Johnson easing Reds' pitchers into action

Winker discusses return to OF; Holder hopes to settle in with Cincy

February 26th, 2021

Keenly aware of the workload increases coming for his Reds pitchers this season after a pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, pitching coach Derek Johnson is not rushing the established pitchers into spring game action.

Fifth starter contender, José De León, will pitch in Sunday’s Cactus League opener vs. Cleveland. With a six-week camp, Johnson believes every pitcher will get in their allotted innings.

“A lot of these guys' workloads are going to be doubled and tripled, and in some cases, even more simply because some of these guys didn't pitch last year,” Johnson said Friday from Goodyear, Ariz. “Taking that into consideration, there's a little bit of a slow-play feel early on. We'll be spreading out those innings, you'll be seeing a lot of different guys. Maybe some of what you'll consider our 'main guys' will probably filter in that first week or so. I think you're going to see some new faces, maybe some guys you've seen in the past and certainly some six-year free agents and guys who have come on board and [are] just trying to get a look at them right away.”

To further protect pitchers and their arms, the Reds are leaning even more heavily into technology.

“We're using what's called a Motus sleeve, which kind of gives us an indication of workload based on the day, based on a nine-day period and then a 28-day period, which essentially gives us a look under the hood at what these guys are doing and what it's making their arm feel and respond,” Johnson said. “The hope of it is that we can manage what they do in-between the times they're out there on the field. This is pretty innovative, it's pretty new. I'm excited about it from a standpoint that I don't have to maybe guess as much as I did in the past.”

Johnson, 49, has earned rave reviews from inside and outside of the organization for his work with Reds pitchers over the past two seasons. In 2020, Cincinnati was ranked second in National League ERA (3.84) after it was fourth (4.18) in ’19.

There was a time when Reds pitching coaches encouraged pitchers to induce groundballs and weak contact at cozy Great American Ball Park; that’s not what Johnson is seeking, however.

“I like guys that can make hitters swing and miss,” Johnson said. “If you look at groundballs, yeah, if they’re weakly hit, they’re out. But groundballs are hits a lot of times. Then you couple that with a walk, couple that with a homer, and all of a sudden, we’re looking at 3 or 4 [runs]. Again, swings and misses don’t lie. I’d much rather have a swing and miss than a groundball.”

Reds pitchers have led the NL in strikeouts in each of the last two seasons under Johnson.

“At the point I came on board, I said it right away, ‘I don’t care about the ballpark. Homers are going to happen,'” Johnson said. “I’m interested in making guys swing and miss. I’m interested in that part of it because I know the outs are going to happen other ways and the homers are going to happen too. I’m going to take my chances. Vegas is telling me I’m going to win that battle more times than not.”

Winker ready for outfield

Reds outfielder Jesse Winker led the club in 2020 with 35 starts as the designated hitter when the rule was in place for the first time in the NL during a whole season. As of now, the DH will not be in effect for '21, and that’s OK by Winker.

“I always prepare to play the outfield because I don’t mean this disrespectfully -- I’m an outfielder; I’m not a DH,” Winker said. “I prepare to play left, center and right. I had a great offseason. I’m always prepared to play the outfield.”

Winker, 27, batted .255/.388/.544 with 12 home runs and 23 RBIs in 54 games last season. According to Statcast, he was ranked in the 90th percentile or higher in exit velocity, hard-hit percentage, walks percentage and expected weighted on-base average.

One stat that thrilled Winker was his sprint speed, which increased from 25.6 feet-per-second to 26.4.

“My whole life everyone told me I was slow, I couldn’t play defense and I couldn’t hit lefties,” Winker said. “Last year, outside of playing defense, I felt like I took nice strides in those other two things. By no means am I a burner, but you can only work with what you’ve got, right?”

Holder hopes to have a home with Reds

A 2015 first-round pick by the Yankees, shortstop Kyle Holder was plucked by the Phillies in December’s Rule 5 Draft and was then traded to the Reds on Jan. 30 when Philadelphia re-signed Didi Gregorius.

“It was a crazy little whirlwind experience for the last month of the offseason going from getting picked up by Philadelphia to traded here with a couple weeks prior to arriving here in camp,” Holder said. “I’ve never dealt with anything like that, being with one team for my whole career for 5-6 years. Being on two within a month was definitely a different little feeling.”

Holder, 26, has a rare chance afforded to a Rule 5 player. The lefty hitter is in the mix for Cincinnati’s shortstop opening along with Kyle Farmer, Dee Strange-Gordon, and others.

“It’s always a great feeling to be wanted, that’s for sure, let alone come in here and compete for a starting job or a role player, whatever they need me more as,” Holder said.