When Jay Johnson accepted the head coaching job at Arizona following the 2015 season, he knew who J.J. Matijevic was. A touted offensive prospect who enrolled at Arizona in 2014, Matijevic’s name carried some cache. He was the No. 180 prospect in the 2014 BA 500, a high school All-American and an unsigned 22nd-round pick of the Red Sox.
As a freshman for the Wildcats, however, Matijevic batted just .238/.317/.406—and just .222 in conference. He followed that spring with an improved performance in the Cape Cod League, batting .333, but he still had a long way to go to reach his high offensive ceiling. When Johnson first laid eyes on Matijevic in the fall of 2015, he recognized the young hitter’s promise immediately.
“Swing-wise, I thought he had a long, long way to go,” Johnson said of his first impression of Matijevic.
“In terms of bat speed and explosiveness, he’s the closest I’ve had to Kris Bryant,” said Johnson, who worked with Bryant as an assistant at San Diego. “Just the way the bat moves through the zone quickly and explosively.”
Under Johnson, Matijevic has blossomed into one of the most productive hitters in college baseball this spring. He batted .389/.440/.650 in the regular season, smashing 10 home runs and leading the nation with 29 doubles.
“I haven’t had another player like that, other than Bryant . . . I think when you give him 600 at-bats in professional baseball, I think he’s really going to continue to improve. It’s been a remarkable trajectory that he’s been on in the 20 months that we’ve been together.”
A Different Approach
In high school, Matijevic’s swing had more pre-pitch movement, with respect to how he loaded his hands and back elbow. His bat path was more level through the zone, and he struggled to sync the explosiveness in his lower half with his lightning-quick hands. He was prone to expanding the strike zone and swinging at pitches he couldn’t drive, and he wasn’t always able to capitalize on mistakes.
“What I wanted to do was take that bat speed and power and turn it into more consistent, usable skill in the game,” Johnson said.
That started with a reinvention of Matijevic’s swing and a change to his approach. He added more movement to his swing when he played in the Cape Cod League in 2015, and started to focus on controlling that movement when he began working with Johnson.
“I added a lot more movement, but it wasn’t controlled, and in my first year with Coach Johnson he told me I had to control my movement but that I could also have some movement, because I’m a rhythm guy,” Matijevic said. “I get going when I’ve got rhythm, so this year I incorporated a toe tap into my movement and it’s a lot more controlled.”
Matijevic’s swing includes a toe tap and explosive stride toward the mound, with his hips driving forward before he’s even committed to swinging.
“When we came in, he was a big, violent leg lift, leg kick guy, and he didn’t have very good feel or timing for it and he ended up being late a lot,” Johnson said. “The toe tap—the first thing I feel like it helped him with was direction. He would land square and he could move his energy in a straight line back in the direction the ball was coming from. J.J. did that last year, and now this year he’s synced it up, he’s timed it up better. So last year, the average started to go up and now it’s all there—average, power, consistency—the whole deal.”
Matijevic has also focused on swinging uphill. He cuts upward as he finishes his swing, allowing him to loft the ball more consistently. As the timing and rhythm of his swing has improved, so too has his pitch recognition. He says he’s seeing the ball sooner, recognizing breaking pitches earlier out of the pitcher’s hand and going to the plate with a plan.
He’s looking to see the ball deep into the hitting zone; he’s also focused on staying inside the ball and behind it. Matijevic covers the plate extremely well; he smacks line drives when pitchers attack him away, and he turns on the ball when they make mistakes inside.
Leading By Example
Johnson and Matijevic feed off each other. Johnson loves coaching Matijevic, and Matijevic loves playing for him. Arizona has a potent offense this season, and Johnson has weapons up and down the lineup, but he looks forward to each Matijevic at-bat.
“Sometimes I find myself counting in my head how many spots until he comes up again,” the coach said. “He has that kind of impact on the game every time he steps to the plate.”
Matijevic values Johnson’s teaching and outlook on the game. Beyond the mechanics of his swing or his game plan against an opposing pitchers, Johnson has helped his young star progress mentally.
“I love him, I love all these coaches,” Matijevic said. “We feel free with them. They let us do what we want, they let us play our game. It’s been really amazing. I wish Jay Johnson could coach me for the rest of my career. That’s how much he means to me.”
Matijevic views himself as an extension of the coaching staff on the field. He wants his teammates to succeed, and he believes that mentality has helped him stay focused on each individual task at hand.
“What I’ve taken strides in this year is not worrying about the outcome of my last at bat—whether it was good or bad—and just focusing on the next play or the next pitch and I think that’s what’s really helped me this year,” Matijevic said. “I’ve been able to forget about it this year because I’ve focused more on leading the team and I’ve focused more on my teammates and helping them. I’m not putting as much pressure on myself thinking about it all the time.”
The Next Level
Matijevic’s growth seems to have hit its crescendo in 2017, but there’s still work to be done. From a draft perspective, scouts’ biggest concern with him is what kind of impact he’ll have defensively. He’s primarily a first baseman, but he’s played a bit of outfield and even some second base in his amateur career.
Scouts are critical of his overall profile. Offensively, the general consensus is that he’s a hit-over-power prospect, though his jump in power production eases that tension a bit.
“There’s a place for guys like that in the big leagues,” one scout said. “I’ve heard the John Jaso and James Loney comps. I think you’re hoping for more power if you take Matijevic.”
Some scouts envision Matijevic hitting 15-20 home runs annually as a big leaguer, with his bat playing well enough for him to profile at first base. Others are more wary and note that he still needs considerable work on his defense.
Johnson believes Matijevic will be an adequate defender wherever he ends up.
“I think the athleticism is there,” Johnson said. “If you just look at the hitting part of it and how much he’s improved, my advice for a team would be to pick him with what they want him to do in mind, and let him go work on that. I think if you spend the right amount of time with him, and you just solidify a specific focus, he’ll play good enough defense to make sure that that bat’s in the lineup at a very high level.”
Matijevic is focused on the task at hand right now, with the Wildcats trying to make their second consecutive run to the College World Series. He’s likely to be selected in the top five rounds of the draft, though, and he’s ready to get to work on his defense at the next level.
“If you want me to play anywhere, I feel like I can,” Matijevic said. “I’m a big believer in hard work and reps. If you put in the work, hard work will pay off.”