Johnson Making Quick Switch

VANCOUVER, CA - Twenty-four year old Matt Johnson started at shortstop for the Vancouver Canadians on Opening Day - two weeks later in an unpredictable twist of fate he was now a hard-throwing relief pitcher. Midway through his third year with the Blue Jays organization and having never ascended past class-A short season, Johnson was beginning to feel his professional baseball mortality.

On June 25th, the Canadians were losing to the Everett Aquasox 13-2 in the bottom of the eighth and manager Clayton McCullough decided that it was in the team's best interest to save their bullpen. Tasked with selecting which position player to put in the uncomfortable position, he leaned on Johnson, a six-foot-five infielder with a strong arm, because of prior experiences.

"I was in a similar situation in Bluefield, we were down by like 14 runs and it was the last game of the season," Johnson said. "I was in there just to throw strikes and get the ball over the plate. I threw an inning in college my freshman year so like four years before that and that was only one inning too so the same type of thing."

As Johnson took the ball in the bottom of the eighth he had no idea that the inning of mop up work would change the trajectory of his baseball career. He faced the 3-4-5 hitters for the AquaSox and produced the results his teammates couldn't – he pitched a perfect inning and struck out two.

Johnson walked away from the mound unaware of what exactly he had accomplished. Once he reached the dugout he was informed that his fastball had been clocked as high as 95 mph. While the brief outing generated laughter from his teammates the reaction from the Blue Jays minor league directors was disbelief went they read the post-game reports filed by the Canadians coaching staff.

"The upper management got the reports and they thought it was a misprint," Johnson said. "That, Matthew Johnson came into pitch; they thought it was somebody else."

From there the transition began to take shape and included Blue Jays Minor League Director Charlie Wilson, who happened to be in Vancouver.

"I knew that they wanted me to throw a bullpen. I went to talk to our manager Clayton [McCullough]. He pulled me into the office with Charlie [Wilson] and the rest of the coaching staff and they told me they wanted to make the switch right then and there. I said sure whatever I can do to help out. I threw the side [session] and after that I was a full-time pitcher."

Working with such an inexperienced subject could present a challenge for Canadians pitching coach Jim Czajkowski, but it's been quite the opposite. Czajkowski is delighted to work with Johnson because he doesn't have to break any bad habits and he is the ultimate student.

"It's really easy for me to teach him because I everything I tell him that's the way he thinks it should be," Czajkowski said. "He catches on very quick. He's down there working all the time. The guys in the bullpen are shooting things by him and he's very receptive to it."

Whatever Johnson is doing it's working; in five innings he's given up one run and struck out seven. To go along with the mid-90's fastball he's exhibited Johnson is slowly beginning to develop complimentary pitches.

"[I can throw a] changeup and I've been working on a curveball and a little bit of a slider," Johnson said. "That should take a little bit of time getting a feel and working on the arm angles. The changeup is a little easier to throw because it's just like a fastball."

Czajkowski has tremendous respect for the changeup and stresses its effectiveness to all of his pitchers. He identifies Johnson as someone who shares the same beliefs and believes he will use his knowledge at the plate to his advantage on the mound.

"He being an ex-hitter knows that the changeup is the great equalizer. You think it's a fastball but it's not, it's 10mph off. Hitters are out front and then you got to guess, and hitters are not good when they're guessing," explained Czajkowski. "He knows the value of that changeup it's just a matter of bringing it along fast enough to get him to use it in some games."

Making the transition from position player to pitcher is not unprecedented; Blue Jays righthander Sergio Santos was drafted in the first round as a shortstop in 2002 before arriving to the Major Leagues with the White Sox as a reliever. If anything, the move guarantees Johnson at least a couple more years in the system.

"I was getting up there in age for short-season and I don't know how long I was going to go down that road. I feel like at least with pitching it's a little bit more on me now. If I can work hard and learn from our pitchers and our coaching staff then hopefully I'll progress," Johnson said. "Hopefully with the switch, I pick up on things real quick and I can maybe extend my career a little bit."

The restrictions on Johnson are stern and will continue to be until he builds up the requisite arm strength and mechanics to pitch more regularly. Fortunately he has the ultimate trust in the coaching staff and the organization.

"They said they'll have me on a pretty strict schedule. Pitch counts, innings thrown, workout schedules, all things of that nature," Johnson said. "They're great with our staff so I have no worries, I'll put everything in their hands."

The Canadians are going to handle Johnson with care, giving him significant days off in between his appearances, even if the Northwest League may not be the ideal league for his development right now.

"[We're going to] give him an inning once in a while, try to throw him on the sides, make sure we can tune up that breaking ball and the changeup, make sure he gets plenty of rest in between and maybe stretch him out for two innings eventually," Czajkowski said. "I think instructional league may be a plan for him.

"To get down there and really be in a structure where we can limit how many pitches he throws in a game and that kind of stuff. Here, we can't roll over innings or anything like that. Instructional league we can do what we want with a pitcher so he may benefit from that and get ready for it next year."


