Mariners catcher Rob Johnson is a one-man balancing act.
Because his primary job is handling the psyches of the pitching staff, he can’t afford to dwell on his struggles at the plate. And yet, it’s those very hitting struggles that are preventing him from becoming an everyday player.
Johnson brought a .188 batting average into the homestand finale Thursday at Safeco Field, with no homers and 10 RBI. He draws rave reviews from pitchers and coaches about his defensive aptitude, but the dearth of pop in his bat is why he’ll return tonight to his role as the backup to Kenji Johjima, recently activated from the disabled list.
It would be tempting for Johnson to sulk about his tendency to swing and miss – he’s got 35 strikeouts in 38 games – but the last thing a pitcher needs is a catcher brooding about some clunker at-bat 10 minutes ago.
“I try not to worry about it too much,” Johnson said Thursday after the Mariners’ 9-3 victory over San Diego. “Obviously, it bothers me a little bit because I’m a competitor. But I know that my job is to keep runs down and catch. If I can do that, and I’m hitting .150 and we’re still winning, I don’t care.”
Johnson’s ability to focus on the most necessary aspects of his craft has earned him the admiration of those who depend on him keeping his head in the game.
“One of the beautiful things about him is that in his mind, his first and foremost job is making sure to take care of the defensive side. Anything on the offensive side is a bonus,” said Jarrod Washburn, the tough-luck pitcher who on Thursday won his first decision in two months.
“Still, I can tell, talking to him between games, or before games, that his offensive struggles frustrate him. But you can’t tell that during a game. It never comes out. If he has a couple of rough at-bats, he never takes it out on the field with him.”
Johnson knows, from personal experience, the problems a catcher can cause by fretting about, say, the 2-0 fastball he just topped that led to an inning-ending double play.
“I’ve actually done that,” Johnson said, “and it shows completely.
“All the sudden, you’re throwing balls away, and calling bad games, and clanking pitches. The pitcher can tell, and then the pitcher is mad at you, and all the sudden you’re not on the same page. It can have a snowball effect, it really can, when you start to worry about your offense too much.”
There’s an axiom about keeping batting simple: See the ball, hit the ball. Johnson is convinced his offensive troubles are steeped in the difficulty he’s had seeing the ball.
“It’s an awkward feeling,” he said. “You’re facing major-league pitchers, who can pretty much put the ball where they want. If you’re not seeing the ball, it’s a terrible feeling.”
With the help of batting coach Alan Cockrell, bench coach Ty Van Burkleo and manager Don Wakamatsu – a former backup catcher who hit .226 in a brief big-league stint with the White Sox – Johnson has worked overtime to find his swing in the Safeco Field batting cage. The other day, he noticed that he saw the ball better when he opened up his stance by placing his left foot toward third base.
Johnson experimented with his retooled stance Wednesday night, and was pleased.
“It was like, I can see the ball,” he said. “I actually saw the spin, and I thought, I’ve got to go back to this. It eased my mind in the first inning, when I saw the ball again.”
Yep, see the ball, hit the ball. Johnson hit the bases-loaded pitch from Wade LeBlanc into the left-center gap, driving in the three runs that gave Washburn a rare – as in almost historic – 4-0 lead.
“As soon as Rob got that hit,” said Washburn, “I thought: ballgame.”
Washburn lasted six innings, and though the Padres hit the ball hard, they more often than not hit the ball hard to somebody in the field. Washburn did what all pitchers should do when given custody of an early lead: He threw strikes – he walked only one – and let his catcher do the most of the deep thinking.
Johnson will return to the bench when Mariners begin their put-up-or-shut-up road trip tonight at Dodger Stadium, but Johjima’s stamina is a concern after missing most of the past month with a broken toe.
Put it this way: Johnson will see his share of work during a trip that also includes stops at New York’s Yankee Stadium and Boston’s Fenway Park.
When Johnson starts behind the plate, the Mariners are 19-14. When he doesn’t start, they are 16-21.
As for his anemic batting average, it’s just another number that has no relevance to the task at hand.
“The first thought in his head,” said Washburn, “is to do what it takes to get on the same page as the pitcher.
“He’s very professional.”