Gators' Brian Johnson's Success Is Making Life Difficult For Scouts
Finding a prospect who can pitch like Brian Johnson is difficult. There aren't many 6-foot-4, 225-pound lefthanders who command four pitches.
Finding a prospect who can hit like Johnson is also a challenge. Lefthanded-hitting power bats who spray to all fields aren't easy to come by, either.
So when scouts come across a player like Johnson, who can impress on both sides of the diamond, they take special interest.
Johnson, a rising junior at Florida, has been starring as a pitcher and a hitter for years, and he has stirred debate over which spot he profiles best at since he was a Dodgers 27th-round draft pick out of Cocoa Beach (Fla.) High in 2009.
Now that he has continued to stand out both ways at Florida, Johnson has only added fuel to the conversation.
"I like both and I'm going to continue to do both until I'm forced to do one," he said. "I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to do both in summer ball and with Florida, so I'm going to continue to work hard with both and do it until someone picks one for me."
Johnson headed into last spring off a first-team Freshman All-America selection in 2010, and he was a third-team Preseason All-American. A sophomore centerpiece on the Gators' second consecutive College World Series finals team, Johnson played in 61 games with 50 starts as Florida's primary DH. He hit .307/.381/.464 with 11 doubles, five home runs and 29 RBIs and earned first-team all-Southeastern Conference accolades as a hitter.
He was no slouch on the mound either. As Florida's No. 3 starter for much of the spring, Johnson was 8-3, 3.62 with 72 strikeouts and 15 walks in 80 innings. He appeared in 16 games, making 15 starts, his lone relief cameo coming in Game Two of the national championship series against South Carolina, in which he threw a scoreless sixth inning.
Johnson also made a pair of national headlines with the Gators this spring, but neither had much to do with his on-field prowess. On May 28, he was hit in the back of the head by an errant throw to second base from his catcher during SEC tournament play against Georgia. The throw knocked him unconscious for a short time and forced him to sit out during regional and super regional play with a concussion.
"It was the hardest thing I've had to do in my collegiate career so far," he said. "I felt fine. I mean you almost feel like there should be something wrong with your arm, or you pull something because you feel OK and want to go out and play so badly, but the doctors say you can't.
"I could take BP and work out with the team, so to not be able to play in the game and to have no control over that, it was just really tough."
When he returned for Game One of the CWS against Texas, Johnson found himself in the spotlight once again. With two outs in the bottom of the seventh and Florida holding a 5-4 lead, he lifted a ball to deep right-center field that appeared to clear the wall. The shot, however, ricocheted back into the outfield and was mistakenly ruled a double. Although the play did not have a direct effect on Florida's 8-4 victory, it did have an effect on college baseball, as the CWS will now conduct replay on home runs in 2012.
Johnson's summer has been just as hectic. While playing with the USA Baseball's college national team and the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox of the Cape Cod League, he has continued to produce on both sides of the ball, leading some to believe he is the best two-way college player in the 2012 draft class.
"I think he's a legit, true, two-way guy in college," Yarmouth-Dennis head coach Scott Pickler said. "He loves doing both. He's a throwback guy. He loves playing baseball, and he's a baseball player. I've had lots of people tell me the highest compliment you can receive in this game, is to hear that you're a 'baseball player,' and that's what people say about him."
In a span of nearly three weeks, Johnson went from Gainesville to Omaha, back to Gainesville, to North Carolina (and the USA Baseball National Training Center), back to Omaha (where Team USA played Japan), back to North Carolina, and north to Cape Cod, while pitching and hitting for three different teams.
"I've enjoyed it," Johnson said. "Not a lot of people get to travel and do stuff like this in their life, and I get to travel and see different parts of the country and play baseball at the same time, so what could be better. It's fun. Baseball is fun. It's been a great opportunity and I'm very thankful for it."
Because Florida advanced to Omaha, Johnson reported late to Team USA, but he made his presence felt immediately. In his first game, the two-year college national team veteran went 2-for-2 with a home run, three walks and three RBIs in the inaugural Prospect Classic, as the college team took on players from the 18U team. He also threw 12/3 innings of relief and struck out two. In just four games, Johnson went 5-for-12 with a team-leading three home runs and threw four innings, surrendering one run.
"It's a once in a lifetime experience (to play for Team USA), and I've gotten to do it twice, which is unbelievable," he said. "It's definitely a different feeling putting on that uniform. To be honest, you get the chills doing it, having that USA across your chest. You know, every game you're just trying to soak it all in and enjoy every little bit of it."
Three days after Team USA's season ended, Johnson was already in another lineup and again his impact was instant. In his Yarmouth-Dennis debut, Johnson went 2-for-5 with a home run and five RBIs. Against Wareham on July 25, he worked six innings, allowing one earned run on three hits and struck out five.
Pick A Position
Through the summer, the jury remains split on where Johnson's future lies. On one hand, scouts see an innings-eating southpaw who works in the low 90s with a sharp slider and good changeup and curveball on the side.
On the other hand, Johnson could be a potential top-tier power bat with the ability to not only hit balls over the fence, but also hit them out of stadiums, as he did several times in batting practice at Durham Bulls Athletic Park with Team USA.
"He has legitimate power with wood," college national team pitching coach Rob Walton. "His batting practice is special. He's a first-rounder with the bat, probably a second- or third-rounder as an arm."
For every eye that favors Johnson as a hitter, however, there is someone who likes him on the mound.
"I like him more as a pitcher," a crosschecker for an American League team said. "Then again, I liked Nick Markakis more as a pitcher. He's up to 93 mph, he has feel to pitch, and he's big and durable and has shown a very good breaking ball at times. He had the best usable power on Team USA, but as a hitter, it's a little hard for me to get excited about a guy who's locked into playing first base."
In addition to Markakis, Johnson has received favorable comparisons to Jason Vargas, the Mariners lefthander who starred both ways with Long Beach State and in Cape Cod in the early 2000s.
Although Johnson's versatility puts him in an odd position, he'll continue to attract special interest until he's picked next June.