...
Jeff: Last pitching thing here - you mention arm action, tempo, using the center. These are all pitching mechanics terms that you use with your players, but there's that fine line between getting "too mechanical" versus getting outs. How do you walk the line between your players getting too mechanical as opposed to just throwing the heck out of the ball?
DJ: Intent is another word that is very prevalent in our vocabulary here. It's not a word that I made up or thought of in terms of pitching, it's Paul Nyman from SETPRO. But intent is a big factor. Intent happens with really everything that we do physically on the field. Whether it's playing catch, med ball routines, or running, there is an intent there to have effort. Easy effort - not effort that is out of control, but effort that works for you. There's a huge fine line and I think where you cross it is, you know, you have times when you have to work on the mechanics and you have to work on the tweaks or the adjustments. And then there has to be a barrier; there has to be a mental focus, a shift in your approach. That's real easy - as soon as you step on the mound and as soon as there is a hitter who is trying to beat you, you've got to switch gears. That's why, really, pitching is ever-evolving in my estimation because you've got guys who are 18 and 19 whose mechanics are not completely repeatable yet. They may show you what you want to see one week, they may somehow or for some reason adjust a little bit to the next to not quite what you want to see or what you think you should see. The bottom line is being able to have those barriers when it's appropriate to tweak and when it's appropriate to compete. Those two things really can't interlace a lot, they really are separate. Easier said than done - I have a lot of guys in the fall doing both.
Jeff: That's a good lesson for me, especially as I get into coaching.
DJ: It is because there is a time and there is a place. The thing is patience. You hear that patience is a virture, well, in pitching it's especially a virtue. I've had to learn that over time because what happens is that kids shuffle back and forth between what they think you want to see and reality. So your job is to keep pushing them. It's a gentle push, but it's pushing them in the direction that you think they need to go in. Sometimes it's frustrating, but you also see the rewards of it, like in a guy like Casey Weathers.
Jeff: I know you're the pitching coach, but I've got to ask at least one hitting question here. I saw Pedro Alvarez's swing from his 2005 draft video and then I saw it again this year, which looks much better. I just wanted to ask your observations on his progress at Vanderbilt.
DJ: Like a lot of kids coming into college, the first thing you see is a strength deficit. They're not nearly as strong as they need to be to support some of the movement patterns that are going on. But Pedro has always had good power and Pedro's swing is kind of a work in progress. I would say that the main thing for him is to be able to hit the ball with power to all fields. Not many guys at this level can do that. Most have pull power, some will have straight-away power, very few have opposite field power. Pedro is one of those guys who does have that ability and can show it frequently. For me, with him it's about taking what the pitcher gives him instead of yanking things that will produce outs at this level. That's something he has had to learn, and sometimes the hard way, but when Pedro Alvarez comes to the plate, pitchers go on red alert and they are trying to give their best stuff. What he has to be able to do is take what the pitcher gives him and wait him out - he is going to keep getting better at that.
Jeff: OK that about wraps it up. Thank you so much for your time.