Birmingham's Erik Johnson, the Chicago White Sox's top pitching prospect, is among the Southern League leaders in ERA (1.30), WHIP (0.84) and strikeouts (36) in just his second full Minor League season. But that doesn't mean the right-hander from the University of California was nearly a finished product when he was taken in the second round of the 2011 Draft. Actually, it was almost the opposite.
The White Sox obviously liked the potential in his stuff but not necessarily the way Johnson delivered it.
"They broke down my mechanics and built me back up," Johnson said. "Now I have a solid base and I've really benefited from it."
The 6-foot-3, 235-pounder pitched just two innings in the Rookie Pioneer League in 2011 after being drafted with the retooling beginning. The results since have been there for everyone to see since as Johnson has become the White Sox's overall No. 3 prospect.
Although lat tightness and shoulder fatigue delayed the start of his 2012 season until June, he posted a 2.53 ERA in 17 starts and took a no-hitter into the sixth inning for Winston-Salem in the first round of the Class A Advanced Carolina League playoffs.
Johnson's revamped mechanics added sink to a fastball that can reach the mid-90s and improved an already sharp slider. When he improved his changeup during the instructional league last fall, hitters were really at a disadvantage.
"It's been another weapon for me," the 23-year-old California native said. "I've been able to throw multiple pitches for strikes."
Johnson, who also throws a curve, allowed just three hits over seven scoreless innings in both his victories, striking out 10 in the second outing against Huntsville on April 22.
In 34 2/3 innings, Johnson (2-1) has issued just 10 walks to go with his 36 strikeouts, and opponents are batting a feeble .160 against him.
Birmingham, which leads the North Division with a 20-10 record, is 13-2 in its new downtown ballpark, and Johnson had been a big part of the success at Regions Field. He hasn't allowed a run there yet, giving up only seven hits in 17 1/3 innings while striking out 20 and walking two.
"It's a pitcher's park, just like I understand the old one was," Johnson said. "The fans and the atmosphere have been great. It's definitely a fun place to play."
Johnson has played before big crowds before, having helped pitch Cal to the College World Series in his final season with the Bears. He also pitched in four Cactus League games, including two starts, this year after earning a non-roster invitation to Spring Training.
Johnson didn't fare that well in his first outings against Major League hitters, allowing 12 hits and four walks in 10 1/3 innings.
But with his improved mechanics and new changeup, he appears on the fast track to Chicago.
Bad luck: Jacksonville third baseman Zack Cox, who at the time was leading Southern League qualifiers with a .328 average, was placed on the disabled list last Thursday after straining his right hamstring. Cox is the second player this year to go on the DL when leading one of the Triple Crown categories. Tennessee first baseman Justin Bour, the circuit's 2012 RBI leader, has been sidelined since driving in 14 runs in his first 15 games. Birmingham first baseman Dan Black has taken over the lead in the batting race with a .340 average and is tied with Montgomery center fielder Mikie Mahtook for tops in RBIs with 25.
Sitting out: Mississippi catcher Christian Bethancourt got off to a promising start at the plate, batting .341 in his first 12 games. But Atlanta's No. 1 prospect hasn't played since April 20 because of a strained left hamstring. Bethancourt was limited to 71 games by injuries last season and batted .243 for the M-Braves. The 21-year-old from Panama was selected for the All-Star Futures Game a year ago. He is ranked as the No. 7 catching prospect by MLB.com.
Ill results: Right-handed pitcher Taylor Jungmann, Milwaukee's No. 2 prospect, went on the disabled list after allowing seven earned runs over 2 2/3 innings in Huntsville's 14-0 loss to Mississippi on April 27. It was the second time in four straight losses that he didn't make it out of the third inning. Jungmann, 23, is 1-4 with a 7.89 ERA and had 14 walks to 16 strikeouts in 21 2/3 innings. He was the 12th overall pick in the 2010 Draft out of the University of Texas and went 11-6 with a 3.53 ERA in the Class A Advanced Florida State League last season.