College Pod: Arizona Coach Jay Johnson
This week on the Baseball America college podcast, Arizona coach Jay Johnson joins Teddy Cahill to talk about the Wildcats’ start to fall ball and to look ahead to the 2019 season.
Arizona began its fall with a game against Naranjeros de Hermosillo, a Mexican Winter League team, in the Mexican Baseball Fiesta in Tucson. Arizona and Hermosillo tied, 2-2.
Johnson said he saw a lot of positives from the Wildcats during the game.
“The best takeaway was the length of the pitching,” he said. “We threw nine players and eight of them were new pitchers, one inning apiece. Of the nine guys, eight of them were over 90 mph at some point in the inning. So, I think the depth and the arm strength we were able to bring in with this class was great to see. I think it was great to see their mental disposition, be able to slow the game down and they only gave up four hits the entire night, which was very impressive.
“On the position player side, taking at bats against pro pitchers, I thought we held our own pretty well. I think we had nine or 10 hits, didn’t really look overmatched, overwhelmed, did not chase out of the zone. The game definitely exceeded my expectations for where we are in the development of our team and I think that’s a credit to some of the talent of our players.”
One of Johnson’s strengths as a coach is as a motivator. He encourages his players to approach every game as if it were the Super Bowl, an approach that was especially effective in 2016, as Arizona reached the College World Series finals.
“College baseball is a very fickle game and we look at it as a 56-game playoff,” Johnson said. “In all three years here – in ’16 and ’17 we were probably one win away from hosting a regional, which we all know what a significant advantage that is, and then last year probably a win away from being in the NCAA Tournament. Our players know the value of them and you cannot afford to have a letup or not bring your best. Just for survival in the Pac-12 the type of quality players that are in the conference and the type of quality coaches that are in the conference. Motivation is the baseline for survival.
“My dad was a really good high school football coach and I think was ahead of his time with some of that stuff and I spent eight years at San Diego with Rich Hill, who was really good at that. Really trying to get players to really compete and to be conisstet in the attitude and concentration and effort that they bring. You can’t do that just by rolling the balls out. Whatever way we can get them engaged and locked in on being the best we can, we want to try and do that.”
Arizona missed the 2018 NCAA Tournament and this year will be looking to get back to the postseason. The Wildcats brought in a top-15 recruiting class, but also have several key returners, including infielder Cameron Cannon, who is coming off a breakout summer in the Cape Cod League.
“He’s a baseball player and really talented,” Johnson said. “We were lucky. He was one of those guys who did not commit to a school early so when we got to Arizona we still had the opportunity to recruit him and sign him and, boy, we’re sure glad we did. I always look at Cameron as a really balanced player. He has really good feet at short, he has above-average hands, he has a really strong arm. So, he has all the makings of a Top 25 or Power Five shortstop. As far as the pro game, maybe he’s a second baseman, maybe he’s a third baseman. I’ll let somebody else decide that. I think he brings good versatility there where he could probably be a plus defender at all four infield spots. The hitting thing, he has enough power and bat speed and baseball aptitude to play any of the four infield positions.
“I think he’s got all the ability in the world. I think he could be a future big league player. I think he’s really improved during his time here. If the jump from the sophomore year to the junior year is as big as the one from the freshman year to the sophomore year, that’ll be great for our team and great for Cam. He just loves baseball and I love coaching players that love baseball.”