When Micah Johnson steps into the batter’s box, his chances of getting on are already higher than your average player's.
Opposing players know about Johnson's speed. Stealing a Minor League-leading 84 bases in 2013, will have that effect.
From the press box, you can see third basemen take a few steps on to the infield grass and middle infielders creep in beyond their normal comfort zones.
Johnson's noticed it too, and he's come up with an approach at the plate that tries to take advantage.
“I’m generally in position to hit an off-speed first pitch as easily as a first-pitch fastball,” Johnson said. “I think my timing mechanism is one that’s not too elaborate. I’m not trying to hit balls out of the park, so I don’t need to try to get the ball out front. I can see it deeper.”
Once the ball is put in play, infielders have roughly 3.7 seconds -- even less on a bunt -- to field it cleanly and make an accurate throw to first.
“I can get jammed and hit a weak groundball to short and it’s a hit, or I can hit a ball hard and get a hit,” Johnson said. “There’s room for error when it comes to hitting, if you have speed.”
Another skill Johnson, who was leading Class AA Birmingham in on-base percentage (.414) before his call up, will use to get aboard is his eye.
“After coming to us as a bit of a free swinger, Micah’s turned himself into a guy who’s not afraid to hit with two strikes,” Knights bench coach Ryan Newman said. “That’s what you want from your leadoff guy.
“He’s not afraid to go deep in counts,” Newman continued. “He’s able to foul balls off until he gets his pitch. He lets the guys behind him see pitches. He really studies the game and has learned what good leadoff hitters do and turned himself into one of them.”
Once safely aboard, things get analytical, for Johnson, who will generally take a larger lead off left-handers than right-handers in an effort to force a throw over.
“I’m a big proponent of knowing the time of the pitcher,” Johnson said. “If a guy is a 1.2 (seconds from lifting his front foot until the ball hits the catcher’s glove) or below to the plate and the catcher is a 1.9, that means you need to be faster than a 3.2 to the base, or you’re going to be out without some luck.”
Johnson, who said he thinks he's "about a 3.3" to second, isn't out there with a calculator doing the math, he commits the times to memory before each game.
From then on, it’s about feel.
“I just kind of react,” Johnson said. “If I over think it, I’ll get jittery. But if I see it, react, and trust my eyes, that’s really all I need.
“Earlier this year, I got in trouble because I was overthinking the situation in the game and not going when I could have,” he continued. “Right now, my game is to put pressure on the defense by stealing, so that’s what I’m looking to do.”
*Side effect: Once he's on base, Johnson's speed forces pitchers to throw more fastballs. Since his arrival (May 13), Carlos Sanchez, who normally bats directly behind Johnson, has seen his batting average go up 21 points (.285 to .301). After going 751 days in between professional home runs, Sanchez now has five in the last 20 games.
“Micah’s turned himself into the type of guy that can put a team on his back and just go,” Newman said.