St. Edward's Stephen Johnson Shows Electric Stuff
Every year, the first few rounds of the draft are populated mostly with prospects from three main origins: the powerhouse Division I college programs, the warm-weather high schools and the dominant junior colleges.
But this spring, St. Edward's (Texas) junior righthander Stephen Johnson will give scouts plenty of reason to flock to the Division II ranks, as well.
Coming off an eye-opening summer performance in the California Collegiate League and an outstanding fall that landed him at No. 26 on BA's early 2012 college prospects list, Johnson's professional prospects are soaring.
Pitching for the Santa Barbara Foresters last summer—alongside big-name players from Lone Star State powers Rice and Texas—Johnson did more than just fit in with his talented teammates. Pitching in relief, the 6-foot-4 205-pounder set himself apart by showcasing a lively 93-96 mph fastball.
"He'll blow up a radar gun," a Texas area scout said. "You have to love the arm strength and the life on the fastball. It's got hop."
While Johnson may be a fast riser this spring, the climb from an underdeveloped high school thrower to a potential high-round pitcher has been more gradual.
Coming out of high school, the Colorado native's sole Division I offer came from Northern Colorado. However, Johnson had other ideas due to a strong desire "to go somewhere warmer and have the opportunity to get an out-of-state experience."
After seeing Johnson at a showcase in Albuquerque on the tip of a Four Corners area scout, St. Edward's head coach Rob Penders immediately saw the potential. He vividly remembers his first look at the righty.
"When I saw him, he was sitting around 86 mph with knees and elbows flying everywhere, but he was a 6-4 gangly kid and could really spin the ball," Penders said. "You need lots of hand speed to spin the ball at that altitude. I knew there was a lot more in that body."
A scout who saw him in high school agreed.
"He was only 85-88 mph when I saw him and the offspeed needed a lot of work, but when you look at the body you think he may come on some day," the scout said. "The delivery was not textbook, but he was athletic enough that he has a shot as an upside developmental play."
One look at Johnson was all Penders needed to try and get him on campus.
"It came down to us and a few other D-II schools," said Penders, who played at Wake Forest and is a former Texas assistant. "He came for a visit, we made him an offer, and luckily he committed shortly after."
Johnson said St. Edward's appealed to him for several reasons.
"I was attracted to the location—Austin is a great city with great weather," he said. "St. Edward's student body allowed for smaller class sizes and made it a more personal feel. Coach Penders' resume and coaching staff sold me on their ability to get me stronger and develop as a ballplayer."
Through a series of pitching drills and a strength program that has allowed Johnson to pack on 30 pounds since high school, Johnson has started to tap into his considerable potential. His development is a testament to both his own work ethic and the fulfillment of a plan Penders pitched during the recruiting process.
Johnson has primarily pitched in St. Edward's rotation during his first two seasons. He went 3-4, 6.50 with nearly as many walks (39) as strikeouts (40) in 54 innings as a freshman. He blossomed into the staff ace as a sophomore, going 7-5, 3.56 with 65 strikeouts and 35 walks in 78 innings.
But this spring, Johnson faces a new challenge: the closer role.
Although scouts do not necessarily believe the switch to the bullpen is the best long-term move for Johnson's developing changeup, it is the role that best suits his team's needs. The role will also provide an opportunity for Johnson to dominate in short bursts while showcasing his premium arm strength and tightening his sharp slurve.
While Johnson is open to whatever role Penders envisions, he seems to have taken to the new role nicely. In his first appearance of the spring, Johnson struck out the side in a perfect inning of work. Through his first three appearances, Johnson has a 0.00 ERA, 11 strikeouts and four walks over five innings.
"I really enjoyed working in relief this summer," Johnson said. "I can just go out there and throw gas for an inning or two, and it gives me the opportunity to get on the mound in more games."
Even so, scouts envision giving Johnson the opportunity to begin his pro career as a starting pitcher.
"Because of the competition he's faced, you have to at least give your organization a chance to develop him as a starter," the Texas scout said. "This isn't a guy that you take early and rush him up the system."
This season will give scouts a chance to bear down on Johnson to see if he has developed more consistent mechanics, improved his feel for pitching and refined his secondary stuff.
"Not many guys have a book on this kid, and that creates risk," the scout said. "With such limited looks, a lot of people are going to have the spring to make up their minds.
"If he dominates like he should, he could move way up."