Johnson speeding toward Major League opportunity
Prospect looking back at game's great basestealers to maximize impact
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Micah Johnson gets a rush out of stealing a base.
It's the same sort of electric feeling a power hitter such as Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko or Jim Thome might get from connecting on a majestic 410-foot drive over the outfield fence.
Even at just 23 years of age and with only two seasons of professional baseball on his resume, Johnson fully understands his role and what it will take to get him to the Majors. In order to maximize his future potential, Johnson is presently studying past baseball history in relation to his skillset.
Those informal classes have brought Johnson to Jackie Robinson, whose impact has another significant level alongside his stature in Major League Baseball history and American history as the first African-American in the game. Johnson knows his present job as a ballplayer can be directly tied to Robinson's heroic trailblazing effort, but he also appreciates the dynamic on-field presence that was No. 42 and how he was able to disrupt and run through the opposition.
"You could tell his game was trying to score runs unselfishly," said Johnson of Robinson. "People think steals are a selfish stat and getting caught stealing is selfishness.
"That was him trying to get into scoring position and score runs, which is representative of his run total. That's the coolest thing when it comes to his running ability."
Robinson scored 100 runs in a season six different times for the Brooklyn Dodgers, with a career high of 125 over 151 games during his rookie campaign of 1947. He also picked up 197 career stolen bases, including 19 steals of home, which is one of the more electrifying plays in baseball.
There only has been one steal attempt of home for Johnson, and he was caught rather easily last season. Johnson was nabbed 26 times to go with his Minor League high total of 84 stolen bases.
In that run production game, Johnson scored 76 for Class A Kannapolis, 28 for Class A Advanced Winston-Salem and two for Double-A Birmingham for a total of 106. His job was to get on base any way possible, create havoc for the opposing pitcher by stealing second and possibly third and then coming home on anything from a single or double to an infield groundout.
Johnson had 19 stolen bases for Great Falls in '12 and wasn't much of a threat during college days at Indiana University. So he's been learning about the methods employed by Robinson, Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman as he refines his craft.
"Really, it's an art form, and it's something you are born with. It's an instinct you have," Johnson said. "It's difficult to acquire. It's hard to explain to someone for me. It's more reaction. In my head I know what I'm looking for, but it's hard for me to explain.
"I can react to things I see. And then it's different from first to second base. A guy can have an inside move and you have to be able to see that. Being an infielder helps me when I'm at second base in that I know what they are doing behind me."
Stealing bases stands as an important aspect of Johnson's game, but certainly not the only one. Johnson hit .312 in 2013 with a .373 on-base percentage, a .451 slugging percentage, 24 doubles, 15 triples and 58 RBIs. He'll get a long look during Spring Training, with a possible chance for the second baseman to help the White Sox as the season progresses.
There's no thought in slowing down Johnson on the basepaths. Speed is a weapon that never goes into a slump, if used wisely.
"You have 27 outs, and you don't want to throw any of them away and run in bad situations or get a bad jump and keep running," White Sox hitting coach Todd Steverson said. "You have to be a smart baserunner or else you cost your team another out.
"But if used properly, speed can disrupt pitching. It can disrupt pitch calling and defensive placement. So it has its place for sure. The name of the game is scoring runs and getting to the next base. If you can do it without somebody hitting the ball in play to get you over there, and put yourself in scoring position like that, it's obviously a weapon.
"For Micah, who stole 84 bases last year, that's a lot and you've got to get on base," Steverson said. "The way I look at it, if you have a chance to steal 84 bases, that means you are swinging it."
Johnson doesn't believe there will ever be another player with 100 stolen bases in a single season because pitchers counter with slide steps and quicker moves as part of this chess match. Now that Johnson is off and running, though, he hopes to have the same sort of long-term influence as great basestealers before him such as Henderson, Coleman and Robinson.
"Even with baserunning drills or something, I can showcase what I have," Johnson said. "If I run hard in drills, it's not that I want to be faster than everyone. It's what I excel at, so I do it the best I can. I really can't wait for games to start so I can steal bases."