Q&A with Texas Pitching Coach Skip Johnson

Texas pitching coach Skip Johnson is in his third year with the Longhorns and his staff has shown signs of a dominance. Through 21 games, they have a 1.94 ERA with five shutouts on the year. Burnt Orange Beat's Jason Cole spoke with Johnson after the Horns threw their fifth shutout against Dallas Baptist this week.

Pitching coach Skip Johnson is in his third year at the University of Texas, and he is currently working with arguably the most talented Longhorns pitching staff in a number of years.

Prior to his job with UT, Johnson spent 13 years as the head coach at JUCO power Navarro College, compiling 450 wins and 13 NCJAA Regional appearances.

Three years into his tenure at Texas, Johnson is beginning to get settled in, as he recruited and signed eight of the 10 pitchers that have logged innings this season. With a staff ERA of 1.94 through the season's first 21 games, Johnson appears to be excelling with his recruits.

Burnt Orange Beat's Jason Cole spoke with the Longhorns' pitching coach prior to Wednesday's practice at Disch-Falk Field.

Jason Cole: First off, can you talk about Austin Dicharry's performance last night and how big it was for the team?

Skip Johnson: I think it was good. He didn't throw in the fall, so we consider him to be probably a month behind as far as his throwing progression goes. He went out and showed some leadership from a freshman role, and he had a really good performance. He threw two innings on Sunday for us in a big situation, and he came out yesterday and threw really well.

Cole: It looked like he was throwing a lot of offspeed stuff, especially early in the count.

Johnson: Yeah, his changeup was really good yesterday. We knew that when we signed him – that he had a plus changeup and a plus breaking ball. He kept them off-balance with those and made some quality pitches with his fastball when he needed to.

Cole: Talk about the development Brandon Workman has gone through this year. How has he improved from his freshman season?

Johnson: I think the biggest development is – it's a process from when he came out of high school – trying to teach him how to pitch. Really the first thing was that we worked on his mechanics to try and get him to stay back. We knew he had a talented arm and we knew he had some grit in him.

Then over the summer, we worked on his finish a little bit. Then this fall, we worked on trying to put some wit with that grit a little bit – teaching him how to pitch, throwing balls to targets instead of trying to throw a fastball by everybody. We tried to teach him how to pitch and I think that has really helped him a lot.

Just trying to teach him to pitch at a consistent speed, a comfortable speed for him. He can throw a ball at 94 miles per hour, but he might pitch at 92. Just trying to locate, trying to teach him how to locate. The performance of throwing the ball to the target is probably his most important development this past spring.

Cole: I know he's mostly a fastball, curveball guy right now, but he's also working with a changeup and a slider, isn't he?

Johnson: I think the changeup is going to come first because he's got a big power breaking ball and we don't want to take away from that. Sometimes the slider does that every once in awhile. I think the slider is more for the future, as he gets older and more mature, he can understand what his delivery is doing for him.

He pitched here against Missouri, and his changeup was really good in the later part of the innings that he pitched. I think that was a good sign of confidence. He's gotten a lot of confidence from that.

Cole: With a young pitching staff – and the rotation being all freshmen and sophomores – and a team ERA under 2.00 this late in the year, how much room for improvement is there?

Johnson: I think the improvement comes with trying to stay within yourself and just keep trying to build off confidence. Those guys keep feeding off each other. Every performance, they're trying to have a quality performance. You're going to have your ups-and-downs on the road, and I think those guys picking each other up – Austin Wood and Keith Shinaberry had a big role in this because of their leadership. They are the captains of the pitching staff and they keep those guys afloat. They talk to them a lot and they've put them under their wing. Having Ruffin there too – he threw some big innings for us last year. Having him there, too, has been a big key.

Cole: I want to talk about Wood for a second. Last season, you changed his mechanics a bit, didn't you?

Johnson: When I first got here, I really didn't watch him throw too much as a freshman because I wasn't here. We were at Texas Tech, and before the game he said, ‘watch this.' He threw a pitch from low three-quarters and I told him that it looked pretty good. I said, ‘if you want to do that in this game, you can a little bit. Just try it.' He didn't, but the next start, we started right then because it's his natural arm slot. When I got here, it was like he was trying to do something that he's really not capable of doing, so we went back to his natural arm slot and it has been good ever since then.

Cole: Does that put more movement on his fastball, or is it just simply more comfortable for him to pitch with?

Johnson: I think he stays with the ball, he stays with the finish, he stays through the ball, he's square at the end, and he can locate out of that. It's more natural for him. He doesn't have to fight his front side, he doesn't have to fight his back side, and he doesn't have to fight his body to deliver the pitch. I think that gives him a lot of confidence.

Cole: Last year, Stayton Thomas logged some big innings out of the bullpen as a freshman. So far this year, he's pitched in just two games with one total inning. How much are you expecting him to contribute down the stretch this season?

Johnson: I think the more confidence in the midweek – like today we're doing a simulated game – the more confidence he can gain from that deal. His first two outings were pretty rough. He got out of the first jam with a big double play ball and a strikeout. Then the next one, we couldn't do it. It was a 6-2 lead and he had the bases loaded, and we had to get Wood in there. Wood came in and got a double play and picked Stayton up.

The more we can throw him in there and try to get him some confidence during the midweek – we've got to try to get him some opportunities for him to throw and try to gain that confidence back. It's really a confidence issue. There's nothing wrong with his delivery, there's nothing wrong with any of that. It's a confidence issue. Getting him back there and getting him the right opportunities – into roles that he can succeed in – that should build some confidence for him.

Cole: How often do you deal with something like that – a confidence issue – with young pitchers in the college ranks?

Johnson: I think you deal with it a lot. You try to stay ahead of it, but sometimes you can't stay ahead of it. Just like Coach Garrido said, the difference in the games at Kansas was a difference in the confidence. You see how all the sudden, we're on the same level. Then all the sudden they had two big wins and they had more confidence on Sunday than they did on the first two days.

Listening to Coach Garrido and Coach Harmon, they've been here, they've seen all this, and they've dealt with it. We're trying to listen to those guys and understand the confidence issue from that standpoint and trying to stay ahead of it. Some days you can, and sometimes you can't stay under it.

I think the leadership of Austin Wood and Shinaberry plays a big role in that confidence because they can try to keep you ahead of it by talking to those guys when we're not around them. Their peer players are what motivates them. They motivate each other.

Cole: Taylor Jungmann has been pitching really well, but there's obviously just no room for him in the weekend rotation right now. How do you feel he is handling the move to the bullpen both mentally and physically?

Johnson: I think he's just a pitcher. He's a guy that goes out there and pitches to the target. We've got a unique situation where this guy could be a starter on most teams. He could be a weekend starter on most teams.

Right now, the comfort level and competition between Cole [Green] and Workman has been really good. They've been really competing with each other and getting quality innings.

On Sunday of Missouri, we brought Taylor in for the last four innings and it was really awesome to bring him in that situation. It's a comforting role because you know he's going to go out there and give you some quality innings.

Cole: Are you planning on sticking with the same weekend rotation for Tech this week?

Johnson: Right now we are. There's no doubt. We're going to try to figure out on Ruffin – see how Ruffin feels today after closing last night. We're going to see how he feels tomorrow and see what transpires or what comes up off that and try to adjust from there.

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