Following his first full professional season in 2018, Tyler Johnson established himself as a major player in the White Sox system. The right-handed relief pitcher dominated in a combined stint with low-A Kannapolis and advanced-A Winston-Salem, accumulating a 0.88 WHIP in 58 innings with 89 strikeouts and only 16 walks. His innings total increased by 32.1 from the year prior and managed to allow three fewer free passes.
Due to Johnson’s success, the White Sox planned to begin the 23-year-old in double-A Birmingham. Our profile even suggested that, if all went well, the 2017 5th round draft pick had the potential to debut in late 2019.
However, an unfortunately timed lat injury in April forced Johnson to miss the early part of this season. His time table changed. Instead of starting his second full season as a Baron, he was forced to make his 2019 debut in the Arizona League on a June 17 rehab assignment.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, to be frank with you,” Johnson said to FutureSox, as it pertains to being forced to sit out.
After about a week’s worth of time in Arizona, Johnson found himself in familiar territory with Winston-Salem on June 25. He picked up right where he left off, allowing just two earned runs, striking out 20 and walking only four in 13 total innings. The White Sox assigned him to Birmingham on July 22 and Johnson was back on track.
“To go from day zero to double-A baseball and you want to do it as fast as possible, it took a lot of effort and a lot of focus,” Johnson said. “I’m happy to finally be here. Just comin’ back from a lat injury – I’m proud of myself for doing what I’ve done so far and hopefully the trend continues.”
Tyler Johnson working in Kannapolis 2018
Lat injuries can be tricky and sometimes linger with certain individuals. From a health standpoint, it sounds like Johnson is A-OK.
“I feel 100 percent,” he said. “I don’t really get sore anymore after throwing. Of course, you have some pitching soreness, which is an everyday kind of thing, but in terms of my lat and everything else, I’m good to go. Now it’s just getting the muscle memory back of throwing again and everything else is pretty much mechanical from here on out.”
Johnson’s focus has shifted from getting healthy to getting results. Double-A is unfamiliar territory. Pitching at the highest level of his professional career will offer new challenges, but the right-hander understands it’s part of the learning experience.
“I’m excited to learn the style of play,” Johnson said. “The strike zone gets smaller as the hitters get more discipline and my stuff is going to have to get better and I’m excited to see where that takes me.”
In his Birmingham debut, he allowed a run on a hit and two walks in a third of an inning on July 22. Johnson followed with his longest performance of the season and struck out half the batters he faced in a perfect 2.2 innings.
Among his nine appearances as a Baron through August 23, Johnson was roughed up one other time outside of his debut. Relieving Mauricio Cabrera with two outs in the eighth inning on August 11, Johnson faced six Montgomery Biscuit hitters and it went as follows: walk, home run, walk, home run, single, strikeout.
Outside of the aforementioned bad outing, Johnson has allowed three earned runs over 12 innings (2.25 ERA) along with 15 strikeouts and four walks. Blips are allowed, although it’s preferred they don’t become a trend. There is more success than failure in his first experience in Birmingham and that plays to the philosophy Johnson adopted early this year.
“I’ve learned in spring training that I’m a big guy about trending upwards,” he said. “It’s like a stock market. You might go down a little bit, but as long as you trend up, you’re on your way. I made my debut and it didn’t go as well as I had hoped, so that factor was a little disappointing to me, but to be here and have my footprint in double-A is something that I can be proud of. It’s just a giant trend upwards. You take the bad and try to turn it into something twice as good.”
Johnson’s stuff projects him to be a Major League reliever in the near future. His fastball sits in the mid-to-upper 90’s to which he considers his most efficient offering.
“My best pitch is my fastball,” Johnson said. “It’s something I can live up in the zone with. Middle of the zone-up is a strong suit, we’re learning, which is quite the opposite of some pitchers because my ball has a specific type of carry.”
He offers a changeup, but his slider ranks as his go-to secondary pitch. It acts as the perfect complement to his giddy-up fastball. Now the effort is being made to maintain its consistency.
“The pitch I need to get better at is controlling my slider,” he said. “This offseason I wanted to make it a plus-pitch. Now I believe it is. It’s about mid-80’s – 85-87 – and now I just need to learn how to control it.”
His repertoire fits the mold as a late-inning reliever and that’s exactly how the White Sox intend to use him. Johnson managed 19 total saves during his tenure at the University of South Carolina. He converted 14 saves in Kannapolis and Winston-Salem in 2018.
Interestingly, a certain type of mindset is necessary when asked to work in a tight contest late. In college, Johnson noted, “I just let my emotions run, but in pro ball, you play so many games, it’s kind of hard to live off that adrenaline the entire time.”
From roughly 60 collegiate games seasonally to nearly 140 Minor League contests, Johnson’s mental approach was forced to adjust. In a different competitive atmosphere, along with the pressures of climbing the ranks in an attempt to pitch at the game’s highest level, Johnson learned, like so many others, how to handle the challenges the mental side of the game may present.
“I went through a little period in pro ball of some anxiety in some games,” he shared. “I actually took after Dylan Cease a little bit when I talked to him. He’s a big meditation guy and I practice meditation in terms of controlling my breathing and relaxing myself.
“It’s something that I’ve learned to take into a game, so if it gets sped up, I know how to calm myself down. That’s been a big step for me because I’ve been able to stay within myself. Even if it’s not late in the game, even if things go south, I’ll still be able to damage control.”
Organizations across Major League Baseball have addressed the mental side of the game in appropriate ways across recent years. The White Sox are among them and Johnson mentioned that players are vocal about the whirlwind of emotion they feel all the time.
Ben Broussard is a part of the Sox 2019 developmental staff and operates under the title of Leadership and Development Coordinator. Johnson says Broussard is the guy to approach.
“Ben Broussard is a staff member who rovers around the minor leagues and if you have any questions about your emotion as a baseball player, he’s a guy you can talk to,” Johnson said. “I can tell you the players talk about it all the time. Everybody has different ways of going about harnessing that energy and you just kind of find what works for you until it doesn’t work and then you change it and build off that.”
The complexities attributed to playing professional baseball applies to all, but all must master their own exclusive attitude to beat the odds. Major League Baseball is not far off for Tyler Johnson in particular. Aside from a setback, Johnson has scripted a method to reach the pinnacle and his current status is only part of the process.
“It’s always been a dream of mine,” Johnson said. “You kind of have steps you take and double-A is on that track so it just means we’re on our way. I’m excited to be here, but it’s not the end result. I can cherish it for this moment, but I’ve got some work to do."
Tyler Johnson mic'd up
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