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Brewers pitchers praise unsung hero Johnson

Pitching coach enters third season in Milwaukee after breakthrough 2017 season
MLB.com @AdamMcCalvy

PHOENIX -- Some great players make lousy coaches, and then there are the Derek Johnsons of the baseball world.

Johnson, entering his third season as the Brewers' pitching coach, was an undersized left-handed pitcher who never sniffed professional baseball until he joined the coaching ranks and rose to become the unsung hero of a Milwaukee staff that ranked ninth in the Majors last season with a 4.00 ERA. He helped eliminate movement in Jimmy Nelson's delivery, and Nelson performed as one of baseball's top 30 or so starting pitchers. Chase Anderson added a curveball and a cutter and dropped his ERA from 4.26 in his first three big league seasons to 2.74 last season. Zach Davies took advice on pitch sequencing and led the staff with 191 1/3 innings and 17 victories.

PHOENIX -- Some great players make lousy coaches, and then there are the Derek Johnsons of the baseball world.

Johnson, entering his third season as the Brewers' pitching coach, was an undersized left-handed pitcher who never sniffed professional baseball until he joined the coaching ranks and rose to become the unsung hero of a Milwaukee staff that ranked ninth in the Majors last season with a 4.00 ERA. He helped eliminate movement in Jimmy Nelson's delivery, and Nelson performed as one of baseball's top 30 or so starting pitchers. Chase Anderson added a curveball and a cutter and dropped his ERA from 4.26 in his first three big league seasons to 2.74 last season. Zach Davies took advice on pitch sequencing and led the staff with 191 1/3 innings and 17 victories.

"But you shouldn't talk to me," Johnson said after a rare chat with a reporter on Wednesday while Brewers pitchers and catchers opened Spring Training. "You should go talk to them."

That's easy. Johnson is most Brewers' pitchers favorite topic.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

"Every time we get asked about pitching, I try to talk about him," Anderson said. "I wouldn't be in this position without his advice, knowledge, wisdom and without him challenging us as a starting staff. … He's brought a different way to look at pitching. Looking at the hitter coming into the box and where they set their feet up. Where I stand on the rubber. It's all helped me take my game to a different level. He deserves a lot of credit."

Said Davies: "He's going to work with your strengths. He's not going to change you to fit a mold."

The way Nelson explained it, Johnson is "an open book." He meant it figuratively, but it was literally true, too, since Johnson's "The Complete Guide to Pitching" was published in 2012 with a foreword from former American League Cy Young Award winner David Price. Johnson coached Price, Sonny Gray and other future Major Leaguers at Vanderbilt.

"I bet a lot of guys here don't even know he wrote a book," Nelson said. "He would never push something like that on you. But at the same time, he's a wealth of knowledge there for you."

• Crew rotation hopefuls set for spring battle

Johnson, 46, graduated from Eastern Illinois University in 1994 and attended a couple of open tryouts with Major League organizations, including the Braves. When it became clear that he did not have the raw velocity to stand out, he jumped straight into coaching, first at Eastern Illinois and then on to Southern Illinois University (1995-97) and Stetson University (1998-2001). In 2002, he landed at Vanderbilt for an 11-year tenure that produced six first-round Draft picks and 13 future Major Leaguers.

That led to a job as the Cubs' Minor League pitching coordinator from 2013-15 before the Brewers hired him away and installed Johnson in the Majors.

"We've had time with one another here now for the past two years and we've come a long way together," Johnson said. "When you get to know these guys the way I have, you look at it and it's a real sense of pride.

"Unfortunately for me, I wasn't a very good player. I would have given my left arm to play professional baseball. But looking back on it, it gave me the opportunity to coach, and I think that's what I might be best at. It's fun to see these guys grow, to take those steps forward. And you also have to embrace those times they don't it's not going to be all positive. That's part of it."

Can the Brewers staff be better in 2018?

"I think so," said Johnson. "I don't think it makes sense to believe any other way."

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy and like him on Facebook.

Milwaukee Brewers, Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, Jimmy Nelson