It seems like we’ve always been talking about Brian Johnson as a fringy, back-of-the-rotation option. For a number of years, he was rated among the Red Sox’s top 10 prospects. Johnson, along with Matt Barnes and Henry Owens, formed a trio of homegrown, young pitchers who were to be the future of the Red Sox rotations. Best laid plans, eh? Barnes is now locked in as a reliever, Henry Owens never figured out how to throw strikes with any consistency (and is now a Diamondback), but Johnson is still slogging away, and again presents an option for starting pitching depth for the Red Sox as they head into 2018.
Johnson’s journey has been tumultuous. He has dealt with physical injuries to his elbow, shoulder, leg, and even his head/brain, after getting hit in the head by a batted ball on more than one occasion. He also battled through a period of depression and anxiety in 2016, and both conditions require persistent attention to manage their impact. As if all of that wasn’t enough, Johnson was held at gunpoint in a car-jacking following the 2015 season. He has been through a lot, but is still fighting for a big league opportunity. One wonders how much time he has left to prove himself.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Similar to how Carson Smith’s big positive in 2017 was getting back out on a major league mound, Johnson’s huge step forward was getting back to competing at a high-level after having dealt with all the physical injuries and mental health concerns I mentioned above. He made 23 starts, totaling 120 innings last year: one at Low-A, 17 at Triple-A, and five with the big league club. That is pretty solid output from a guy whose career was not certain to continue a year ago.
It’s important to note that he didn’t just take the ball 23 times and muddle his way through starts. He often pitched well: in his 17 starts for Pawtucket, he posted a 3.18 RA9. His 4.19 FIP suggests he had some help in posting that nice runs-allowed number, but that is to be expected from a pitcher of Johnson’s ilk. He does not overpower batters. His fastball sits in the high 80s, and at the Triple-A/Major League levels, he has a 19.3 strikeout rate, which places him in the bottom third of the leaderboards. As such, he relies on his defense to keep opposing offenses at bay. This was evident when he got to pitch in front of Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. on May 27th at Fenway Park.
Mookie keeping Nelson Cruz in the yard:
Jackie robbing Cruz of a hit:
Johnson’s complete game shutout in May was just the sixth such outing at Fenway Park in the last five years. Interestingly, while I pointed out Johnson’s reliance on his defenders, he recorded eight strikeouts that day; a total he has reached or exceeded only nine other times in his 103 career starts at any professional level. It was a special day, and certainly a high point in Johnson’s career to date.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Unfortunately, other than that outing against the Mariners, Johnson was not very good for the Red Sox in 2017. Take it out of the equation and you find his other starts amounted to a 6.50 RA9 (6.66 FIP). That is a long way from the strong showings he had at Triple-A. Pitching in the majors is a big jump from the minors and a pitcher who relies on strict control and allowing contact can run into problems quickly against big league hitters.
Johnson’s other issue in 2017 was more injuries and bad luck. The injury problem was to his shoulder, which is never a good thing for a pitcher. He was forced to leave his start against the Phillies after just 2.2 innings due to shoulder discomfort, and things were already not going well: four hits, one walk, and three runs, including a home run. The discomfort was eventually diagnosed as a shoulder impingement and resulted in another trip to the disabled list for Johnson.
After working his way back with a month of solid performances for the PawSox, he was hit on the leg by a batted ball in his August 16th start and forced to leave after just one perfect inning. He made his next start (and two more, pitching well in two of the three), so ultimately, the injury was not serious. Just another example of the sort of bad luck that seems to follow Johnson around.
WHAT TO EXPECT
On another team, Johnson might be slotted into the 4th/5th spot in the rotation, but on the Red Sox, there is no room for him. Even if a spot opens up due to injury, it is not certain that Johnson will be the guy who is called on. He will be competing with Roenis Elias, Hector Velazquez, Jalen Beeks, and maybe even Steven Wright for the chance. As such, Johnson will head into 2018 in much the same way he has started the last few seasons: just on the outside of the big league rotation. Barring a trade this offseason, Johnson will again spend the majority of the season pitching for Pawtucket, working to demonstrate that his crafty stuff can consistently get major league hitters out.
Photo by Bob DeChiara – USA TODAY Sports