Kris Johnson of the Pittsburgh Pirates: Living the American Dream

Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Introduction:

Kris Johnson is a 28-year-old rookie pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He attended Blue Springs High School in Missouri from 1999 to 2003. As a Wildcat, the left-hander dominated on the mound–throwing five no-hitters and was ultimately drafted in the 50th round by the Anaheim Angels after his senior season. Yet, he declined the offer and took his pitching talents to Wichita State University. As a freshman for the Shockers, he lead the Missouri Valley Conference with a 2.01 earned-run average.

After a successful NCAA career in Wichita, Johnson was selected in the 1st round (compensation portion), 40th overall by the Boston Red Sox in the 2006 MLB Draft. He promptly agreed to terms with the Red Sox–receiving an $850,000 signing bonus. As an aside, according to my brother-in-law and sister (his good friends), KJ used part of his bonus to buy a brand new Lexus and with the guidance of his father, he invested the rest of it.

Minor League “Roller Coaster”:

In short, things did not pan out for KJ in the Red Sox organization. He was 28-49 with a career ERA of 5.10 and had a troubling 12.63 ERA in 20.2 innings for Pawtucket (Boston’s Triple-A affiliate) before being released in 2011.

After five unsuccessful seasons in the minors, most guys would have considered quitting. Not KJ. As my sister has told me, KJ is a pretty stubborn guy, and to be frank, he still trusted in his pitching ability. Thus, in 2011, the Pirates decided to give the former first-rounder a shot.

For this post, I searched around for some articles and read one on SB Nation that stated, “signing a guy who somehow allowed seven homers in 20.2 Class AAA innings last year wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense, unless they needed someone to throw batting practice.”

Well, guess what SB Nation, KJ was able to turn it around in the Pirates’ organization–he became a solid professional pitcher, not a batting practice pitcher. After having two successful minor league seasons in 2011 and 2012, he came into 2013 looking to improve even more, and this is exactly what happened. This year, for the Indianapolis Indians (Pittsburgh’s Triple-A Affiliate), KJ went 10-4 with a 2.39 ERA in just under 136 innings pitched–a stellar performance deserving of a shot in the big leagues.

Marathon Major League Debut:

On August 18th, 2013, seven years after being drafted, KJ finally had his major league debut, and it will never be forgotten. The Pirates were deadlocked with the Diamondbacks, 2-2 in the 11th inning when KJ got the call to enter the game. It is almost hard to believe what happened next. He ended up pitching a full six innings in relief for the Pirates. Sure, he allowed two runs in the 16th that lead to the loss, but he saved the Pirates bullpen and showed flashes of pitching ability. Allowing just two runs in six innings would make most teams ecstatic if it came from a starting pitcher.

Thus, because of his strong performance in relief, he got his chance to start for the Pirates in a pivotal game against the Cardinals on September 1st. A pitcher, who had once been classified as a “bust” was pitching for a team competing for a division title in September. The start did not go well for KJ–completing just two innings while allowing five runs. The Cardinals beat the Pirates, 7-2.

A tough outing like this could break a pitcher down. Yet, he had been through struggles before over the past seven years, and with the expanded rosters in September, he knew he would get another shot. That next shot came last night (September 6th) after the Cardinals broke out to an early lead against the Pirates.

AJ Burnett got roughed up for five runs in the first three innings, so the Pirates turned to KJ to “stop the bleeding,” and this is exactly what he did. KJ pitched two perfect innings–allowing zero hits while striking out three. His last strikeout will likely be a memorable one for him–making Carlos Beltran look foolish on a sinker down and away.

Brief Scouting Report:

In three major league appearances, KJ’s numbers do not look very good–0-2 with a 6.30 ERA. Yet, this is a very small sample size, and if last night is any indication, he will keep getting better with more big league experience.

He has the stuff to be a successful major league pitcher. According to BrooksBaseball.net, he has thrown his sinker up to 95.17 MPH this season with somewhere between seven to ten inches of tailing action on it. He complements his sinker with a hard slider that comes in around 84-86 MPH. Yet, to me, his best pitch is his changeup. I know this may be a stretch, but some of the changeups I saw him throw last night resembled those of another lefty, Cliff Lee. The changeup comes in around 84-85 MPH, and in his MLB debut, it averaged 10.52 inches of horizontal movement.

Final Thoughts: (before the interview)

Thus, by now I am sure you were wondering why I titled this post the way I did. Well, here’s why. To me, the “American Dream” is finding something in life that you truly love and sticking with it no matter what anyone else has to say about it. You choose when to move on from it, not someone else.

KJ struggled throughout the minors at times over the span of seven years, and I am sure many scouts out there figured he was just another first-round bust. Writers out there even took the time to call him a “batting practice pitcher.” Yet, he believed in his ability, and partly due to his stubbornness, he stuck with the game that he loved.

Now, after all he has been through, he is pitching for a major league team in the hunt of a division crown. If that is not the “American Dream,” then I do not know what is.

Finally…

A Quick Interview: 

I was able to ask him a few questions via email because my sister and brother-in-law are friends with him. She texted him and asked, and he was more than happy to help me out. This took place before his start against the Cardinals on September 1st, but I waited until now to post it given the outcome of that game.

StlCupofJoe: How has it been traveling back and forth between Triple-A Indianapolis and the big leagues with Pittsburgh?
Kris Johnson: Well it’s never fun to be sent down, but its even more rewarding to get that call back up.

Stl: Who have you learned the most from in your professional career thus far?
KJ: There’s a lot of people who have influenced me along this roller coaster of a career so to pick one person out wouldn’t be right, I like to think that everyone has a different perspective, and any little piece of info that’s beneficial is helpful.

Stl: Who would you model your pitching style after?
KJ: I really don’t know who I would be compared with because there are no two pitchers alike, and that’s what makes this game so great.

Stl: What are your thoughts of the Cardinals lineup? (had to get this one in there for my readers)
KJ: There’s a reason why the Cardinals are so good. It’s because anyone in that lineup can hurt you, their average with RISP is I believe the best in the league.

Stl: Describe your major league debut. I bet you could have never expected to pitch 6 innings in relief in your first game.
KJ: Oh it was unbelievable.  Never would I have thought I would go 6 innings in relief,  I was running on pure adrenaline, because I didn’t get barely any sleep the night before or on the flight out, and the fact that it was a day game I couldn’t try to get a nap in before the game.  But if I had to describe it in one word it would be “unbelievable.”

Stl: The 2nd time the Pirates called you up, what did they tell you? Did it sound like this one was for the rest of the season?
KJ: Well since Sept 1st was coming I had a feeling it would be, and I’m glad I could come up and help this team out the best I can to make it to the playoffs

Pirates fans, and baseball fans for that matter, make sure to follow KJ on Twitter: @Kris_Johnson60

Until next time…

Joe

For more updates, follow me on Twitter: @stlCupofJoe

Official member of the STLSportsMinute Network

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