When a baseball player takes a few years off, it can raise questions. The most notable example is Josh Hamilton, whose league-imposed hiatus was not a pattern any aspiring ballplayer would want to follow. Almost always, the problems that lead to these layoffs are self-inflicted, and the vast majority of such players never reach their potential. The fact that Hamilton became, for a short while, one of the best players in baseball is only marginally more impressive than the fact that he made it to the big leagues at all.
In last month’s draft, the Washington Nationals took left-handed pitcher Jared Johnson in the 17th round. Players taken with the 523rd overall pick in the draft are generally not noteworthy, but Johnson is unique in that he was a 21-year-old freshman at Palm Beach State College in Florida. And a walk-on freshman, at that.
You see, Johnson took one of those hiatuses that usually spell doom to a player’s career. Johnson didn’t get into trouble with drugs like Hamilton did; it was simply a lack of maturity that hurt him and nearly cost him his shot in baseball.
After graduating from high school in 2013, Johnson went to Palm Beach State to play for head coach Kyle Forbes. While rehabbing some arm fatigue, though, Johnson missed a mandatory team meeting. “I got called into Coach Forbes’ office, and he let me go,” Johnson says. “They don’t tolerate any of that.”
Johnson comes from a baseball-loving family. His mom, an assistant principal at a high school in the Palm Beach area, played softball at Palm Beach State and then Florida State University, and she and her husband played competitive softball together for years after getting married. Johnson’s older sister married her high-school sweetheart, Mike Wood, who spent five years in the big leagues with the Oakland Athletics, Kansas City Royals, and Texas Rangers. (Wood was part of the three-team trade that sent Carlos Beltran from the Royals to the Houston Astros in 2004.)
“After leaving Palm Beach State, I didn’t know where to go, baseball-wise,” Johnson says, “because now I didn’t have a school, didn’t have anyone to play for. So I went and got a job and started working.”
Johnson worked hard for nearly two years, digging ditches in the hot sun for very little money. At that point, he realized that if he was going to achieve his baseball dream, he needed to grow up and make it happen.
“I feel like everything happens for a reason,” Johnson says. “With what happened with me, the problem was maturity, and I’m thankful that I was able to take the time to gain maturity and realize exactly what I wanted. Being away from the game helped me to appreciate it, and I had to work really hard to get back into baseball.”
Ready to pursue his dream again, Johnson turned to his brother-in-law.
“I got with Mike and started talking with him about what my best route was to pursue my dream of playing professional baseball,” Johnson says. “Mike got me into his men’s league team to help me get back into the swing of things and get some innings under my belt.”
From the men’s league, Johnson moved on to an independent league in California, hoping to play well there and transition to affiliated ball. After spending spring training with the Vallejo Admirals of the Pacific League, though, he knew that wasn’t the route he wanted to go.
“I had an absolutely horrible time there,” he says, “and one day I just went back to my hotel and called Coach Forbes. I told him the situation I was in and asked him if there was a chance that I could come back and try to walk on and play for him.”
“Jared came to walk-on tryouts,” Coach Forbes says, “and he looked extremely good, was pitching extremely well. In junior college, you never know who is going to pan out and who won’t, but Jared got a second chance and definitely made the most of it. He was a very pleasant surprise.”
Coach Forbes says that Johnson’s maturity was a big plus for him, on and off the field.
“He came in and his maturity was excellent, and if there was something that needed to be done around the facility — ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I have to ask people to go pick up the helmets, or fix the mound, or whatever it is, and he came in and just did the little things, helping out without being told. I know that sounds minor, but in my mind it’s a sign of someone who is unselfish and cares about the team. He definitely matured during his time off, and he came in and was a wonderful teammate.”
Johnson is a tall left-hander who throws both a two-seam and a four-seam fastball, a changeup that he calls his main offspeed pitch, and a curveball. At six-foot-four and 185 pounds, he’s not likely to get taller, but he expects to fill out and add a bit more weight. He has what Nationals scout Alex Morales called “a projectable body,” and Morales also noted Johnson’s “good fastball and a solid changeup; throws a lot of strikes.”
In his one season at Palm Beach State, Johnson had a 3.38 ERA in 69.1 innings with 77 strikeouts and 27 walks. Coach Forbes says, “Not only did Jared pitch well — and he really pitched well, he faced a lot of good teams here in the state and really diced them up — but on top of that he was a great teammate, so it was a win-win situation all around.”
“When I met Jared,” says his agent, Phil Terrano, “I saw in his eyes that he was hungry, a guy who was saying, ‘I’m going to deal with every bit of adversity that has happened to me over the last three years, and I’m going to make this happen.’ From the time I met with him last fall until the time he got drafted, that’s all he did.”
Johnson realized pretty early in the season that he was likely to be drafted, but he really had no idea which team would take him or how high in the draft he would go.
“In the draft, anything can happen,” says Terrano. “We had talked to a lot of teams about a lot of things, but we didn’t know what would happen. When people see a guy who they really liked in high school, and then he disappears for a few years, people wonder why. So this young man didn’t just have to gain the confidence of his coach — he had to gain the confidence of 30 major-league teams. They all know he has the talent, they liked him in high school, but we had to do some convincing about what had happened. He needed to mature, and a lot of people don’t understand that. So many guys get drafted when they’re 18, and they’re just not ready from a maturity standpoint. For Jared to come back as a 21-year-old freshman and compete the way he did was really impressive.”
Johnson’s future is hard to predict, because he has taken a route that people don’t take — when an 18-year-old kid leaves baseball, he generally doesn’t come back. He is off to a good start with the Nationals’ rookie-level affiliate in the Gulf Coast League, pitching 9.0 scoreless innings in five games with 11 strikeouts. Johnson’s three-year hiatus might actually end up benefitting him and the Nationals, as he now has the body and maturity of a college senior but the fresh arm of a much younger pitcher. And Coach Forbes sees one other thing that sets Johnson apart, perhaps a product of the long, hard road he took to get to this point:
“He has really good stuff,” Forbes says, “but he’s also a great competitor. He doesn’t have one ounce of fear in him.”