October 23, 2014

Jake Johansen Looking like a Draft Steal for Washington Nationals

Back in June, when the Nationals used their top draft pick on Jake Johansen, I thought to myself “the Nationals amateur scouting department is at it again.”

Even now that they’re winning, and signing free agents tied to compensation picks, the Nationals are still managing to take home the best young talent in each years draft class. After raking in all-world prospects like Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman during their early, sub-500 seasons in DC, they’ve taken home Anthony Rendon, Brian Goodwin, Alex Meyer, Lucas Giolito with much weaker draft slots picks in recent years.

They’ve also used their scouting department to extract great value from areas most organizations traditionally struggle in. They found ace-level pitcher Jordan Zimmermann at UW-Milwaukee, a DII program, former P-Nats catcher and on-base machine David Freitas at U Hawaii (sent to Oakland in the Kurt Suzuki deal), and took top outfield prospect Michael Taylor in the 6th round of the ’09 draft, when few pro clubs were even giving him work outs. In the mid to late rounds of recent drafts, they’ve snagged top arms like Tommy Milone (10th round in 2008), Taylor Jordan (9th round in ’09), Nate Karns (12th round in ’09), Aaron Barrett (9th round in ’10), and Robbie Ray (12th round in ’10), as well as slugging first baseman Tyler Moore (16th round in ’08).

Essentially, while under new hard-slotting rules and with lesser picks and lesser resources in general at their disposal, the Nats are still able to get it done.

This June, saddled without a first-round pick because of an (ill-advised) Rafael Soriano contract, they still took home the draft’s most gifted young athletes. They got a 6’6″ flamethrower out of Dallas Baptist in the second round, and then took the utterly underrated and supremely-toolsy Drew Ward in the third round. They followed those two gems with a bunch of other great picks, taking Cody Gunter, a smart third-baseman with thunder in his bat, crafty little southpaw David Napoli, and PAC-10 workhorse Austin Voth.

The Nationals amateur scouting department has done a fine job of sniffing out the best prospects in the country, and the front office has done a tremendous job of signing them.

This year, the decisions weren’t as obvious in past years though, as after the first-round, the talent-pool gets a lot more murky. Luckily, the organization prepared for a low pick, and had their area scouts look at small/off-brand-name school kids like Johansen at Dallas Baptist, and high-ceiling guys in rural areas (like Ward).

California, one of the states every club pays heavy attention to for amateur talent, and an area the Nats love to shop in, wasn’t their target this year. High demand leads to higher prices/earlier picks. They didn’t have enough money to go after a kid from talent factory like Harvard-Westlake high school, Cal State or UCLA this year. Instead, they had mid-west cross-checker Jimmy Gonzalez, scouting director Kris Kline and area scouts like Ty Wilt and Ed Gustafson scouring uncharted earth for big-time tools in overlooked places. They targeted the high school showcase circuit in the oil and corn fields, and sifted through juco and second-tier college programs.

Johansen is a big kid with a big arm. But he got hit hard while playing for a small school over the years. On most draft boards he was considered a 3rd-6th round prospect. His resume was light, he was old for his class and his numbers weren’t impressive on the surface. However, the Nationals got a closer look at him than other clubs. They saw sky-high potential. They saw a smart, well-spoken 6’6″ flamethrower that had ironed-out his mechanics and improved his K/BB by 2x in his junior year compared to the year before.

Johansen posted a 5.40 ERA in 2012–no so hot. His 75/26 K/BB says he was much better than that though. His FIP was just 3.80, a superb number considering the dry central-Texas air and how easily hard fastballs like his jump off of big-barreled college bats. Like many long-levered, hard throwers before him–Alex Meyer when he was at Kentucky comes to mind as a recent example– Johansen’s pure stuff is the kind that works significantly better against softer, wood bats. He’s the kind of prospect that should actually put up better numbers in the pro’s.

Johansen’s .378 BABIP was also especially high, suggesting some bad luck.

Even in the spring time, dry and baked Texas turf leads to a lot of fast ground balls that leave the infield, and Dallas’ thin, windy spring air helps fly balls carry. Dallas Baptist’s Horner Field has an exceptionally hitter-friendly park factor of 123, and even their opponents average a 118 mark.

Johansen happens to be a ground-ball pitcher, and is therefore the kind of guy that will struggle with rock-hard, dirt infields. Furthermore, the Patriots put up a poor defensive front behind him last year. They had a lower fielding% than their opponents and have allowed more passed balls than the competition for the past couple of years. So, there’s plenty of reason to dismiss Johansen’s inflated ERA as a product of his team and environment, and also to focus more on his FIP, and also his tremendous stuff.

Now three months later, Jake Johansen is making the Nationals look damn smart for drafting him with their top pick.

After tossing five innings of no-hit ball on Saturday evening, Johansen has kicked off his pro career by posting a 1.06 ERA through 42.1 innings. He’s been un-hittable, literally so on Saturday. He has struck-out 44 batters and has allowed a only 22 hits on the season–good for a Nolan Ryan-esque 4.67 H/9. Johansen’s command continues to improve as well, and his 2.5 K/BB is pretty solid for a power pitcher getting his first taste of the pro’s.

Batters have simply been unable to get good wood on Johansen’s filthy pitches. He’s looked outstanding thus far. Not only is he striking out twice as many batters as he’s allowing hits to, but when opposing hitters do put the ball in play, they’re unable to hit it with authority. After recording 8 more ground-ball outs on Thursday, in his start against the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, he’s totaled a 3.2 ground-out/fly-out ratio. That’s nearly three-times the league-league average mark of 1.18.

