Cody Johnson was the Atlanta Braves first-round draft pick back in 2006, taken 24th overall. After a slow start with the Trenton Thunder, he’s starting to put up some first-round caliber numbers. And if there were an interview draft among Thunder reporters, Johnson would likely be a first rounder there as well.
You may be noticing a theme here. Thunder manager Tony Franklin, meanwhile, has been noticing the turnaround in the 22-year-old’s play. Since his batting average dipped to a season low .174 on May 21, Johnson has hit six home runs and driven in 17 runs in his last 17 games, all while upping his average to a far more respectable .229.
“His presence in the lineup is tremendous, it’s absolutely tremendous,” Franklin said.
“I can’t say enough about how much better our lineup is when you have guys in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth slots who are making their presence felt. It’s tough to get around them on any club. He’s a constant threat and that doesn’t make the pitcher feel comfortable. He’s a pretty big presence for us right now.”
The last time James Rowson had visited Waterfront Park — before he was thrust into the team’s hitting coach role — he suggested Johnson lower his hands in his batting stance. The move paid immediate dividends.
“I think it’s helped him lay off the high pitch out of the strike zone, he’s taking more of those pitches,” Franklin said.
“He’s probably seeing the ball much better than he’s seen it before. The results are more base hits, less strikeouts and a better power output. He’s been good. And not to mention that the guy is hitting with a lot of confidence right now, right now he believes he can hit anybody up there. That speaks volumes, that goes a long way.”
Something else that will go a long way, at least for a reporter’s notebook, is a chat with the affable slugger. The 6-foot-4, 240 pounder was kind enough to give me about ten minutes of his time in the Thunder home dugout prior to a recent game, and I wanted to share the entirety of our conversation with you…
Mike Ashmore: So let’s start at the beginning…the Braves drafted you 24th overall in 2006. Take me back to that day, what do you remember about it?
Cody Johnson: “When I first signed, that was where I wanted to go. I grew up watching the Braves, and I knew it was a dream come true. I had some rough times, but I learned a lot. If I had it to do over again though, I think I may go to school. But I’ve done a lot of growing up. Signing at 17, it’s really a hard thing to do being thrown right into the life of playing professional baseball. Very few can really take that and just jump right into it and be good to go. There’s really a long growing up period. I think college would have helped me out a lot, but I guess hindsight is 20-20. I can’t do anything about it. But I’m very happy where I’m at. Coming over to the Yankees has been a great opportunity, we’ve got a great staff here. They’ve really helped me mature as a player and start to figure things out.”
Ashmore: Having that “first round” label, not to mention the money and attention that comes with that…how much pressure was there to perform in the Braves organization?
Johnson: “There was definitely a lot. I won’t say as much put on me by staff or anybody else as much as I put on myself. I wasn’t able to handle it at some points. I played with a lot of players that are in the big leagues right now, and I think I was putting more pressure on myself seeing guys jump me and things happening like that. But it was mainly pressure that I put on myself that I didn’t need to. I just needed to go out and play the game, the game we all grew up playing. It’s as simple as you wanna make it, but as soon as you start making it hard, this game will eat you alive.”
Ashmore: When the Braves, for lack of a better way of putting it, gave up on you (Johnson was traded to New York for cash considerations in November) what were the emotions that came with that?
Johnson: “It was more excitement to get a new opportunity. I didn’t really have much feeling, I didn’t know what to think when I was traded. But when I talked to a few people, and when I talked to my agent, who has a good relationship with some of the front office with the Yankees, especially our hitting coordinator James Rowson, he assured me of what I was coming into. He told me I was coming into something very good, that I was coming into good hands. It was really reassuring. Mr. Cashman called me that night, and it made me feel a lot better about being traded and coming into a whole new situation with new people and new faces. I was really excited for fresh faces and fresh opinions and just a whole new outlook on things.”
Ashmore: Is some of that also getting a chance to prove yourself to another organization all over again?
Johnson: “It definitely is. I’ve played the Yankees in Low-A, so I know I’d been seen by some of the staff. I’d played against a lot of the guys that I’m playing with now. You want to come out and prove to yourself why I was traded for. I don’t know exactly the whole situation with what happened with the trade, but I want to make it worth their while. I don’t want to just come out and do the same thing I’ve been doing for the past five years. The Yankees saw something in me that the Braves didn’t, and I just appreciate the opportunity to come over here.”
