Good luck trying to describe Hiroshima Carp pitcher Kris Johnson’s first few weeks in Japanese baseball.
He can’t even do it.
“Words can’t describe it,” Johnson told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “Especially coming into a new league, high expectations, the quality of baseball and all. It’s something that I’ve worked for. It’s all the preparation that I’ve done, mixed with the catcher that I had in all seven starts, great defense, good team, good teammates and the coaching staff. You know that everybody has your back.”
Johnson, 30, is 4-0 in his seven outings for Hiroshima. The left-hander threw a one-hit shutout in his first start in Japan, and has allowed five runs — four earned — in 51 innings.
“His tempo has been good, and he can throw different pitches for strikes,” Carp catcher Yoshiyuki Ishihara said. “He’s pitching really well.”
Johnson has gone four straight starts without allowing an earned run, a span of 28 innings. Seven shutout frames against the Hanshin Tigers last week lowered his ERA to an NPB-best 0.71.
“I’ve had a good catcher all seven starts in Ishihara,” Johnson said. “I’ve shaken him off once in seven starts. He knows these hitters really well, and all I’ve got to do is throw it to a spot. It makes it a lot easier. It simplifies it, and I don’t have to think as much. I leave all the thinking up to him.”
Johnson has handled the Japanese game, and its abundance of good contact hitters well. He says it suits his pitching style.
If teams want to bunt, he’ll take those outs and he’s more than content trusting his defense when opposing batters put the ball in play.
“He’s a pitcher who can throw his breaking balls for strikes,” Ishihara said. “Usually, foreign pitchers give you the impression that they throw hard, but he can use his breaking ball, and that’s what he’s best at.”
Johnson has also been malleable in his approach to the game, something many foreign veterans feel is a key to NPB success.
“I think it’s just being able to adapt to the Japanese style of baseball and the way it’s played here,” said Yomiuri Giants pitcher Scott Mathieson, currently in his fourth season in Japan. “I find that a lot of guys have success for the first half of their first season, or even the first season, and the second year it seems like it’s pretty tough when guys figure you out.
“Obviously, he’s doing real well. He’s had a very impressive year. Hopefully he can keep adapting and not just stay stagnant and keep changing. Having an open mind is the biggest thing.”
Johnson went to high school in Missouri and then attended Wichita State University. So living in Japan is a big change, and like most foreign players, he’s faced with a brand of baseball that might be slightly different than what he’s experienced in the past.
“A lot of it is adjusting on the fly,” he said. “You hear a lot of things, but until you actually go out there and experience it, I don’t think you get the full gist of it. These guys are really hard to put away, which kind of fits my style. I like to get a lot of early contact, I’m not going to strike out a lot of guys.
“So it’s just going out and throwing more strikes, quality strikes, because these guys, they’re good contact hitters. If you make a mistake, yeah they’ll put it in the seats, but a lot of these guys can put it wherever they want. A little more concentration than back home, but otherwise, it’s just baseball.”
Johnson spent most of his time in the minors before coming to Japan, with seven MLB appearances for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Minnesota Twins over the last two years.
“It was obvious to me that he was going to have a chance to be successful in Japan,” his agent, Matt Sosnick said. “It literally was going to come down to whether he chose to do it or not.
“What ends up happening is, we make it clear there’s interest in him going to Japan, and immediately we probably get calls from 10 teams.”
The Carp were able to land Johnson due to his agency’s relationship with Hiroshima scout Jonathan Fine, and the eagerness the team showed.
“Because of our relationship with Jonathan Fine, they basically came to the table and said, ‘look, what’s it going to take to get this done?’ ” Sosnick said. “They were the most aggressive. Everybody else was waiting on other teams to make a bid.”
The way Johnson has pitched, the Carp’s eagerness has paid off so far.
He was a first-round draft pick by the Boston Red Sox in 2006, and consistently rated as one of the organization’s top prospects. A prolonged stay in the majors, however, never materialized.
“I think the reason why I didn’t stick back in the States was consistency,” Johnson said. “Being able to be consistent out here is another step forward. I’m not saying getting back to the States, I’m saying progressing to where I know I can be. That’s one thing I’ve been trying to work on. I’m happy with it so far. I know it can get a little better, because you can always get a little better.”
In the U.S., Johnson was pegged as having great success against left-handed batters, while righties were able to hit him well.
Early in his NPB career he’s been similarly stingy against batters on both sides of the plate. Left-handers are hitting .137 against him with righties batting .183.
“I think it’s just the experiences over the last couple of years in the big leagues and the minor leagues,” he said of his results. “When I’ve had real good years, I’ve tried to build off of it and tried to refine myself a little bit as I grow older. I don’t think I’ve changed much. I don’t know if it’s something small that I don’t even notice. I don’t know. I’ve put it all together and it’s come out pretty good so far.”