From Shortstop To Pitcher, Seth Johnson Is Turning Heads At Rays Camp

Image credit: Seth Johnson (Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)

PORT CHARLOTTE, FLA.—Seth Johnson always knew he had the mechanics to be a pitcher. He had a good arm from shortstop but never had the chance to prove himself. That was until his friends picked up a radar gun while he was attending junior college and challenged him to throw. 

“The first pitch was like 87 mph, and I was like, ‘okay, that is probably about right,’ ” Johnson said. “Then I started throwing even harder, and the number kept going up. It was kind of just as fun.” 

After touching 92 mph, he talked his coach into letting him pitch. From there, the rest is history. After his sophomore year, Johnson transferred to Campbell to focus on pitching. 

He was selected 40th overall in the 2019 draft by the Rays. Tampa Bay has a history of developing young pitchers and hoped Johnson could be the next in a long line. 

Though he had an impressive pro debut, the righty started turning heads at instructional league in 2020.

Walking into this year’s spring training, Johnson had more of an ease about him—sure, camp was slowly transitioning back to “normal” (in the sense of Covid-19 restrictions), but that wasn’t it. He had a new sense of confidence that showed on and off the field. 

“I saw the bumps in the road,” said R.C. Lichtenstein, the pitching coach for the Rays Low-A affiliate in Charleston, who worked with Johnson last season. “I saw the ups and downs. I saw the mental hardships, and I saw the growth, which was so rewarding.”

Lichtenstein recalled a particular stretch of outings where he saw everything “click” for the righty. Johnson was throwing well, but the outing was rough. Five days later, he was back out on the mound. While his stuff wasn’t as good, the outing was much more successful. So, what was the difference? 

“The best thing and the worst thing about pitching is the next outing, you get to go out there and do this,” Lichtenstein said. “The spotlights are still gonna shine on you. The game is still not gonna start until you throw a ball. It could be very terrifying, or it could be very exciting. Like, ‘I get to do this again real soon!’ Or, ‘I get to do this again real soon … ‘ ”

Switching to pitching later in one’s career can be seen in a glass half full or half empty viewpoint. Johnson has fewer innings on his arm, but he also is older and less experienced. Johnson likes to look at the glass as half full—”the best surprise.” 

If you ask his pitching coach, he never doubted Johnson’s ability. Lichtenstein knew it was the young pitcher’s confidence that needed the workout. It’s something that differentiates the good pitchers from the great ones: confidence and mental growth. 

“We talked about that being just confidence in his intent,” Lichtenstein said. “(His mindset became), ‘I attack the hitters today. I wasn’t dealing with them, they were dealing with me … ‘ If (he’s) in this moment, mentally, he is going to be fine.”

From there, he took off. In the final 10 games of the season, Johnson pitched to a 1.81 ERA with a 67% strike rate. Johnson had turned the corner into becoming the type of pitcher the Rays had hoped—and knew—he could be. 

Johnson knew switching to pitching was (and is) the best move for his professional career—he’s currently ranked as the Rays No. 12 prospect.

Remember the “ease” referenced above? The righty always knew he had a good arm. But now, he knows he is a good pitcher. 

However, he does miss one thing about his shortstop days. 

“I miss BP,” said Johnson with a laugh. “I was a good BP hitter. Game time, not so much. But BP was a show.”

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