After five respectable outings in 2013, Erik Johnson will begin his rookie campaign as a relative unknown in the fantasy world. This season is just his third as a professional and his quick ascension through the minors bodes well. The White Sox are hoping that Johnson can fill a mid-rotation role behind Chris Sale, and he could offer possible value to 12-team mixed league owners too.
Johnson was solid last season, turning in a 3.25 ERA. His 5.40 FIP tells more of the story, since his strikeout rate was below 15 percent and he walked over eight percent of batters. He also allowed home runs at a slightly elevated rate (14.7 HR/FB). Despite the poor peripherals, he probably would be getting more love this draft season were he not with the White Sox. His minor league numbers are more encouraging. In over 200 innings (mostly) across four levels, he walked 7.3 percent of batters while striking out 23 percent of batters. Those peripherals were accompanied by strong ERA’s and FIP’s.
According to the PITCHf/x data over at Brooksbaseball.net, Johnson showed five pitches last season, although his fastball and sinker are very close in movement and velocity. The average velocity on his fastball is 92 mph, which is good but also unimpressive in today’s world of ubiquitous flame throwers. While his repertoire is well-rounded, none of his pitches stand out as elite. The curveball and cutter were his best pitches from a results perspective, but we’re talking about a very small sample.
As you’ll notice in the pitch usage chart below, Johnson mixes his offerings well. He throws quite a few cutters, but appears to prefer the pitch against right-handed hitters. He reserves his change-up almost exclusively for left-handed hitters, but that might just be a confidence thing. Young pitchers will often begin by using their change-up only against opposite handed hitters. Eventually they grow comfortable with the pitch and use it more aggressively. I like when pitchers can successfully mix their pitches, since it makes it harder for guess-type hitters. That goes doubly when the pitcher lacks a dominant offering.
His cutter may be a slider, there is confusion between classification systems and I can find no definitive reference online as to which he throws. Given that the pitch is thrown around 87 mph, it’s either a very hard slider (just 5 mph slower than his fastball), a slowish cutter, or perhaps a slutter (which as far as I’m aware is a pitch I made up and discarded in college). The reason why I make a big deal about the classification is that he profiles as a moderate injury risk with the slider but a low risk without the pitch.
As for internal competition, it exists, but it’s minimal at this point. Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and John Danks have rotation jobs on lock down. Johnson is in competition with Andre Rienzo and Felipe Paulino for the final two rotation spots. It’s my belief that Paulino is destined for the bullpen while the club gives Johnson and Rienzo time to adjust. It doesn’t help Paulino’s case that he’s allowed 17 hits and nine runs in 8.1 innings. Dylan Axelrod is also in the mix, but he profiles as a swing starter.
After walking through the data, the prediction of a breakout season for Johnson relies mostly on strong minor league numbers. It seems fair to suggest that his walk and strikeout rates won’t be as strong at the major league level as they were in the minors. Still, they could be “good enough” such that he can help fantasy teams as a back-of-the-rotation option. A 2.5 K/BB ratio would produce an ERA around 3.70. In that event, his strike out total and WHIP should be right around fantasy average, and he might last deep enough into games to pick up his share of wins. This isn’t the profile of a world beater, but he’s virtually undrafted in leagues that pick fewer than 400 players. He could relevant in much shallower formats.
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