Ashmore: You certainly didn’t get off to the start you would have liked to when you first came over here…can you attribute that to anything?
Johnson: “Just inconsistency. I was good for a few days when we first started the season, and then I started getting beat and I started getting frustrated with myself. I just wasn’t able to keep a consistent approach at the plate and I wasn’t able to keep my head clear. I was getting frustrated and beating myself up and I was taking my first at-bat and letting it affect me in my third and fourth at-bats. I kind of found a new outlook. If I strike out, I strike out, and I can’t take that with me. I have to almost laugh it off and forget about it. If I get beat, I get beat. The ones that really upset me are if I beat myself and I get myself out, like when I was missing pitches that I know I should have hit. That’s where I really started struggling, because I was beating myself up over it instead of just saying I’ve got two, three or four more at-bats to go in that game that I can do something with. I just had to forget about the first one.”
Ashmore: Fair to say that strikeouts have been the knock on you in your career?
Johnson: “So far, definitely. It’s something that I definitely have to live with. I know it’s part of the game, I know it’s part of my game. It’s something I’ve been working to cut down on, and I feel like I’ve been giving myself a much better chance now. I’ve made a few adjustments at the plate…”
Ashmore: What did you do?
Johnson: “I just changed my physical and mental approach. I’ve lowered my hands at the plate, and it’s alleviated some of the movement I have during the pitch, which has allowed me to really catch up to more fastballs and allow me to hit more pitches that I wasn’t able to. Me making that one small adjustment, it really turned everything around. I feel like I’m giving myself more time to hit, and it’s making me more comfortable at the plate. As long as I’m comfortable, it’s more easy to be confident at the plate. Success comes before confidence is the biggest thing, and it’s hard to do. I’m having a little more success at the plate right now, so it’s easier to go to the plate and be a confident hitter and know what I can do and be able to trust myself to be able to go up to the plate and just hit.”
Ashmore: I’ve heard your swing described so many ways — power swing, all or nothing, etc. — how would you describe it?
Johnson: “I honestly don’t know. I know I don’t like to consider myself an all or nothing hitter, because when I go to the plate trying to hit a home run, most of the time I’m walking back to the dugout. I’m going to strike out, I’m going to swing too hard and come out of my shoes. For me, the key is swing easy. The easier I swing, and almost the less effort, it keeps things simple. It keeps my head on the ball, it keeps everything in, and I’m able to stay on the ball longer and make better contact.”
Ashmore: You’ve hit some pretty impressive home runs this season…have you always had that kind of power?
Johnson: “It developed, I guess, when I was 14. It was my freshman year of high school, but I was still young enough to play junior major league with all the kids I grew up playing with. I struggled a little bit as a freshman, I didn’t play a whole lot. But I went back and was playing that summer, and kind of came into my own as a hitter. I guess that’s where it really started to develop.”
Ashmore: Do you remember the biggest bomb you’ve ever hit?
Johnson: “In pro ball, in ’08 I hit a ball in Asheville that was up on a hill in center field. I guess they found it in a parking lot by a football field. Probably the furthest one I’ve ever hit was in high school. It was my last at-bat in high school, and I hit a ball that went over a football field that was behind the baseball field. I enjoyed it. It was my last at-bat in high school, and we lost out of our regional tournament.”
Ashmore: The groove you’re in with the longballs right now…is that kind of how it’s been with you, where you’ll go on stretches where you’ll just hit a pile of home runs?
Johnson: “Usually, they come in bunches. But I’m trying to change some things and be more consistent where hopefully it’s not something where I’ve got two good weeks, it’s something I need to be able to continue on throughout the rest of the season and my career. It’s been on the biggest knock on myself, is that I’m not able to be consistent at the plate. I’ll have a good week, a bad week, a good week…maybe a good month. I’m just trying to keep a good approach. Whether I go 0-for-4, 4-for-4, strike out two or three times, no matter what happens just stick with it and know that I’m putting myself in a good situation to hit and be ready for every at-bat.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com