Alexander Johnson has always wanted a chance to prove he has what it takes to be drafted by a Major League Baseball team.
Dream and reality have intersected for the 6-foot-5, 235-pound McKinley senior pitcher this spring, and the exposure could result in the right-hander with lots of potential receiving a phone call during next month’s baseball draft.
“He certainly has a chance,” said Charlie Karstedt, who has coached Johnson in travel ball for three years with Full Circuit and is a part-time MLB scout. “It’s just a matter of opportunity right now, how many times scouts can see him. It’s a little bit of luck. ... He’s gotten enough guys in front of him (to see him pitch).”
Johnson has done simulated bullpens and pitched before various professional scouts during a wet spring that has limited his mound appearances.
Johnson put on a brief show at Johnnie B. Wiley Stadium last Friday before his biggest crowd of evaluators of the season, as scouts from the Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Angels, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals and Arizona Diamondbacks watched him hit or flirt with 90 mph with most of his pitches, topping off at 91, during two innings of work. He struck out five and yielded one hit after retiring the first batter via line out to third base. A week earlier with just the Athletics watching at Sahlen Field, Johnson hit 92 mph on the gun.
The Texas Rangers also have met Johnson and seen him pitch.
Johnson has come from relative unknown to prospect for the upcoming draft June 3-5 in Secaucus, N.J., based on the physical and mental work he has done since last summer.
“He’s exciting because he’s tall,” said one Brewers scout, who, for job security purposes, was unable to give his name. “He’s got long arms. He’s relatively young pitching-wise. He doesn’t have a lot of breaking balls on his arm. He’s young with potential. He’s hitting 91 (mph on the radar gun).”
Should Johnson be drafted, he will become the eight scholastic-aged player in the past seven years to be selected from a Western New York high school. He’ll join a list that includes current pro prospects Charlie Mack (Williamsville East), Leugim Castillo (Lancaster) and Dan Dallas (Canisius).
It is believed that the last Buffalo Public Schools league (Cornell Cup) player to be drafted by a Major League Baseball team is McKinley's Doug Zavodny, who was taken by the Pirates in 1972 and is a longtime high school umpire in Western New York.
“For me it would set a landmark,” Johnson said. “It would mean the world to me. Your heart has to be in a sport just to be looked at. ... My mom has been a big part. Biggest supporter. ... I just want to prove to her all the sacrifices she made for me was worth it.”
Johnson started playing organized baseball as a 4-year-old at Shoshone Park. He played catcher and in the outfield. But he threw harder than most kids his age while coming up through the ranks. He eventually got a chance to pitch and, at age 11 while playing travel ball, his youth coaches said he might want to start taking pitching more seriously.
That’s when Johnson started working on and off with Ray Bielanin, a Hutch-Tech product who was drafted by the Dodgers out of Niagara University, at Eastern Hills Mall’s Sports Performance Park. Bielanin gave him the contact information for Karstedt.
And thus the project of turning a thrower into a pitcher commenced.
Karstedt began teaching Johnson how to take care of his arm, taught him the strength and conditioning side of pitching.
“He always was a big, strong kid for his age,” Karstedt said. “He always threw harder than average, but he struggled with consistency.
Johnson saw results last summer in a tournament in Cleveland, and threw 91 mph for the first time. For most of the season, though, he threw in the low- to mid-80s.
Hitting it hard
“From there, I knew I had to take it serious,” Johnson said. “I started treating it as my lifestyle. If I’m going 100 percent one day, I’m going to try to do 200 percent the next day. ... I just have to keep pushing, keep grinding for what I want.”
More strength training and focusing on mechanics during the offseason resulted in another jump.
With Johnson consistently throwing 88-91 with his fastball, Karstedt began reaching out to scouts in late winter. Karstedt and Johnson also sent video of his bullpen sessions.
“He’s certainly seeing the payoff now," Karstedt said. "He’s consistently throwing 90 now. ... His confidence has definitely picked up.”
“It’s unbelievable. I didn’t know it was going to be this way,” Johnson said. “All the work you have to put in just to be looked at. For them to contact me multiple times is unbelievable.”
And it could result in a call.
“I think any major league team seeing a kid throw low 90s, I think they may be licking their chops,” Beilanin said.