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January 21, 2015 at 9:47 AM

Brian Johnson prepared to follow up stellar 2014 campaign

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Coming off of his best professional season to date, a year in which he posted a 1.75 ERA in 118 Double-A innings en route to being named the Red Sox Minor League Pitcher of the Year, Brian Johnson is getting a jump start on the follow-up to his breakout year.

The big left-hander was one of the ten players to attend the Red Sox Rookie Development Program last week.

“I can’t thank the Red Sox enough for selecting me to come to this,” Johnson said of the week-long camp. “It’s been a huge help for me, just from talking to some of the guys from the team and some of the speakers we’ve had.”

The 24-year-old emerged as one of the organization’s top prospects after his 2014 campaign, but within the Red Sox organization, Johnson’s success was far from a surprise.

“Brian was someone we were very excited to get from the get-go,” said Director of Player Development Ben Crockett. “[He] had some physical setbacks early in his career, and coming off his first healthy offseason last year, I think he was really able to take that step forward. 

“All four of his pitches probably ticked up a little bit [in velocity], and he’s always been a guy who’s repeated his delivery, who has done the things that help make somebody successful. For months on end he was putting together consistent starts every outing.”

Johnson spent the bulk of his breakout season with Portland, where he pitched alongside Henry Owens, who would end up nudging him out for Eastern League Pitcher of the Year honors even though Johnson took home the organization's award as top pitcher (as well as SoxProspects.com's Pitcher and Breakout Player of the Year awards). When Owens was promoted to Triple-A in early August, another lefty, Eduardo Rodriguez, took his place in the Sea Dogs rotation after coming over from the Orioles organization in the Andrew Miller trade. Pitching alongside two of the most promising starters in the Red Sox system had its benefits for Johnson.

“I think any time you have a group of competitive guys in the starting rotation who can push each other, there are positive gains to be made, particularly when they’re able to compare themselves as left-handers or guys with similar stuff or attack plans,” Crockett said. “Each guy’s got to pitch to his own strengths, but being able to watch how the team approached the previous guy gives them some insight.

“I think from a friendly competition standpoint, we saw it with [Matt] Barnes, [Anthony] Ranaudo, [and Brandon] Workman in the past. They are a group, they like to push each other and cheer for each other and I think that’s a really important part of the rotation.”

Johnson does not view Owens and Rodriguez as competition, necessarily. Rather, he views them as peers from whom he can learn.

“Exactly,” Johnson replied when asked if seeing fellow left-handers like Owens and Rodriguez face the same hitters as he did was helpful to him. “You’re always taking notes in your head while you’re watching the game or charting the game or scouting the game as a player.”

Charting other pitchers on his off days was an important and interesting exercise for Johnson, especially once Rodriguez joined the rotation.

“I would say [to Rodriguez] ‘hey, what was the 88 [mph] pitch?’ His fastball’s anywhere from 92-96. He was like ‘that’s my changeup,’” Johnson recalled. “I just kind of shook my head and said ‘all right, [I] wasn’t too sure.’ It was fun to chart him.”

Working alongside Owens even prompted Johnson to gain some faith in one of his seldom-used pitches.

“Watching Henry pitch really opened my eyes up to being able to throw my changeup more because of what situations he threw his in,” Johnson said. “[In] years prior, I never really threw my changeup. So seeing him throw it and having success with it really gave me confidence to go out and do it.”

The 2015 season will present new opportunities for Johnson to learn from his peers, as he will presumably join Owens and Rodriguez in the Pawtucket rotation. 

Photo credit: Brian Johnson by Kelly O'Connor.

Katie Morrison is a staff writer for SoxProspects.com. Follow her on Twitter @katiemo61.