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In my draft profiles of Johansen, I mentioned that his biggest knocks were off-speed command and inconsistent mechanics–marked by shaky balance, an erratic landing and release point. He’s a big kid with long arms, and he naturally has issues keeping his body weight and his front shoulder heading in the same direction. Right now, he throws across his body and stays closed a bit too long, leading to his troubles losing his x-axis aim. His issues used to be much worse though, as he’d actually fly open too early when he was younger, and before last season, he’d struggled to use his trunk in his delivery. He’d bend at the waste and muscle the ball with his shoulder.

As a result, Johansen’s command generally suffered in college, and he dealt with wavering velocity. He’d tire early, and lose the strike-zone to the point where he rarely got to use his secondary pitches in games. He walked 32 batters in 2012, and led the team with 11 HBP’s between 2012 and 2013.

But, Johansen is also a great athlete for his size. He’s strong and loose, with powerful legs and enough body control and fluidity to smooth out his mechanics. And along with his athleticism, Johansen’s ideal-for-pitching build, his IQ and work ethic have helped him make huge strides lately.

After drastically improving his mechanics and repertoire heading into his junior campaign, he’s already responding well to pro coaching this summer, displaying multiple in-season improvements to date. His fastball command is developing into a strength, as he keeps the ball low and works both sides of the dish surprisingly well (much better than he ever has). And, he’s pitching with a much more fluid, easy delivery. He’s still coming across a little bit, but he’s doing a fine job of employing his legs, leading with his front hip as he breaks, and driving towards home plate.

Like a young AJ Burnett, or even former Nats farmhand Alex Meyer (now with the Twins), Johansen has gotten past some early struggles in his amateur career to bloom into a top prospect. With the Doubledays, his heater is sitting firmly 92-95 and is lighting up 97’s and 98’s.

Because he throws out of a 3/4 arm slot, and often comes across his body, Johansen’s heater naturally has extra lateral movement and drifts away from left-handed hitters and into righties. He’s throwing his 2-seamer more often than in college, and is doing a better job of getting on top of it, creating some nasty run and sink. Like his fastball, he shows solid feel for the pitch, and is adept at keeping the ball low. His heavy two-seamer’s plus-plus velocity makes it a potential 7 or even 8 pitch (on the 2-8 scale), and he has used it to dominate his competition this year, leading to boat loads of swing throughs and soft grounders.

With a build and mechanics similar to Meyer and Burnett, Johansen also happens to have a similar repertoire and overall profile. Like those other two hurlers, his delivery comes and goes, and he’ll lose his release point and sail his fair share of balls toward the third-base dugout. But when he’s on, and planting his stride foot in line with his target and repeating his delivery, his fastball command often looks like it could be solid-average or better with some more refinement. He’s doing a much better job of attacking the strikezone this year, showing some impressive guts against pro hitters, and he’s using his four-seamer to go inside on lefties.

Johansen has also polished his secondary stuff greatly. Struggling to find a consistent complement to his heat in college, Johansen cycled between an array of off-speed pitches from start to start. This spring and now with the DoubleDays this summer, he has looked much more comfortable using a hard slider as his main off-speed pitch. He’s also looking more comfortable mixing in a handful of very nice change-ups during his starts.

Johansen’s slider has settled into the mid 80’s, and he fires it out of the same tunnel as his heater. The pitch has great disappearing break, diving away from right-handed hitters. It’s mainly a swing-and-miss pitch when he’s ahead, or something he’ll bury, but if he can continue to improve his delivery it’ll be big-league plus. After rarely throwing it before his junior campaign, his change now looks like a strong third offering. Like his two-seamer, it has great arm-side run, and he isn’t afraid to throw it with fastball effort.

The rest of Johansen’s game is solid. Dallas Baptist was a competitor, for the first time in program history while he was there, and he’s more polished than he has largely been given credit for. He has some fire in him on the mound. Now that’s he’s pitching smarter and building up some confidence, his approach is benefitting. He’s pitching more aggressively, using his off-speed stuff and coming inside against southpaws. His low arm slot, and closed front side gives him a significant platoon split, but if he cuts his four-seamer in-on the hands of southpaws and attacks them, he’ll be just

Johansen holds base-runners well, and has a nice pick-off move–throwing accurately off of the pivot. His fielding has a ways to go, but that’ll come with more experience. He’s rushed through each of his fielding chances this summer, but he gets off the mound well and moves relatively smoothly.

After Nationals scouting director Kris Kline compared Johansen to Josh Beckett, pre-draft, and Roy Clark followed suit by tabbing him a “gem,” Johansen’s coaches have been similarly enthusiastic now that they’ve seen him in action. Auburn’s pitching coach Sam Narron called his fastball “special” and is very pleased with the development of Johansen’s breaking pitch.

Johansen signed a $820K bonus, a bargain given his talent level. If he continues to grow and improve, especially at this rate, he’ll certainly shatter the back-end reliever/3rd-starter profile that many tabbed him with prior to his pro debut. He could eventually grow into a top-shelf power pitcher in the pro’s, a la prime-years versions of AJ Burnett or Josh Beckett. Regardless, it appears the Nationals scouting department has once again come through with a great find.

About Ryan Kelley

Ryan Kelley is a Contributor to District Sports Page. He’s an economist by day and an aspiring journalist living in the D.C. area. Native to Connecticut, he has lived in Washington since graduating from The George Washington University and has covered Minor League Baseball and Team USA. He is founder of BaseballNewsHound.com, and specializes in prospects playing in leagues on the East Coast and in the Mid-Atlantic region. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @BBNewsHound.

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