This time last year, Orioles right-hander Steve Johnson was coming off a promising debut season in the big leagues. After showing he belonged in the majors, the St. Paul’s product was entering spring training in contention for a starting rotation spot.
But a sore lat muscle ended his rotation bid and landed him on the disabled list to start last season. He missed nearly three months during two separate DL stints and spent most of the season at Triple-A Norfolk. He made just nine appearances, including one start, for the Orioles.
Now 100 percent healthy again, Johnson will have another chance to compete for a rotation spot this spring. He could also fit in as a right-handed, long-relief arm.
“Obviously, I’ve kind of done every type of role over the past couple of years,” Johnson said earlier this month at Orioles minicamp in Sarasota, Fla. “I’d like to be a starter. I think I’ve proven that I can be a starter. Last year was kind of a lost cause for my season. Because of the injuries, I was kind of playing catch-up for most of the year. Even when I got up in September, I was behind. It was almost like I was in spring training mode.
“I’ll go [into spring training], and if they want me to start, I’ll start,” he said. “If they put me in the competition, that’s what I’m going for. If the consolation is a long relief spot, then that’s great. That’s not a bad spot, either. And if they send me back down to Norfolk again, I have no other options. I know what I need to do and I’ve done it the last couple of years. They call a lot of guys up and there’s going to be opportunity and I know that, so it’s not the worst thing. But I definitely want to make that spot out of camp.”
Johnson, 26, said that for the first time in his career with the Orioles, he’s on a structured offseason workout plan. He’s been going to Camden Yards four times a week to work out under strength and conditioning coach Joe Hogarty.
“I think that will really help me with my shoulder strength and everything,” Johnson said. “I’m really excited about that, and obviously there’s the experience I’ve had from being around and being up there. That’s going always to help me.”
After going 4-0 with a 2.11 ERA in 12 games (four starts) in 2012, he ended that season on the DL with a left knee injury. Johnson said that hindered his offseason training and started him off on the wrong foot. He returned from the lat injury in mid-April, but landed on the DL again in June, missing nearly two months with an abdominal strain.
“It was really frustrating because I’ve never been hurt before, and for the first time, I’m up there [with the big league club] and I’m really in the thick of things [during spring] and then I have a year like that, where I can’t stay healthy,” Johnson said. “It was tough. You’re playing catch-up the whole year. Nothing feels right, and you’re dealing with the tightness and everything. It wasn’t fun, but I went into this year looking at it like, 'At least I went into this year healthy.' The main thing was not getting hurt again. I ended healthy and went right back to working out and getting strong.”
Now healthy again, Johnson also hopes to add another pitch to his arsenal: the splitter.
Johnson had the opportunity to get tips from former All-Star closer Bryan Harvey, who made a name for himself with a power splitter, at this month’s minicamp. New Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace suggested he speak with Harvey, who was at the minicamp with his son, 2013 first-round pick Hunter Harvey, and Wallace introduced the two.
“There’s not a lot of people you talk to who have that pitch,” Johnson said. “To be able to talk to someone about that pitch is great because you don’t have that opportunity too often. Who knows? A tip here or there from him could really help me out.”
Johnson has been toying with the pitch off and on over the past two years. He used it with varying success during his last two starts in Triple-A last season. He tried it out last spring, but put it on the back burner because it wasn’t working very well and he was trying to make the club.
“I’ve only thrown it in two games, none in the big leagues,” he said. “It wasn’t there yet. ... It was OK, it was good here and there, but I’m just trying to get more consistent with it because you can look at someone like [Boston Red Sox closer] Koji [Uehara] and how much that helps him. He’s got a deceptive fastball, and he can drop that [splitter] down there for a strike and he can drop it out of the zone. And guys can’t help but swing with it because they have to. I’m trying to do that and add it to my curveball and my slider. I think it’s going to be a big pitch when I learn it.
“It’s kind of one of those things where I try to bring it back, but it’s so hard because you’re trying to get caught up and you don’t want to be out there working on a pitch,” he said. “It’s just one of those things that is tough to add, and now you just have to go out there and really throw it. That’s the only way — to see the hitters' reactions and see how it is in the game. You can throw it in the bullpen all you want, but you need to throw it in a game situation to really see where it is.”
After speaking with Harvey, Johnson said he’s excited to start testing his advice.
“Not every grip works for everybody, so I’ve messed with a couple, and his was one I hasn’t seen before, so when I get the opportunity when I’m throwing all my pitches, I’m going to work on it and hopefully it kind of works,” Johnson said. “His grip makes sense. It gets more of the seams of the ball. The main thing is controlling it. A lot of times, you throw it in the dirt and it has a different kind of spin, so if you can’t throw it for a strike. They’re not going to swing at it. That’s kind of been the key. So I’ve thrown a lot of it in the dirt, and a lot of guys over the first two innings, they see that, so they tend to not swing at it.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun