The Red Sox placed Brian Johnson on waivers in late November for the purposes of taking him off the 40-man roster. The other 29 teams passed and he was assigned to Triple A Pawtucket.
The move was an obvious one considering Johnson’s 6.02 earned run average last season. He put 76 runners on base via hit or walk over 40⅓ innings.
But Johnson, a supplemental first round pick in 2012, never saw it coming.
“One-hundred percent, it was a surprise,” he said.
Now, almost eight months later, the pitcher the Sox didn’t need in November is a leading candidate for the fourth spot in their rotation.
Manager Ron Roenicke certainly feels that way after watching Johnson retire nine of the 10 batters he faced in an intrasquad game on Sunday.
“Yes, I do. We all do,” Roenicke said.
Johnson walked Xander Bogaerts in the first inning but was otherwise perfect. He threw 24 of 38 pitches for strikes with a well-located fastball and a lively changeup.
Johnson’s fastball is 88-90 miles per hour, so it’s a pitch he has to throw up the strike zone to be effective. That makes his above-average curveball and changeup better pitches.
“When he was good two years ago we saw a lot of high fastballs. He really hit that spot well,” Roenicke said. “He mixed in a lot of changeups.”
“It’s hard to say this early what the difference is between this year and last year. But we really like the way he threw the ball.”
That Johnson is being lined up to face the Mets on July 27 speaks to the changes that chewed up the rotation since last season ended.
Rick Porcello signed with the Mets as a free agent. Then David Price was traded to the Dodgers, the Red Sox tacking on half his remaining salary over three seasons as part of the cost to get Mookie Betts.
Chris Sale was next, his seemingly inevitable Tommy John coming in March. Then Eduardo Rodriguez tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month.
But give Johnson credit for putting himself in position to claim one of those open spots. He showed improvement in the five games he pitched before spring training was shut down and reported to Fenway Park earlier this month built up to go three innings after staying on a throwing program when he was home in Florida.
Lefthanders always get a second chance, especially ones with a first-round pedigree. But Johnson is earning his shot at redemption. He’s recognizing the need to be precise with his mechanics, particularly when ahead in the count.
Some pitchers can make a mistake and get away with it because of their velocity or movement. Johnson doesn’t have that insurance.
“A lot of times when you have something happen to you, you have to make a change,” Roenicke said. “Whether it’s mental with your attitude or whether it’s something mechanical and you have to make a change.
“The one thing we try and tell everybody is to stay open-minded. Sometimes you have to make a change to stay in [the] big leagues.”
Johnson readily acknowledged that the demotion provided motivation.
“There’s never a time in the majors you want to get complacent,” he said. “Having that happen really lit a fire and showed I needed to prove something.”
Johnson landed on the disabled list early last season with elbow inflammation and missed nearly 10 weeks. He pitched well in three games after returning then returned to the injured list for five more weeks with what was described as a non-baseball medical matter.
“That wasn’t really me at times,” Johnson said. “I was coming back off [the injured list] twice. I get it; my numbers weren’t good in 2019. I get why someone would get taken off the roster. But I didn’t expect it.”
Whether it’s a starter or reliever, Johnson can be valuable. He appeared in 38 games for the 2018 Red Sox, 13 as a starter, and had a 4.17 ERA over 99⅓ innings. He faced as many as 29 hitters in a game that season and as few as one.
Such versatility requires endurance from the start.
“It’s easier to build up to five, six innings then taper off when you need to,” Johnson said. “It’s much harder to be at two or three innings and suddenly ramp up to five or six,” Johnson said. “It’s not the amount of pitches you throw, it’s the up and downs [between innings] that really get you.”