Baseball is in an era of monumental pitching velocity and explosive swing-and-miss pitches. The term “pitching prospect” has become synonymous with 95 m.p.h. and more, the only question being whether such a marker of fastball electricity represents a baseline or an upper limit for a pitcher who graduates from the minors into a big league rotation, with a debut representing a celebration of almighty arm strength.
That’s not Brian Johnson, who will make his big-league debut with the Red Sox on Tuesday against the Astros, three years after being drafted in the first round out of the University of Florida. The 24-year-old lefthander represents another path, a celebration of pitching as an art form rather than a show of brute force.
Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan figured that out the first time he saw Johnson on the mound in 2007, either the summer after his sophomore year or in the fall of his junior year.
“The first time we saw Brian pitch, out of roughly 55 pitches, I think he threw 48 strikes,” O’Sullivan said. “He does what really good pitchers do. Regardless of how hard you throw, he’s figured it out at an early age – he’s always been able to throw strikes, locate pitches, and change speeds. That’s what the really good ones do. He’s got the ability to throw harder, but he’s figured it out.”
Johnson recognizes that velocity is a tool that can become more powerful when limiting its usage as opposed to simply redlining. He employs a four-pitch mix – a fastball, curveball, changeup, and cutter/slider – to work in and out, varying the speeds, shapes, and locations of his offerings, all while working at a rapid-fire pace that can disrupt the timing of hitters.
He’s been able to reach 94 m.p.h. But Johnson stays at 88-92 mph with most of his fastballs, prioritizing location, movement, and the deception generated by changing speeds over the static reading of a radar gun.
“He’s more refined than what you saw back [in college], but there were certain days when he had a four-pitch mix and would go right after hitters,” said Anthony Turco, who scouted Johnson in college for the Red Sox. “He’s always worked fast, been confident on the mound, had the ability to attack the bottom part of the strike zone and mix all his pitches for strikes. Those are things that put him on the map and have created this opportunity to pitch in the big leagues.”
Johnson doesn’t necessarily have pitches with a wow factor. Most evaluators view his full complement of pitches as grading somewhere around average to a tick above.
Yet grading his pitches individually misses the point.
A scout might give him an average grade on his fastball if viewed in a vacuum, maybe less if he consistently sat around 88-91 mph. But for Johnson, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. He demonstrates the self-understanding and self-awareness to be able to adapt to whatever is working on a given day, while also mixing in a way that makes his pitches play up because they resist patterns and become somewhat unpredictable.
That approach, more than his raw stuff, serves as a separator, making each of his offerings better than it is on its own.
“Everyone thinks home runs and velocity get you to the big leagues, so [Johnson is] a little unique,” said Red Sox VP of amateur and international scouting Amiel Sawdaye, who was in charge of the Sox’ draft when the team took Johnson with the No. 30 overall selection in 2012. “It’s a little bit of his personality. He’s a smart kid who understands the game really well. He’s just a little more mature in that sense.”
In college, Johnson was an elite two-way player (he also played first base and hit in the middle of Florida’s lineup) in the best college conference in the country, the SEC, for a team that participated in the College World Series in all three years that he was with the Gators.
His maturity – both on and off the mound – made him a starter in the first series of the season as a freshman and he enjoyed immediate success. Johnson logged 5 2/3 shutout innings with three hits, no walks, and three punchouts.
“He was absolutely dynamite,” said O’Sullivan. “He was one of our weekend starters right from day one, on a team that was pretty talented. That goes to show you what we thought of him early on.”
Those who saw him at Florida do not cite single standout outings, but instead note that his career represented a blend of consistency, start after start, with size (he’s 6-foot-3) and a frame that suggested the potential to be a durable starter.
The Sox believed that, once Johnson could focus solely on pitching instead of shuttling between bullpen sessions and batting practice, once he could focus on charting games instead of anticipating plate appearances, he’d tap into his mound intellect in a way that gave him a strong likelihood of being a big league contributor.
“To me, that’s where you had the upside,” said Sawdaye. “How much more advanced can he be when he focuses on pitching? You don’t know how great the upside is, but you know that he’s probably going to be a pretty good big leaguer.”
In three years as a professional, Johnson has brought that projection to life, despite a mammoth obstacle. In his fourth pro game, pitching in the Futures at Fenway for the Lowell Spinners, Johnson took a line drive off the face that resulted in multiple orbital fractures.
Though he didn’t need surgery, his mouth was wired shut and he lost upward of 20 pounds that winter while unable to work out for an extended stretch and being reduced for months to eating through a straw. As a result of the diminished strength, the first half of that year was a bit of a lost one for him, with a stint on the disabled list for shoulder tendinitis sidelining him for months.
When he returned down the stretch that year, however, he dominated in Greenville and forced his way to Salem by the end of 2013.
“That speaks volumes about his mental makeup. He hasn’t missed a beat,” said O’Sullivan. “He’s rebounded from that like a champion would.”
He’s blitzed through all four full-season levels in the span of less than two years while forging a career 2.36 ERA – including a 1.75 ERA for the Double A Portland Sea Dogs last year, the lowest ERA by an Eastern League pitcher in 30 years.
While his lack of dominant stuff typically caps assessments of his ceiling as that of a back-end starter, it would be a mistake to overlook the possibility that a feel for pitching can create. After all, a pitcher on the team he will face in his big league debut, Astros ace Dallas Keuchel, was the American League’s starting pitcher in the All-Star Game on the strength of his ability to mix a complete arsenal that includes a high-80s fastball.
“I always thought I was better than what they ranked me,” Keuchel reflected at the All-Star Game. “I was, like, 24th in the top 30 prospects in the organization. I always thought I was better than that. I wasn’t going to let them choose my career path. It was my career.”
Johnson has shown similar determination, with the minor league performance to forge his way to the big leagues. Now, he will have the chance to show if his feel for his craft will permit him to maintain his steady ascent, to offer a stabilizing, reliable element who can assert himself as an important part of the effort to improve the Red Sox rotation going forward.
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