April 6, 2016 at 8:00 AM
PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- For Brian Johnson, 2015 produced quite a few highlights and milestones. He pitched to a 2.53 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 18 starts with Pawtucket, seemingly conquering the last step on the ladder up to the big leagues. The positive momentum culminated with his major league debut on July 21. However, while success may have been playing out publicly, trouble was brewing beneath the surface.
“I felt very early in the year, my arm just didn't feel right to me. It wasn’t sitting right,” the left-hander said. “I'd do well, but leaving the locker room, it just didn't feel right.”
Despite the success, Johnson’s arm began not feeling right starting sometime early in May. He was having numbness and unusual issues with his throwing arm. Johnson adapted by changing his release point at times, even mid-inning, but that had unintended consequences as well.
“For me, pitching is release point and consistency, and obviously, you’re trying to repeat your delivery. I was trying to get to that point, and I would switch my arm angle in the middle of an inning where I felt like I could throw strikes,” he said. “I didn’t care if my velocity suffered, I could throw strikes. If I could throw strikes, I could make some pitches. I could compete with that. That's what I did for a month. My velocity was not good, but I just kept mixing pitches.”
As it turned out, Johnson had damage to the nerve in his throwing elbow.
“I had no feeling with the hand when to release the ball,” the 24-year-old said. “That's why in the middle of an inning I would spike a fastball in front of the plate, and everyone would look at you. And you'd just catch the ball and say, 'I slipped,' because I didn't want to say anything because at that point in my life I wanted to make my major league debut.”
He was able to mask the effects of the injury well enough to have success, and be promoted for that major league debut. Johnson went 4 1/3 innings, allowing three hits, four runs, four walks, and striking out three in his only start. But it was at this time that things began to unravel and it became clear that he could not continue to pitch through the problem. He made two more starts in Pawtucket after the major league debut with still strong results, but he knew it was time to face the issue head-on.
“When I got my MRI back and they said my UCL was great, it was a weight off my shoulders,” he said. “Once you get that news out of the way, for me, it was huge. Luckily, I just took a couple months off throwing, then I was back to throwing when the team was doing their [Fall] Instructs down there.”
Though he was happy that Tommy John surgery would not be required, the diagnosis came with its own set of worries.
“The first thing they told me was the nerve is tricky. It’s like if you pulled your flexor tendon or you did this ligament-wise or muscle-wise, it’s much easier to say from X weeks to X weeks, or month-to-month,” Johnson said. “But with the nerve, it’s however your body heals the nerve. It could be two weeks, it could be four months. They were like, ‘You just have to hang with it. It's going to be a test every once in awhile to test the nerve.’ And gradually it went away.”
It’s unclear why this developed for him, and doctors were not able to provide an answer on that. However, Johnson shot down one theory that it may have been aggravated by the 15 days rest he had prior to making his major league debut.
“No, it was weird because once I got some time off, my arm felt fine,” he said. “It was like in a game in-between innings, that rest and obviously going out for warm-ups [I would notice it]. I wouldn't be able to get enough warm-up pitches to loosen up my arm and I wasn't ready by the first pitch. And then I'd have to ramp up for the first pitch, and it feels like you just hit your funny bone on the wall, and all of the sudden you can't feel pain.”
Around the end of the season, he was feeling healthy again and had a normal offseason as a result. Coming into spring training, he was able to throw enough that he was feeling confident airing it out.
“I went down to spring training early, mid-January, and I threw off the mound then,” he said. “So I knew it was going to be fine. For me, it was just fine tuning. Like PFPs, catch the ball, throwing the ball to second, pickoffs at second. The little things were the hardest for me because those are the touch throws, but shoot, we did enough PFPs in spring training that I got it down.”
Having moved past the elbow problems, Johnson said he felt like it was a breath of fresh air being able to throw this spring without restrictions. However, the celebration was short-lived as the injury bug resurfaced; this time on a freak play in his third Grapefruit League start.
“[The batter] tapped that ball down the line, and I went to run and I just kind of felt my toe sprain. I really couldn't believe it. I was kind of like, ‘Did this really just happen?’ in that moment,” he said.
Again, the big toe sprain prevented him from grabbing hold of an open rotation spot with Eduardo Rodriguez’s own injury creating a hole.
“[In 2014] I think I threw 140-something innings. There was a point in time they were skipping my starts because they thought my innings were getting too high,” he said of his frustration level with these injuries occurring when he was on the verge of breaking into the majors. “I was telling the trainers, ‘I’ve never had an arm injury before, this is so foreign to me.’ I think I pulled my hamstring once in college. I’ve never had arm stuff in my life, my arm’s always felt good. And it was kind of scary. It was something new that you never really experience.”
He’s ready to put the injury bug behind him now, once and for all, heading into the season. He has thrown three starts in minor league games since recovering from the toe injury and is up to about 80 pitches. Though he admits he’s not ready to go unrestricted in his first start, he’s hopeful to be able to give Pawtucket five innings.
“He threw in spring training [Monday], and all reports were he had a really good outing,” said Director of Player Development Ben Crockett. “So he should be ready to go. It’ll be a little bit shorter pitch counts than maybe some of the guys as he continues to build up, just having missed some time during camp.”
Now he just has to continue to produce the results from last season and bide his time until another rotation spot becomes available. Fortunately, Johnson can now focus on the finer points of pitching.
“I think the key for any pitcher getting over the hump from Triple-A to the major leagues for a guy with good stuff like Brian does, is understanding how to best use that stuff in terms of pitch sequencing and understanding the hitters that he's facing,” Crockett said. “Those are definitely keys for him to take that next step. He's a smart guy and he can certainly handle that.”
Photo credit: Brian Johnson by Kelly O'Connor
Matt Huegel is managing editor for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattHuegel.