CLEVELAND -- If Erik Johnson reaches the majors this season, the White Sox feel as if their former top-pitching prospect has turned a corner.
Not only has Johnson regained fastball velocity at Triple-A Charlotte this season, it has been accompanied by command. Whereas Johnson gave away bases at an unprecedented rate for him in a poor 2014 season, he has only issued 30 free passes in 94 frames in 2015. The improved command led Johnson, who entered 2014 as the No. 2 prospect in the White Sox farm system, to a starting nod in the International League All-Star Game earlier this month.
“He’s been outstanding,” White Sox assistant general manager Buddy Bell said. “Fastball command, breaking ball. I mean, I think we all know the kind of competitor he is. I have no idea what he went through last year or what he did over the winter.
“He knows where he’s throwing the ball.”
“He’s been as good as anybody.”
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Johnson struggled with the best of them in 2014.
Starting the season in the White Sox rotation, he lasted six starts as he walked 15 batters in 23 2/3 innings. Johnson never returned, either, issuing 54 more free passes in 105 2/3 innings at Charlotte, where he finished 5-7 with a 6.73 ERA in 20 starts.
Johnson arrived at spring training in February with a goal to “make moves” even though the White Sox rotation was nearly set. He threw well early on before he was suffered an injury but has been outstanding this season. Over his last eight games, Johnson has a 0.88 ERA with 56 strikeouts and nine walks in 51 innings.
The White Sox have backed off Johnson’s workload of late in case he’s needed in Chicago for whatever reason, whether it’s a September promotion or if he replaces Jeff Samardzija, if he’s traded. They’re curious to see how the former second-rounder pick would handle another chance in the big leagues.
“You get in a situation where you are not really sure where your fastball is going, you start to guide it a little bit,” Bell said. “His has been there all year.
“We think he’s found something, but you would have to ask him what that is. We don’t really ask what it is. We just let him go. He’s actually better than when we called him up the first time. He’s that much better.”
“We’ll have to see what happens if he gets called up at some point.”