Boston Red Sox left-handed minor league pitcher Brian Johnson’s career nearly ended as quickly as it began last season because of a freak injury. Healthy once again, he is trying to prove he can be one of the team’s top prospects.
He had a stellar career as a Gator, posting a 22-12 record with a 3.85 ERA, according to his school biography. He was also a .324 hitter for his collegiate career, earning the 2012 John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award.
Despite his overall baseball ability, he entered the 2012 draft as a pitcher and was made the 31st-overall selection in the first round by the Red Sox. That pick had been obtained as compensation for the Philadelphia Phillies having signed free-agent reliever Jonathan Papelbon away from the Red Sox the previous offseason.
SoxProspects.com’s scouting report lists Johnson’s arsenal as a low-90s fastball, average curveball and changeup and an occasional slider. They believe he “projects as a back-end of the rotation starter, who can have a season or two at the level of a third starter in peak.”
Johnson signed for $1.575 million just weeks after his selection, according to Baseball America’s Jim Callis.
After inking his contract, Johnson was assigned to short-season Lowell. With Florida having played deep into the 2012 College World Series, he had just 5.2 (scoreless) innings in his first four professional starts.
The fourth start came against the Hudson Valley Renegades and nearly ended his career. The game was part of the Future at Fenway showcase, an annual event where two of Boston’s minor league affiliates play at Fenway Park. Ironically, it was also Johnson’s first game in the stadium where he hoped to have a major league career.
Joey Rickard, the game’s first batter, lined Johnson’s second pitch of the day, a fastball, back up the middle. It struck the southpaw in the head, causing multiple orbital bone fractures on the left side of his face, ending his season and putting his future in doubt.
The Eagle-Tribune’s David Willis got a full description of the horrific play from Johnson:
I saw the hitter’s swing and tried to get my glove over my face...Then I saw blood on my arm and took a knee.
I threw a fastball and it just came right back at me...By the time he finished his swing, it had already hit me and bounced away.
There was zero pain...My ears were ringing. I never lost consciousness. I remember putting my hand over my face, then looking for the ball.
Johnson described his lengthy recovery to SoxProspects.com’s Matt Huegel:
It was just different, because it was [not a pitching injury]...It wasn't like my arm was hurting or I pulled a hamstring, it was my face. [I didn't need] surgery, the only thing I had to do was let time [pass]. I think it was a total of three months, three and a half, before I was able to eat anything again and stuff like that.
The Rickard line drive wasn’t the first time Johnson suffered a serious head injury in a game. ESPN Boston’s Chris Hatfield reported that during the SEC tournament in 2011, his teammate, catcher Mike Zunino, hit him in the back of the head by a throw to second base, causing the pitcher to miss three weeks.
Johnson remained upbeat following his injury at Fenway, even telling Willis, “This isn’t going to stop me.” So far, he has been good to his word.
He started the 2013 season with Single-A Greenville and has made one start, allowing six hits and one run over four innings, while striking out two and walking one.
Because of his college pedigree, he could move quickly through the Boston system if he gets some effective professional innings under his belt. The next few months of the season could tell a lot about what his future may hold.
Johnson still has a lot to prove as a prospect. However, he has already shown an ability to get up after being knocked down, and that’s something that can’t be taught.
Statistics via Baseball-Reference