Orioles’ Steve Johnson looking to build on rookie campaign

Baltimore pitcher hoping to avoid dreaded sophomore slump

Steve Johnson is battling for the 5th starter role with the Orioles. Photo: Baltimore Orioles
Steve Johnson is battling for the 5th starter role with the Orioles. Photo: Baltimore Orioles (johnson)

Tampa, FL — There are a plethora of pitchers vying for the Orioles’ open fifth-starter spot, but right-hander Steve Johnson isn’t fazed by the competition.

The Baltimore native is looking to build upon an impressive 2012 rookie campaign where he split time as both a starter and reliever, helping Baltimore reach the post-season for the first time since 1997.

This season, he’s looking to solidify himself as one-fifth of the Baltimore starting rotation.

“I was a starter pretty much my whole minor league career. I love starting, I’m comfortable in that role and it’s something that I want to do going forward,” said Johnson, sitting outside the club’s dressing room at the spring complex.

“When I got called up, I was in the swing-role between the ‘pen and starting games … I didn’t know fully if I could start, but I did it, and continued to prove to myself I could do it. Now it’s a role I want to assume.”

Johnson surprised many last year after being called up mid-season and going 4-0 with a 2.11 ERA in 38.1 innings pitched, giving the club yet another quality arm.

With a four-pitch mix, Johnson profiles as a back-end starter or long-reliever out of the bullpen.

He doesn’t possess a power arm—his fastball tops out at 92 mph—but routinely strikes batters out with his deceptive delivery and exceptional command, as evidenced with his 30.5 per cent strikeout rate.

As it stands, Johnson’s stiffest competition for the fifth spot are Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz, both of whom are hard-throwing big-men.

However, there are several others in the mix that also pose a threat to steal the final starting gig: Tommy Hunter, Zach Britton, Jair Jurrjens, and T.J. McFarland.

And to be completely fair, consideration must also be given to top pitching prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, though they’ll likely remain in spring training to open the season.

“We’ve got so much depth right now, especially at the pitching position, that all I can really do is just go out there and compete and hope I have my stuff working,” says Johnson.

“And aside from the guys we’ve already got on staff, there are a lot of good young guys coming up as well that can really make an impact.”

But even if Johnson falls short of the starting rotation, he’s more than happy to contribute on any level.

“Even though I’ve always been a starter, I’ll do whatever gets me into the big leagues,” said the soft-spoken righty. “If they need me to be a bullpen guy, if they need me to be a swing guy, if they need me to start games, whatever they need, I can do it.”

All in the Family

The 24-year-old may have emerged as a quality big league pitcher after last season’s performance, however he’s not the first Johnson in the family to experience success with the Orioles.

His father, Dave Johnson, was a starting pitcher for Baltimore from 1989-1991 and played a total of five years before retiring with the Detroit Tigers.

As exciting as it is to be a second-generation ball player, perhaps even more impressive is the feat that this father and son share.

On Aug. 8, 2012, the young righty won his first career start exactly 23 years to the day his father earned his first victory—with the same team nonetheless.

“If you think about it, we’re both from Maryland and we both made it with the home-town team. Those two things are hard to do as it is,” says Johnson.

“But then to have your first win on the same day as your dad had his, while in Baltimore, I mean you just can’t make that stuff up. It’s incredible.”

In addition to this piece of shared history, is the common bond that this father and son have developed through the game of baseball.

“He was in the minors for seven years, I was there for eight before I was called up, so we’ve both had the same struggle,” said Johnson. “He’s been a huge influence on my life and my game; we usually have a conversation daily.

“There aren’t too many people that have been through almost the exact situation you have, and to have your father be that person is definitely helpful.”

This spring, Johnson will have his father’s full support as he competes with a crowded group of fifth-starter hopefuls.

By the time April rolls around, perhaps the versatile righty will have successfully made the transition from swing-man to starter.