Right-hander Jake Johansen made exceptional progress this summer at short-season Single-A Auburn.
Johansen was an astounding 1-1 with a 1.06 ERA in 10 starts for the Doubledays. He allowed no hits in five innings on Aug. 17, striking out six batters and walking just two.
The Nationals’ top selection from the 2013 draft performed so well, in fact, that he was promoted Tuesday to low Single-A Hagerstown.
His first start for the Suns is Friday.
How did Johansen do so well? Did his average-looking collegiate statistics somehow scare away other teams on draft day?
Auburn manager Gary Cathcart had seen Johansen’s numbers at Dallas Baptist. Last season, he went 7-6 with a 5.40 ERA. Not jaw-dropping, which became even more of a shock when Cathcart saw him pitch in a Doubledays uniform.
“He is the one guy in the three years I have been at this level, his college numbers were almost baffling when you watched him throw,” Cathcart said. “Those were poor numbers in college. He gets here and you watch him play catch and watch him throw and you say something is wrong here.”
Cathcart said it wasn’t just the statistics on paper. Some of it was also in Johansen’s head on what kind of pitcher he was.
“There was a lot of preconceived notions on his part on how you should get guys out and most of them were all wrong,” Cathcart said. “That was a lot of why the numbers were the way they were in college.
“Sammy Narron has done a great job with him here, our pitching coach. Really kind of stripping away a lot of the stuff that was getting in the way and really just trying to get him to think like a big, old, mean and nasty 6-foot-6, 240-pound guy, like he is, that throws 95 mph.”
Cathcart said the coaching staff worked very hard with Johansen and had him look in the mirror and see that he could be very intimidating to an opposing hitter. They also stripped down his mechanics a small amount, which is usually reserved for after a prospect’s first season.
“We really just changed his mindset a little bit. We tweaked a few things mechanically,” he said. “We don’t do that a whole lot of that the first year until they get to instructional league. But everything about him, just look at the numbers. If he gave up a run, it was almost an aberration. He was strictly a five-inning guy.
“The stuff and the mechanics and the whole ability to get guys out just kept getting better and better with each outing. He finished up here with five no-hit innings the other night before we sent him out.”
At Auburn, Johansen was able to showcase his stuff. Cathcart realized the kid had more than just a plus-plus fastball. His breaking stuff also could get guys out.
“He is 94-95 mph, 97 mph several times,” Cathcart noted. “It has heavy sink. He also has really developed a little bit of a feel for his changeup.”
Cathcart said they also worked on Johansen’s breaking pitch to bring up the speed so that hitters would go for it. The pitch might have worked at Dallas Baptist, but pros would see right through it.
“We got him to where he was throwing his breaking ball with a lot more velocity,” Cathcart said. “He was trying to trick guys with his breaking ball and throw it in the 70s mph. He had a big 20 mph difference (on his breaking stuff) and not realizing that was not going to play at the professional level.
“He got it up to low-to-mid 80s mph and got a lot of swings and misses. His changeup was probably his best pitch in his last outing.”
Cathcart believes the Allen, Texas, native will do well at Hagerstown and beyond because he is the total package: smart kid, good size and with lethal stuff.
“He has got everything he needs, no question about that,” Cathcart said. “Big kid, physical, heavy sink. He really out-stuffed this league. He needs to go and get a little bit more challenge before the end of the year. Hagerstown will be in a playoff atmosphere, so that will be good for him.
“This was probably one that stood out the most just because of the stuff he has, the whole package, as far as his repertoire and the size of him.”
Cathcart would get a chuckle when Johansen would instantly try to break down every pitch and every mistake and fix it quickly.
“He is really a smart kid,” Cathcart said. “He likes to analyze everything, which is sometimes not good in this game. He just wanted information. He realized that what his thinking was really backwards.
“So we just simplified things. Sammy did a real great job with him. Really getting his mindset changed to just being a big, old, mean, nasty guy that no one wanted to face. That is really what it looked like from the hitters perspective.”
The final five starts for Auburn, Johansen pitched 25 innings and allowed three earned runs, striking out 25 batters with only six walks.
“Really impressive numbers and his walks went down as he went along,” Cathcart said of Johansen’s end run at Auburn. “Everything got better and better just like you wanted him to progress in his first year with a guy that has a chance to be where he can be.”