Interview with Jeff Johnson

Jeff Johnson is in charge of a lot of highly touted prep pitchers this year.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have spent a lot of money and high draft picks the last few years on pitching, especially young prep pitchers.  A lot of those prep pitchers are pitching in West Virginia this year, giving West Virginia pitching coach Jeff Johnson one of the most important assignments in the organization.  I spoke with Johnson at the West Virginia media day prior to the start of the 2011 season.  Note that this interview occurred three weeks ago, and you’ve probably seen several parts before, since I’ve used these quotes in different articles.  With Jameson Taillon pitching in West Virginia tomorrow, I figured the full interview would be relevant.

With the pitching staff this year, you’ve got more potential starting candidates than actual starting spots. How are you going to work to get innings for all of the players at the level?

It certainly will be a challenge from that perspective, but it’s a little easier with not having to worry about trying to win a game. I mean, we’re going to certainly try to win games. We’ve got two or three guys in the pen, or maybe even four, that we need to get multiple innings. It will be something I will be working on everyday, trying to get them in to games. The better our starters do, the less innings there are for the bullpen guys. Hopefully we’ll have that problem. But we’ll find ways, things will come up where they’ll all get plenty of innings.

Do you have any piggyback situations?

Not right now. No piggybacks per say. Once Jameson Taillon gets here we may have one then. I don’t know yet. Depends on what the organization wants to do there.

Kyle Stark mentioned to me that one of the goals early in the season would be for the college pitchers (Tyler Waldron, Brandon Cumpton) to get off to a good start, anchor the rotation, and move up to the Florida State League early in the year. What are you looking for out of those guys?

The biggest thing, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with results, which results will come if all of these things happen. We’re going to make sure we’re pitching with fastball. We’ve got a secondary pitch over the plate. We’re pitching inside. And their ability to do those things will tell us when they’re ready to move. If they’re throwing the ball over, and they’re able to use the secondary pitch over the plate, then they’ll be certainly ready to go. Fastball command is the biggest thing, being able to use that in counts where it’s not to their advantage. In 1-0, 2-0 counts, we’ll see how they play, what kind of pitches they can make in those type counts with some consistency will tell us when they’re ready to move.

You stress the fastball command at the lower levels, but at what point do you let guys use their secondary pitches more often?

We won’t have any rules on that. All these kids have got good foundations from fastball usage. So if anything I’ll probably have to encourage them to throw more changeups. Encourage them to throw more breaking balls early in the count. In the past we’ve had issues where we’ve had to challenge them to use their fastball more. With this group we probably won’t have that issue too much. It will be the other way around, I’d expect, based on what I’ve seen so far. There’s no rules. They can throw what they want, when they want. But there are certain things we know they need to do to at a higher level to be successful. And so that’s what we’re trying to do, get them used to doing that. Whether they’re real successful at it right now or not is not the most important thing, but understanding how to use their fastball, when to use it, it’s huge. Fastball in, with two strikes, is an out pitch. They’re not used to that. Especially the college guys, they’re used to missing bats. Well, in pro ball, the bats break. So we don’t want to miss them, we want to hit them. So the mentality really is what we’re trying to get established, from that perspective.

You’ve got the 2009 prep pitchers who are all entering their first full season. How will you manage that to make sure they don’t hit a certain amount of innings?

We’ll monitor early and see how they’re doing. Hopefully that will be a good problem to have. I haven’t gotten anything from the front office on exactly how many innings each guy can go. It will be something that we start to monitor in June, where are they? And at that point if we need to pull some guys back, we’ll probably pull them back in the second half of the season. But right now all systems are go. We’ll have pitch counts to help determine those innings, and they’re not going to be very high initially. Around 80 pitch count range, trying to keep them healthy, make sure they don’t overdo it early, and then get some starts under their belt. You know, it’s a tough thing to manage, the lack of innings last year, and then all of a sudden they can have 150 if they pitch well. My guess is we’re certainly not going to let them go that far, but we want them to build innings, so they can go on next year and add innings again. So it’s a pretty tough thing to balance.

In the last two years there have been pitchers with good numbers at West Virginia that have been held back until July. Rudy Owens, Nate Baker, and Phillip Irwin are three that come to mind. Do you see anyone who can move up this year, and anyone who could move up earlier than July?

Probably we’re looking at Brandon Cumpton and Tyler Waldron are the ones who could move up earlier than that scenario. The rest of the guys are all first year full season guys, I doubt you’ll see that. They’re going to leave them here and let them get innings. Let them learn how to play 140 games. I’m not saying they’ll be here the whole year, but I would be surprised if we see anybody move. It would take some really good performances, a good string of good performances before they force us to move them, from that perspective. It’s more about development with those guys, the 09 guys, at this point, especially the 20 year olds we’re talking about. I hope we have that problem. I hope they’re all pitching so well they’re forcing us to make some changes. I don’t see that being an issue, but I would expect to see Cumpton and Waldron, hopefully they’ll do what they need to do to put some pressure on us.

When Taillon arrives, how will you guys be proceeding with his innings? Will you be taking it easy, or will you be letting him pitch with the same rules like Von Rosenberg and the other guys?

He probably won’t be on that kind of leash yet. And we haven’t discussed that yet, because we don’t know where he’s going to be at the time he gets here, with his pitch counts and that kind of thing. They’re trying to build him up now in Florida, he’s a little bit behind schedule, and that’s why he’s not here now. They’re trying to build him up there, get him 3-4 more starts, something like that there. Hopefully before long, if all things go well, he’ll be here. But I’d expect we’ll have a piggyback scenario with him, early especially, to keep those innings down. And then later in the year probably take that away and let him build some more innings. It probably will be the other way around with him, we’ll hold him early, build him up later. With the other guys who have played, been through Spring Training twice, been through instructional leagues, that kind of thing, Zack Von Rosenberg, Zack Dodson, Colton Cain, we’ll let them go now, because they have been in the environment, in the system. They just haven’t been in a full season yet.

There’s been a lot of talk about Taillon being a guarantee to move up. There’s been talk about Allie, he’s had a little bit of control problems from what I saw down in Spring Training. Is that going to hold him back from moving up right away? Would he be more on a Quinton Miller path, where he stopped off at State College for a few starts in the middle of the season?

I would say, just from what I’ve seen, and the development stage he’s at, he’s probably behind Taillon from that standpoint of being here. Now whether he comes here or not, I don’t know if they’ll do that, send him here, or if they’ll send him to State College, I don’t know yet. Right now he’s just in extended Spring. He’s got a great arm, delivery, there’s a lot of effort in it, so we’re trying to make sure we build him a delivery that will keep him healthy, before we turn him loose and let him go pitch in a season like that. So it depends on how long that takes for him, and being able to get that in, and being able to do that. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw him here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he went to State College either. We’ll just wait and see how he progresses.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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