InsidePitching.com Mound Visit with Derek Johnson
Over the past 10 years there are few pitching coaches that have seen more success in developing pitchers than Vanderbilt’s Derek Johnson. Heading into his eleventh season as pitching coach at Vanderbilt, Johnson has seen over 30 of his pitchers drafted with 27 of those being in the past seven seasons. More impressive is the number of top picks that have come under Johnson’s tutelage including Jeremy Sowers (#6 pick in 2004 draft), 2007 8th overall pick Casey Weathers, and the 2007 National Player of the Year and first overall pick David Price. Also included on this list was 2009 seventh overall pick Mike Minor, last years 18th overall pick Sonny Gray as well as the 59th pick Grayson Garvin.
With a long list of accolades and success moving pitchers along to the next level, we asked Johnson who he felt most influenced his ideas and philosophies as a pitching coach. “I’ve been fortunate to have been around some very good coaches during my playing days and early years of coaching. First was Jim Scott was my high school coach. He was a great coach, with a passion for baseball and great understanding of pitching. He gave me a great foundation for pitching and baseball in general.” Next he referenced the late Dan Callahan who anchored the Southern Illinois program for over 20 years before his passing in 2010. “Dan Callahan was my college coach at Eastern Illinois University. He is the most honest person I have ever met – taught me humility and how to handle people and situations.”
Next on his list of early influences was pitching expert Tom House. When asked about House’s influence Johnson replied “he is the first pitching coach I was around that taught something other than traditional balance point and circle up arm action. I think his ideas revolutionized much of what we teach today.” As he progressed in his career Coach Johnson found two more important people who helped shape his ideas on pitching, Paul Nyman and Ron Wolforth. Paul Nyman is the smartest person I’ve ever met on pitching. Most of what he has taught me through the years is what I still apply today.” “Ron Wolforth is an academy owner that is terrific at taking certain pitching skills and abilities and developing training methods to enhance them.”
With a strong background of quality influences and now many years of successful experience, we asked Johnson what his main areas of emphasis are when working with his pitchers. “First, All of our training is done under the premise of trying to make the delivery more athletic. We are looking to connect the delivery better, faster, stronger, and more powerfully. Next, all of our training is done deliberately, purposefully, and with intention. Transfer of skill happens faster and with better resolve when mind and body are focused on 1 purpose. This type of training is hard and requires great discipline but the return great.”
First round draft choices always center on the hardest throwing pitchers available, and Johnson’s has a well documented resume of pulling velocity out of pitchers and elevating them into the elite status of throwers. He had this to say about velocity development, “It is all about Intent and the Mind/Body connection. If there is a goal of gaining arm strength, the training required must be specific to the goal – we want to train our arms to move faster than before, and with more power. There is no substitute for hard work. If I want to throw harder, I have to throw harder, further, and for longer periods of time than my previous throwing session. It is as simple (and hard) as that.”
Still in the prime of his career and already with numerous awards and recognition including the 2004 national pitching coach of the year and the 2010 ABCA National assistant coach of the year, we asked Coach Johnson what advice he might give young up and coming pitching coaches in the college game. “Honestly, to coach for the right reasons. Be a teacher, a mentor and not someone whose sole purpose is to just win games or move up the “corporate ladder.” Stay humble and hungry. There are two types of players and coaches in the game of baseball; the humble player or the player that is about to be humbled. Remember that it is hard game, and that teaching life lessons are as important as teaching baseball lessons. Remember that if you and your players are truly prepared, you cannot possibly fail.”
With several years still in his already brilliant career, Coach Johnson will mentor several more of college baseball’s great pitchers to come. With the 2011 College World Series appearance now under the Commodores belt’s we can expect many more to come with the pitchers that are being developed at Vanderbilt.