The injury to Clay Buchholz was a blow to an already weak Boston Red Sox rotation. There were a few candidates to come up and replace him, but Red Sox pitcher Brian Johnson deserved it more than the other options. Brandon Magee takes a look at his career so far and what he brings to Boston’s rotation.
With Clay Buchholz going on the 15-day disabled list with a tight elbow, the Boston Red Sox dipped into their pitching reserves, bringing up 24-year old Pawtucket southpaw Brian Johnson. Will Johnson put the Red Sox back in business, or will he be on borrowed time? Before this heatseeker gets ready to draw first blood, we look back at how Johnson got here.
Brian Johnson was the 31st pick of the 2012 draft as a junior out of the University of Florida. In his three seasons as a Gator, Johnson went 22-12 with a 3.85 ERA in 49 appearances, 46 of which were starts. Johnson showed good control in college, walking 47 while striking out 196. After signing, Johnson made his professional debut with the Lowell Spinners, where he pitched 5 ⅔ innings in 4 brief appearances; a fairly customary, if cautious, approach by the Red Sox after Johnson’s 90 innings for Florida. Johnson’s season ended at the annual “Futures at Fenway” game when a line drive hit him in the face, breaking the orbital bones of his left eye.
In 2013, Johnson entered the go zone in earnest. He struggled with efficiency in the first half of the season with the Greenville Drive, never going past 5 innings in his first 14 starts (including two rehabilitation starts in the GCL). His troubles were not that surprising given his long recovery from the facial fractures, including a liquid diet for a portion of the off-season. Despite his struggle to put up innings, Johnson posted a 3.42 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP in his first 12 starts for the Drive; solid if not spectacular numbers. However, his final three starts showed the promise that earned him the first selection in the supplemental round of the 2012 draft. On August 6th, Johnson pitched six full innings for the first time in his professional career, allowing an unearned run on three hits. In his next start a week later, he went seven full innings, allowing a run on four hits. He would put up another six-inning performance the following week before earning a promotion to High-A Salem for his final two starts of the season: a six-inning, no-run debut followed by a five-innings, two-run game to end the year. For the season, Johnson put up a 2.54 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP, striking out just under a batter an inning.
Johnson struggled in his first three starts of 2014, allowing 11 earned runs in 13 ⅔ innings for the Salem Red Sox. With a flick of the switch, everything changed in his next start. On April 18th, Johnson pitched six perfect innings against the Winston-Salem Dash while striking out five, earning himself the Carolina League Pitcher of the Week award. One week later, he pitched six more scoreless innings against the Lynchburg Hillcats, not only earning a second consecutive Pitcher of the Week award, but a promotion to AA Portland. In Maine, Johnson continued his mean streak of domination, pitching at least five innings and giving up no more than two earned runs in each of his first ten starts. He also won his third Pitcher of the Week award on June 16th. Johnson then went through some ruff stuff with two poor starts at the beginning of July, including a 2 ⅓ inning, seven-run fiasco against the Binghamton Mets, but he quickly got back to domination. In his final eight games of the regular season, Johnson pitched at least five innings in each start and did not allow more than a single earned run in any game. On, August 5th, he shook the foundations of the Bowie Baysox, going eight scoreless innings while allowing only three hits. For the season, Johnson compiled a 13-3 record with a 2.13 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP, and was honored with the Boston Red Sox Minor League Pitcher of the Year award.
Johnson was promoted to the Pawtucket Red Sox at the start of the 2015 season, and has demonstrated the same innings-eating ability that he showed in Portland. In his first 14 starts of the season, Johnson failed to go at least five innings only twice, in his second game of the season (4 IP, 2 R, 7 K) and on May 3rd, where he had his only true clunker of the season, going 2 ⅔ innings and allowing 7 runs against the Durham Bulls. However, he balanced those out with a couple of gems. Seven scoreless innings against the Buffalo Bison on April 21st earned Johnson his first International League Pitcher of the Week award, but it was his start on May 29th that was his most impressive. Johnson held the Louisville Bats spellbound over six perfect innings, striking out a career high nine batters. Johnson next set off some hells bells when he pitched to only a single batter on June 29th before leaving the game due to illness. On July 6th, Brian pitched five innings, allowing two earned runs against the Syracuse Chiefs. After the game, Johnson owned a AAA ERA of 2.73 and a WHIP of 1.10.
Now that the Red Sox have put the finger on Brian Johnson, what can be expected out of the young ace? Johnson has a four-pitch arsenal (fastball, curveball, changeup and slider) that he mixes well, keeping hitters off-balance. He adds further disruption by being an extremely quick worker. Johnson is not generally considered a strikeout artist, but he does average just under a strikeout an inning while keeping his walks to about one every third inning. He also keeps the ball in the park, allowing only 16 home runs in his 64 game minor league career, and has never allowed multiple home runs in a game.
While previously jumping levels Johnson has always started off strongly, he has always been on regular rest when making the switch. When Johnson debuts for the Boston Red Sox, it will be after two weeks of not pitching in anger. Extra rest affects everyone differently, but this will be something to watch for, especially given his lack of overall pitching this month.
With Johnson’s promotion, the Sox now have a trio of lefty starters, as he joins Wade Miley and Eduardo Rodriguez. While expecting Johnson to start off as quickly as Rodriguez has in the majors would be overly optimistic, his minor league career has shown him to be reliable innings-eater who does not allow a lot of baserunners. Hopefully Johnson shoots to thrill with his rising power and can keep the Red Sox on the winning path. Shake a leg, Brian Johnson: we salute you!