As minor league players develop and grow with the game both personally and professionally, they don’t all always follow the same traditional beaten path. In fact, some players find themselves nowhere near it. The perfect example: Beloit Sky Carp righty M.D. Johnson.
Traversing the regular route began early for the Texas native. For all four years of high school, Johnson was among the 3.4% of American children who are homeschooled. While it is not wildly uncommon for homeschooled students to be allowed to join their local public school teams in most states, M.D.’s case was even more distinctive.
“The local high school where I’m from in Red Oak is like a 2A school, and the homeschool team is would’ve been like a high 2A maybe 3A school,” Johnson said. “My dad was able to convince the coach of the homeschool team to play in 6A tournaments.”
After lettering in three of his prep seasons and helping his team to a National Championship at the Homeschool World Series in 2015, Johnson was recruited by Dallas Baptist. A durable starter in all four seasons, Johnson really broke out in his senior year in 2019, going 10-2 with a 2.76 ERA and 110/29 K/BB to earn his draft capital. Johnson attributes his impressive senior season to a positive change in leadership and team culture.
“My senior year we got a brand new pitching coach, Josh Hopper. He’s now one of the pitching coordinators for the Pittsburgh Pirates,” Johnson said. “He came in and really changed what the program was doing my first three years and really held us accountable for everything we were doing as seniors all the way down to the freshman and really just challenged us day in, day out to get better at one thing.”
“It’s this thing that we have at Dallas Baptist: we’re getting better 1% every day,” Johnson said. “Having that mentality going in to practices, to games, getting 1% better is what we strived to achieve every day.”
Late in the second day of the 2019 MLB Draft, Johnson received his phone call from DJ Svihlik. After throwing 19 relief innings for Batavia that the missed 2020 season struck. Then, Johnson moved up to A in 2021. With the Jupiter Hammerheads, he posted a 3.19 ERA via a 1.39 WHIP in 42.1 IP. While his control and command was very spotty start to start and at times even inning to inning, Johnson was still able to induce ground ball outs to effectively get out of jams; jams that were most often set up by his 20% walk rate. A midseason call up to Beloit was met with an improvement in Johnson’s control numbers. In 59.1 IP with the Snappers, his walk rate fell to 11%, which was at the time, a career low at the highest level he’d ever pitched at and in his most extensive slate of innings at any single level.
“My first full season was interesting. It had its up, had its downs. Everyone knows I had my control issues last year which is not something I’d ever really experienced that drastic before, but I missed a year and something was different when I came back,” Johnson said. “Spending time in Jupiter I met a lot of really great people down there. Our manager Jorge Hernandez is the manager up here so I spent half the season with him and then the staff up here I spent half the season with them as well.”
This season, Johnson returned to familiar digs and surroundings in A+. There, he has been one of the most productive pitchers in the Marlins organization and a leader in the Beloit clubhouse. With one start remaining, The Doctor’s ERA sits at 3.17 and his FIP sits at 3.45. His walk rate has fallen from 14.9%, second highest in the Marlins organization a year ago, to 6.1%, the eighth lowest mark posted in a Miami affiliated uniform among pitchers with at least 50 IP. According to Johnson, his positive development was largely made possible due to his support system.
“I had worked the COVID year going into spring training, so I didn’t do as much baseball stuff. This past year, I was just like, you know what, I gotta figure something out. So I really didn’t pick up a job or anything in the offseason,” Johnson said. “My wife really picked up the slack and I gotta give all the credit to her for letting me go out there and just do baseball and that’s the only thing I had to focus on.”
Not only has M.D.’s partner, Ruth and their puppy Maggie Jo been alongside him during his offseason work, they have been together every step of the way since last season. The trio spends their time together in a camper, currently in nearby Illinois, a living situation they came by out of necessity but one they would not trade for any other alternative.
“Due to the COVID situation, they told us, “Hey we know you’re married but she’s not in the bubble, so you can’t stay with your wife unless you have a house,”” Johnson said. “So, three days before I left for spring training 2021, I bought a truck. Two days before I left for spring training, I bought a camper, drove to Jupiter and the rest is history. We’ve been in it full time ever since.”
On the field, Johnson has the benefit of a wide arsenal of pitches, anchored by his slider which sits in low-mid 80s and shows good depth from plane to plane. The slider, which Johnson, describes as more of souped-up cutter, has always been his bread and butter.
“In college, 66% of the time I was throwing a slider. It’s my best pitch; I knew I could throw it in any count and land it,” Johnson said. “Same thing going into pro ball; my first couple years it was 50-60% sliders. Especially last year whenever I knew I couldn’t throw anything else, I always fell back to the slider.“
This year though, Johnson has been able to throw less sliders, giving him the ability to defy his scouting reports.
“This year, with all of the extra command that I’ve gotten back, it’s fallen to about 40-45% or less at times. My last outing, I think I threw 13 of them and it was the season low by about 13,” Johnson said. “It’s the pitch I do lean on the most, I tunnel it really well off my fastball and it’s meant a lot to have that in my back pocket to go along with the other three pitches I have.”
On top of his regained command and control, another reason Johnson has become the best version of himself has been his newest pitch, a changeup.
“I never threw one in high school, didn’t need it. Didn’t throw one in college, didn’t really need it. I got to pro ball and I needed it,” Johnson said. “I really didn’t have one in spring training of 2020 and then with the shutdown, I went home and pretty much created a changeup.”
Johnson’s changeup grip aptly matches his background and personality profile.
“I would be comfortable saying there’s not a lot of people who hold it the way that I do. I throw a straight Vulcan so I literally wedge it between (my middle and ring fingers),” Johnson said. “In 2019 in Batavia, I was throwing it like 88-91 and I couldn’t control where it was going because it was straight in the ground. It was the only way I could take enough spin off of it to kill velocity and create movement while maintaining it in the strike zone.”
Polishing off an impressive pitch mix, Johnson, 25, sits on the verge of his promotion to the upper minors next season. When the call comes, M.D. plans to continue to stay true to himself and his abilities to garner even more consistency on his way to the big leagues.
“I’m gonna try to do what I’ve been doing now which is pound the strike zone, mix my pitches and get weak contact and as many fly balls as I possibly can,” Johnson said. “I’m not going in there trying to punch guys out. I’m going in there trying to get the guy out on 3-4 pitches max and just move on.”
In having the mindset and ability to throw less pitches, this year, Johnson has set another main objective for himself every time he toes the rubber.
“I’m trying to throw seven innings every single outing. That’s something that I’ve never really tried to do but it’s something this year that I’ve implemented that, hey, we’re not trying to strike guys out on 0-0 counts,” Johnson said. “I don’t need to throw this pitch to strike a guy out with one strike. It’s let’s make a quality pitch here, I’m gonna beat a guy to a spot, make them get themselves out and pitch deeper into ballgames.”
At 6’5”, Johnson has the size, repeatability, stuff, command, and levelheaded mindset to become a very solid mid-back end rotation piece. His one-of-kind and literal road to the show will continue next season when he and his wife drive first to Jupiter then presumably to Pensacola.