McKinley High School graduate Alex Johnson absorbed a lot last summer during his introduction to professional baseball.
The biggest lesson the 6-foot-6 Cincinnati Reds pitching prospect learned, aside from the importance of hydration while living in a climate way warmer than Western New York, is being professional.
“You have to look presentable at all times,” Johnson said. “Talking, you have to be polite and very respectful. I think the hardest thing for me down there was whenever I exercised down there, I always thought 'Why am I doing this?' ”
The answer is pretty easy.
Johnson, a 36th-round pick in the 2019 draft and the first Buffalo Public Schools player drafted in 47 years, is trying to make it big in baseball for his family. He’s trying to reach the majors to achieve his dream, but also to be a role model for others coming through the ranks of the Buffalo schools’ Cornell Cup League.
“I think it’s incredible," McKinley coach Dominic Massaro said after Johnson was drafted. "City kid who has worked hard. He’s worked at this since he was 12 years old. Started playing baseball in North Buffalo, ended up getting picked. He’s got a lot of work to do and he knows it, but it’s just a great story and he’s a good kid.”
Johnson, 19, concedes he made some rookie mistakes, but nothing serious, just gaffes born out of naivete. But he seemed to have steadied his course as he reported a month early and prepared for his first spring training before the coronavirus pandemic brought sports to a halt. Johnson returned home when the Reds closed their spring training facility in Goodyear, Ariz., in mid-March.
He’s been training here with good friend and Milwaukee Brewers prospect Leugim Castillo (Lancaster). Johnson also works out with other college-age players. Johnson’s goal is to stay sharp, keeping the mechanics in order that have enabled his fastball to reach 95 mph. It’s been a challenge, but he does what he’s supposed to do because commitment is required to succeed in pro baseball.
“It’s hard because the worst thing is losing touch with what you are capable of,” Johnson said. “For me, I was like a newborn deer. They’re not able to walk and don’t know about their body yet and then when they progress, they learn how to control their body. That’s what's happening to me.
“It’s like a weird season because it’s not offseason but it’s also not spring training. It’s hard to navigate what should happen and the intensity, but you have a good idea of what it should be because you send videos to coaches (and hear back from them).”
Alex Johnson,a pitcher in the Reds organization from Buffalo, and Leugim "L.G." Castillo, an outfielder in the Milwaukee Brewers organization from Lancaster,worked out together to stay in shape for when baseball eventually resumes. James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)@TheBuffaloNews pic.twitter.com/jkO6GrPkqx
— James P McCoy (@jmccoyphoto) May 12, 2020
Charlie Karstedt, Johnson’s personal trainer/coach, said Johnson’s goals this season are to stay healthy and work on command of his fastball and slider. He also reminds Johnson that time is on his side.
“When you’re coming out of high school, you could have three to five years before you really have to get going (with the organization),” said Karstedt, who also scouts for MLB teams. “When you’re a senior coming out of college, you have a shorter leash.”
Johnson came out of nowhere to become a prospect. He hit 91 mph on the radar gun for the first time during a travel-league game in Cleveland in the summer of 2018. He consistently threw in the high 80s to low 90s during his senior season with the Macks, but his outings were limited due to wet weather and pitch count. He hit 92 mph in front of an Oakland Athletics scout during a game at Sahlen Field and hit 91 mph multiple times in front of the same scout and representatives from the Brewers, Los Angeles Angels, Arizona Diamondbacks, Kansas City Royals and the Reds in his penultimate game before the draft. He struck out five batters in two innings.
In his final appearance before the draft, he struck out six in two innings, impressing enough with his raw ability and height for the Reds to select him. He signed and reported to the Reds' complex.
Though Johnson thought he was in peak physical shape, he learned otherwise while running daily in the sweltering heat of Arizona.
“I didn’t understand the importance of drinking water because you pretty much run every day to get your stamina up for when you’re pitching in game,” Johnson said. “Everything you’re doing for exercise is timed. You’re always trying to beat your own time and the time of the guy next to you.”
Though Johnson wanted to make a good first impression, he was a little overzealous. Throwing every day was something he hadn’t done regularly at the amateur level. He went full throttle each drill, throwing hard until he strained his UCL and had to be shut down after a month.
“It wasn’t the smartest (move),” he said. “My first bullpen, I let it rip. I did too much and wasn’t prepared for that. You know how the adrenaline kicks in.”
He did rehab exercises, learning how to take care of his arm via advice from his coaches and medical personnel. He returned only to get shut down for the rest of the instructional season with a hip strain.
“I was definitely scared, nervous (that it was torn),” Johnson said of the arm injury. “For me, it was hard not being able to throw, but I also understood I had to trust the instructions and process. I’m not the first one to suffer this injury. … They taught me a lot about arm care and training.”
Johnson arrived at the Reds' complex earlier than required this winter to continue his development. He met Cincinnati all-star Joey Votto while working out, which he described as pretty cool.
It took time to get cleared to throw, but once he did, his velocity came back. He overcame the fear of re-injuring himself after a few bullpen sessions with the help of a mental coach in the organization.
“He opened my eyes to what I’m capable of doing and the purpose,” Johnson said. “He’d run with me and focus on my breathing so I can increase stamina. He also played catch with me. For my mindset, I was scared being injured during spring training but once I got past that, it was amazing. It was definitely a hurdle to get across.”
There will be more challenges, but Johnson will tackle them as they come.
After all, he’s a professional.