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Under the Radar: Nick Johnson

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With an ERA of 0.90 in high-altitude Great Falls, this low draft pick is already making a name for himself

Ram Tough: Seen here pitching for the Rhode Island Rams, Nick Johnson closed for this year’s Pioneer League champion Great Falls Voyagers.
URI Athletics / Tim Cowie

Under the Radar details players in the Chicago White Sox system who may have suffered setbacks, gotten lost in the shuffle, or just haven’t surfaced as significant prospects as of yet. Next up is Nick Johnson, selected in the 21st round of this year’s MLB draft, who dominated as the closer for the Pioneer League champion Great Falls Voyagers.

Nick Johnson (RHP) Great Falls Voyagers

In a draft that included fun names like Gunnar Troutwine, Isaiah Carranza, and Cannon King, a humdrum moniker like Nick Johnson was selected with little buzz. His name is so commonplace that other athletes have shared it as well — primarily the former Yankees/Nationals/Orioles oft-injured first baseman, as well as the second round pick of the Houston Rockets in 2014’s NBA Draft. However, Voyager Nick Johnson is seeking to make a name for himself as well.

Johnson had a successful career with the Rhode Island Rams, where he compiled a 3.39 ERA and 1.36 WHIP, where all but 10 (all in 2017) of his 62 appearances came out of the bullpen. It was his senior season that garnered the most attention, however, as the Worcester, Mass. resident saved nine games in 22 appearances. In those outings, the righthander hurled 28 innings and allowed just 20 hits and 10 walks — all while striking out an incredible 47 hitters (15.11 K/9) without allowing a home run. As a result of his age (he turned 23 in July), the fact that he doesn’t throw 95 mph, and the fact he didn’t pitch in an elite conference, Johnson fell to the 21st round — where the White Sox were ecstatic to pick him up.

For Great Falls, Johnson picked up right where he left off. In 25 outings in the high altitude of the Pioneer League, he finished 19 games and saved five. Over 30 innings of work, he enjoyed an ERA of 0.90 and 1.00 WHIP while allowing just 25 hits (.221), five walks (4.1%), and no homers while striking out 28 (18.7%). Here are his impressive combined stats this year, combining NCAA and Rookie League play:

48 G, 14 SV, 58 IP, 45 H, 15 BB, 75 K, 0 HR

Johnson features a low-90s fastball that maxes out at 93 mph according to MLBDraftReport; the fastball has increased from its peak at 85 when Johnson was a prep, so it’s possible he may still gain a tick or two. He also uses a plus slider to set up his fastball. His third pitch is a changeup, which has improved significantly during the past two years. Lefties hit .243 against Johnson’s offerings in Great Falls, while righties batted just .211 against him; this may indicate that his changeup still needs a bit more work.

Johnson has a good build (six-foot-three, 215 pounds) which lends itself to starting, but at his age, a much faster track to the majors would be as a reliever. He’s a smart pitcher and knows his body well (he was a kinesiology major), as he plans to be a physical therapist whenever he decides to hang up his cleats. Johnson’s work ethic and makeup are both supposedly off the charts.

Johnson, who turned 23 during the Great Falls season, was a couple years older than league average — so last year’s performance should be taken with a slight grain of salt. Due to his age, expect to see Johnson on a fast track. He should be begin 2019 with Kannapolis, with a likely promotion to Winston-Salem sometime around the All-Star Break. Then, to begin the 2020 season, he should be in more age-appropriate Birmingham. Johnson’s ceiling seems to be that of an eighth-inning guy, provided he’s able to get a little more oomph in that baseball; his floor is as a solid sixth or seventh specialist due to his exceptional control.