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Johnson walks to Minors lead in steals05/07/2013 12:32 AM ET
By Jake Seiner / Special to MLB.com
For the Minor Leagues' most prolific base stealer, it's not so much about how he runs. This year, it's really all been about how he walks.
"I do it differently than just about everybody else does," Class A Kannapolis' Micah Johnson said after stealing four bases in a 4-2 win over Greensboro on Monday.
The performance boosted his season total to 25 swipes in 27 games. It's a big jump for the 23-year-old, who stole 19 bags in a 69-game stint in the Rookie-level Pioneer League last season.
Where did the spike coming from? The Indiana University product has always been an impressive athlete. Legend has it he once beat former NBA No. 1 overall Draft pick Greg Oden in a game of one-on-one.
But there's no change in his athleticism accounting for the successful aggression. The difference between last year and this one for Johnson has been his approach. Namely, he's fully adopted a baserunning strategy suggested to him a few years back by a former coach.
In 2011, Johnson played with the Cotuit Kettlers of the Cape Cod League under coach Mike Roberts, father of former Major Leaguer Brian Roberts. The elder Roberts, a former manager at the University of North Carolina, asked Johnson to spend that summer working on taking walking leads from first base. At the time, Johnson employed the practice occasionally, but never truly grasped the concept.
After the White Sox selected the Indiana University product in the ninth round of last year's First-Year Player Draft, Johnson continued to sprinkle the walking leads into his game, but still didn't feel entirely comfortable with the process.
Prior to the 2013 season, Johnson decided to adopt the walking lead full time, and he's done it with stunning results, having been caught just four times in 29 attempts.
Here's how it works: At first base, rather than take the usual three or four initial steps off the bag, Johnson starts with only a pair of conservative shuffles. As the pitcher sets, Johnson begins to walk toward second base, and he doesn't stop until the pitcher makes a move one way or the other.
"The lead won't be that big, but my momentum is carrying me toward second," he said.
When he gets to second base, he'll switch to what he calls a jumping lead.
"I'm constantly jumping back and forth whether the pitcher is looking or not," he said. "I worked on that at the Cape Cod League with Mike Roberts. It's just kind of a thing I finally got an understanding of."
With his new practice, Johnson has terrorized unsuspecting South Atlantic League hurlers. It took more than two weeks before any pitchers figured out the most obvious counter to Johnson's walking lead. On April 18, Augusta's Chris Stratton simply held onto the ball until Johnson walked himself into no-man's land, then threw over and picked him off.
Since then, Johnson has cut his lead at a certain distance from first, though he continues to pick up and put down his feet once he gets there.
"I'm actually glad that happened," Johnson said about the Stratton pickoff. "I had to figure out how to counteract that. It gave me a chance to learn from it."
Johnson's walking leads are a rare practice in professional baseball. But he plans to stick with the approach, adjusting the practice as opponents' tendencies dictate.
"In Low-A, I almost feel like I can steal the base every time. I understand the competition gets better as you go up, and I'm trying to learn everything I can. We'll see. So far, it's worked."
Johnson also helped his own cause this year through effective work from atop Kannapolis' batting order. He's hitting .286 with a .367 on-base percentage after hitting .273 with a .375 OBP at Great Falls last year. He's shown some power, posting a .448 slugging percentage this year, while trying to improve his glove work at second base.
At 23, few in the Minor Leagues can match his athleticism, which is outstanding enough to have people believing the 5-foot-11 infielder once beat Oden, a high school buddy, in a game of one-on-one.
As for the truth to that tale, Johnson proved himself to be as elusive as probably seems to opposing pitchers.
"Oh man, I can't confirm that," he said with a laugh. "But I'm not willing to deny it either. I wouldn't want to put that legend down."