PORT CHARLOTTE, FLA.—Seth Johnson always knew he had the mechanics to be a pitcher. He had a good shortstop arm but never got a chance to prove himself. That was until his friends picked up a radar gun while he was attending college and challenged him to throw.
“The first pitch was like 87 mph, and I was like, ‘Okay, that’s probably about right,'” Johnson said. “Then I started throwing even harder and the number just kept going up. It was kind of just as much fun.
After hitting 92 mph, he convinced his trainer to let him run. 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 hopes Johnson could be the next in a long line.
Although he made an impressive professional debut, the right-hander has started to turn heads in the pedagogical league in 2020.
Going into this year’s spring training, Johnson was more comfortable with him – sure, camp was slowly getting back to ‘normal’ (in the sense of Covid-19 restrictions), but that wasn’t not all. He had a new sense of confidence that showed on and off the pitch.
“I saw the bumps in the road,” said RC Lichtenstein, the Rays Low-A branch pitching coach in Charleston who worked with Johnson last season. “I have seen ups and downs. I saw the mental challenges and I saw the growth, which was so rewarding.
Lichtenstein recalled one particular sequence of outings where he saw everything “click” for right-handed. Johnson was throwing well, but the exit was difficult. Five days later he was back on the mound. Although his stuff wasn’t as good, the release was much more successful. So what was the difference?
“The best and the worst thing about throwing is the next outing, you have to go out there and do that,” Lichtenstein said. “The spotlight is always going to shine on you. The game still won’t start until you throw a ball. It could be very terrifying, or it could be very exciting. Like, ‘I’m going to do this again real soon!’ Or, ‘I’m going to do this again real soon…'”
Switching to pitching later in his career can be seen in a glass half full or half empty. Johnson has fewer sleeves on his arm, but he’s also older and less experienced. Johnson likes to watch the glass half full – “the best surprise”.
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If you ask his pitching coach, he never doubted Johnson’s ability. Lichtenstein knew it was the young pitcher’s confidence that needed practice. It’s something that separates good pitchers from great ones: confidence and mental growth.
“We talked about that as just being the confidence in his intent,” Lichtenstein said. “(His mindset became), ‘I’m attacking the hitters today. I wasn’t dealing with them, they were dealing with me…’ If he (he) is right now, mentally he’ll be fine .
From there he took off. In the final 10 games of the season, Johnson threw a 1.81 ERA with a 67% strike rate. Johnson had turned the corner to become 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 pro career — he’s currently ranked as the Rays’ No. 12 prospect.
Do you remember the “ease” mentioned above? The right-hander always knew he had a good arm. But now he knows he’s a good pitcher.
However, there is one thing missing about his shortstop days.
“I miss BP,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I was a good BP hitter. Game time, not so much. But BP was a show.