Outside of the state of New York, Stony Brook University is far from a household name. In fact, Southern California native Tyler Johnson had to do some research when recruiters from the university came calling. By the end of Johnson's four years at Stony Brook, however, the right-hander was instrumental in raising the profile of the school amongst college baseball fans around the country.
"Stony Brook came out and I did the same thing that I'm sure most people did. I said ‘what the heck is Stony Brook?'" Johnson said. "They gave me a really good scholarship with academic money and it was a big thing to me that they wanted me to pitch there right away. They wanted me to be one of their guys.
"That was highest on my list. I wanted to be somewhere where I was wanted. Making that trip over to New York wasn't easy at first, but once I did it, it was the best decision I have made thus far in my life."
Johnson didn't throw that hard in high school and didn't draw interest from Pac-12 schools. However, Johnson was part of a powerhouse high school program at Crespi Carmelite that featured several players who are currently playing professional baseball, including current A's prospect Ryon Healy.
Recruiting Johnson was part of a bigger push by Stony Brook to bring in out-of-state talent to invigorate the program. He and his Seawolves teammates more than met that program goal. In 2012 – Johnson's senior season – he was part of a historic Stony Brook squad that reached the College World Series for the first time in the program's history.
Johnson was the leader of the Seawolves' pitching staff. He won 12 games, posted a 2.52 ERA and he allowed just four homeruns in 100 regular season innings. As the Seawolves made their push towards Omaha, Johnson beat collegiate powerhouses Miami and LSU. Two days after picking up the win over Miami, Johnson beat UCF in the Regional Finals. He threw more than 250 pitches over those two starts.
Pitching on a big stage during the College World Series helped prepare Johnson for professional baseball.
"During that whole College World Series run, the whole team took ourselves to a new level that we knew we were capable of, but we had never been there before," Johnson said. "Taking that experience into pro ball where you are facing a lot of the guys who either came from those [other CWS] teams or are that caliber of player, especially at the lower levels, gives me a little more confidence about what I am able to do on the mound and how I am able to approach hitters, knowing that I have done this sort of stuff before. In the same aspect, pro ball is definitely a lot different than college ball in a lot of respects."
Johnson's senior season has taken its toll on him physically, however.
"College, especially that last season, took a decent amount out of me. I had to miss a month during extended spring training because I had some hip issues," Johnson said. "Arm-wise, I felt alright, but I think they tried to limit my innings a little bit this summer. Towards the end of the season, I felt really great. I finally started to get back to where I was fully healthy and hopefully this off-season I'll be able to get to where I am even more healthy, so I am fully ready to go by next season."
Since turning pro last summer, Johnson has thrown 69 innings. Last season, he threw 27 innings for the A's Arizona Rookie League squad. He posted a 3.33 ERA, a 21:7 K:BB and a 2.93 GO/AO [groundball outs versus flyball outs]. In 2013, Johnson was with short-season Vermont. Pitching almost exclusively in relief, Johnson posted a 1.71 ERA in 42 innings. His GO/AO was 2.38.
Johnson's best pitch is his sinker, which he uses to induce groundballs at a very high rate. Over his pro career, he has generated groundballs on more than 55% of the balls that are put in play against him. That groundball rate is by design.
"Most of the time, I throw a sinker. That's what I do," Johnson said. "I'm not out there trying to strike people out, especially when I start. If I can get two groundballs an inning, that's my main goal. I try to get weak contact off of it, maybe a flyball every once and awhile.
"But mostly I am trying to get a weak groundball somewhere because those usually end up the best, instead of trying to strike guys out and ending up running up my pitch count."
Making the move from the college ranks to pro ball isn't the only adjustment Johnson has had to make since joining the A's organization. Almost exclusively a starter in college, Johnson has made 34 relief appearances and only one start as a pro. Learning to handle the mental side of pitching in relief was Johnson's biggest focus this season.
"The biggest change I had to make was coming out of the bullpen," Johnson said. "For my entire college career, I think I came out of the bullpen one time, so this summer in Vermont, they asked me to do a number of things – long relief, closing at the end, I started once – so just kind of being in that role not knowing what's going on, I had to be in tune with my mental game and what my mindset was which was a lot different than starting.
"I wouldn't necessarily say that I liked it more than starting. I was still getting used to it towards the end of the season. But coming in when we are up one or two runs towards the end of the game is definitely a bigger adrenaline rush. At the same time, with starting, it's kind of my own game and I get to set the pace and the tone. I wouldn't say necessarily I liked it more. It's just a different feel."
Despite the hip injury that limited him early in the season, Johnson had a productive 2013 campaign. Starting in extended spring training, Johnson spent the entire year with manager Rick Magnante (who was the A's area scout when Johnson was in high school) and pitching coach Craig Lefferts. Johnson said that continuity made it a comfortable transition from the Arizona Rookie League last season to the New York-Penn League this year.
Johnson came into the season throwing mostly his sinker, a circle change-up and a slider. However, he felt he needed another pitch to be effective against left-handed hitters and he brought back a pitch that he hadn't used in several years.
"I added the cutter. I threw a cutter my sophomore year of college and it worked pretty well," Johnson said. "Then I sort of stopped using it as much, but I had a little bit of trouble at the beginning of the summer with left-handers because everything that I do goes to my arm-side.
"I talked with Lefty (Lefferts), who had one of the best sliders in major league history for awhile, and we worked on stuff and came up with a cutter. It's not as good as it will be eventually. I'm definitely going to keep working on it, but it helped me with lefties by giving them a different look towards the end of the season, especially guys I had seen more than once."
In 2013, Johnson was a key part of a Vermont pitching staff that posted a team ERA of 3.06. Although the Lake Monsters finished with a 33-43 overall record, the Vermont coaching staff was pleased with the progress made by several players individually and the camerdarie between the players. The relationships Johnson forged with his Vermont teammates were the best part of his season, Johnson said.
"[His favorite part of being a pro is] meeting the different guys, learning how they approach baseball and mostly have fun with those guys while I'm doing it because the whole season is a grind and if you can't have fun doing it, it's going to be a long season," Johnson said.
This off-season, Johnson has one goal in mind: to enter spring training 100% healthy. Johnson will head to Phoenix in a few weeks to consult with the A's medical and training staff on how he should approach strengthening his troublesome hips for the upcoming season."The main thing is getting healthy. Most of this last year, they took me off of running because of how my hips were," Johnson said. "My main goal is to get back to running without any problems and be at the best fitness level that I can be at. I haven't been able to get to that for the past couple of years. Hopefully I can go to Low-A next year or even High-A, start to progress through the system a little bit faster."