Future Jays Top Stories

\r\n \r\n\r\nOn June 25th, the Canadians were losing to the Everett Aquasox 13-2 in the bottom of the eighth and manager Clayton McCullough decided that it was in the team's best interest to save their bullpen. Tasked with selecting which position player to put in the uncomfortable position, he leaned on Johnson, a six-foot-five infielder with a strong arm, because of prior experiences.
\r\n
\r\n\"I was in a similar situation in Bluefield, we were down by like 14 runs and it was the last game of the season,\" Johnson said. \"I was in there just to throw strikes and get the ball over the plate. I threw an inning in college my freshman year so like four years before that and that was only one inning too so the same type of thing.\"
\r\n
\r\nAs Johnson took the ball in the bottom of the eighth he had no idea that the inning of mop up work would change the trajectory of his baseball career. He faced the 3-4-5 hitters for the AquaSox and produced the results his teammates couldn't – he pitched a perfect inning and struck out two.
\r\n
\r\nJohnson walked away from the mound unaware of what exactly he had accomplished. Once he reached the dugout he was informed that his fastball had been clocked as high as 95 mph. While the brief outing generated laughter from his teammates the reaction from the Blue Jays minor league directors was disbelief went they read the post-game reports filed by the Canadians coaching staff.
\r\n
\r\n\"The upper management got the reports and they thought it was a misprint,\" Johnson said. \"That, Matthew Johnson came into pitch; they thought it was somebody else.\"
\r\n
\r\nFrom there the transition began to take shape and included Blue Jays Minor League Director Charlie Wilson, who happened to be in Vancouver.
\r\n
\r\n\"I knew that they wanted me to throw a bullpen. I went to talk to our manager Clayton [McCullough]. He pulled me into the office with Charlie [Wilson] and the rest of the coaching staff and they told me they wanted to make the switch right then and there. I said sure whatever I can do to help out. I threw the side [session] and after that I was a full-time pitcher.\"
\r\n
\r\nWorking with such an inexperienced subject could present a challenge for Canadians pitching coach Jim Czajkowski, but it's been quite the opposite. Czajkowski is delighted to work with Johnson because he doesn't have to break any bad habits and he is the ultimate student.
\r\n
\r\n\"It's really easy for me to teach him because I everything I tell him that's the way he thinks it should be,\" Czajkowski said. \"He catches on very quick. He's down there working all the time. The guys in the bullpen are shooting things by him and he's very receptive to it.\"
\r\n
\r\nWhatever Johnson is doing it's working; in five innings he's given up one run and struck out seven. To go along with the mid-90's fastball he's exhibited Johnson is slowly beginning to develop complimentary pitches.
\r\n
\r\n\"[I can throw a] changeup and I've been working on a curveball and a little bit of a slider,\" Johnson said. \"That should take a little bit of time getting a feel and working on the arm angles. The changeup is a little easier to throw because it's just like a fastball.\"
\r\n
\r\nCzajkowski has tremendous respect for the changeup and stresses its effectiveness to all of his pitchers. He identifies Johnson as someone who shares the same beliefs and believes he will use his knowledge at the plate to his advantage on the mound.
\r\n
\r\n\"He being an ex-hitter knows that the changeup is the great equalizer. You think it's a fastball but it's not, it's 10mph off. Hitters are out front and then you got to guess, and hitters are not good when they're guessing,\" explained Czajkowski. \"He knows the value of that changeup it's just a matter of bringing it along fast enough to get him to use it in some games.\"
\r\n
\r\nMaking the transition from position player to pitcher is not unprecedented; Blue Jays righthander Sergio Santos was drafted in the first round as a shortstop in 2002 before arriving to the Major Leagues with the White Sox as a reliever. If anything, the move guarantees Johnson at least a couple more years in the system.
\r\n
\r\n\"I was getting up there in age for short-season and I don't know how long I was going to go down that road. I feel like at least with pitching it's a little bit more on me now. If I can work hard and learn from our pitchers and our coaching staff then hopefully I'll progress,\" Johnson said. \"Hopefully with the switch, I pick up on things real quick and I can maybe extend my career a little bit.\"
\r\n
\r\nThe restrictions on Johnson are stern and will continue to be until he builds up the requisite arm strength and mechanics to pitch more regularly. Fortunately he has the ultimate trust in the coaching staff and the organization.
\r\n
\r\n\"They said they'll have me on a pretty strict schedule. Pitch counts, innings thrown, workout schedules, all things of that nature,\" Johnson said. \"They're great with our staff so I have no worries, I'll put everything in their hands.\"
\r\n
\r\nThe Canadians are going to handle Johnson with care, giving him significant days off in between his appearances, even if the Northwest League may not be the ideal league for his development right now.
\r\n
\r\n\"[We're going to] give him an inning once in a while, try to throw him on the sides, make sure we can tune up that breaking ball and the changeup, make sure he gets plenty of rest in between and maybe stretch him out for two innings eventually,\" Czajkowski said. \"I think instructional league may be a plan for him.
\r\n
\r\n\"To get down there and really be in a structure where we can limit how many pitches he throws in a game and that kind of stuff. Here, we can't roll over innings or anything like that. Instructional league we can do what we want with a pitcher so he may benefit from that and get ready for it next year.\"
\r\n
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