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2019 BYB Tigers Prospect #27: Cooper Johnson has rock-solid defense

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The Tigers’ new addition could ascend to the majors with his glove alone.

Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

People love to look for patterns. Patterns make things easy to categorize, analyze, and understand. That holds true in baseball, where the huge number of players, lengthy schedules, and long history make it easy to find established track records. One pattern within the Detroit Tigers organization is that, especially within recent years, the front office has prioritized catcher defense in the farm system. Almost to a man, even the only marginally noteworthy catchers they’ve added to the system are ticketed as glove-first players.

Of course, catchers who hit are precious to begin with, and scarce in the modern era.

This proves to be the case with sixth-round pick Cooper Johnson as well. He’s the first backstop they selected during the 2019 draft, and his work behind the dish is his bread and butter. As you may expect, there are also some issues with his presence at the plate. Detroit’s front office is expecting him to rise through the ranks on the merit of his catch-and-throw skills and hope to mend his offensive deficiencies along the way.

Background

Johnson was a prominent draft prospect as a high school player back in 2016. MLB Pipeline pegged him as the 68th-ranked prospect in the class. Most teams are skittish about prep backstops, though. No one was willing to gamble that he’d make the transition to pro ball — the Cincinnati Reds took a flyer on him in the 28th round. After a three-year campaign on the Ole Miss Rebels squad, Johnson ended with a .245/.339/.363 line and 10.84 percent walk rate.

Strengths

Johnson’s work behind the plate separates him from the pack. Scouts have glowing praise for how well he handles a pitching staff. Any report on Johnson would be remiss without a mention of his extraordinary arm strength. Reports on his ability to shut down the running game are similar to fellow Tigers prospect Jake Rogers, who is considered by some to be the top defensive backstop in the game. Nearly half of would-be basestealers failed to beat out Johnson’s strong and accurate arm. MLB Pipeline also noted that he regularly recorded pop times* below 1.9 seconds in action this spring.

Johnson has worked hard at improving his defensive actions and made significant progress during his time at Ole Miss. The raw skills were always there for him to be an above-average catcher, but the execution was lacking at times. Today, though, evaluators are bullish about his receiving. “Even if he hits .210 he still might be a future big leaguer,” wrote Baseball America, “simply because scouts are that confident in Johnson’s excellent glove work behind the plate. Johnson is one of the best receivers in college baseball.”

Johnson also improved somewhat at the plate during his college career. There were concerns about his bat speed, but he’s added muscle to his 6’0 frame in the three years since. His bat is quicker now and shows average raw power. In addition, scouts note that he’s become a more selective hitter. The stats match up with that assessment; his strikeout rate improved by nearly four percent with the Rebels. He still has his issues at the plate, and is essentially not much more than a project with the bat, but defensively gifted catchers don’t need to produce much offensively to have value. The adjustments he’s made will help give him an extra boost towards a future in the bigs.

* “Pop time” is defined by Baseball Savant as “the time from the moment the pitch hits the catcher’s mitt to the moment the ball reaches the fielder’s projected receiving point at the center of the base.” Since the implementation of Statcast in 2015, MLB catchers have averaged a pop time of 2.01 seconds.

Weaknesses

Making contact was often a struggle for Johnson as an amateur, and that isn’t likely to change as a pro. He changed his stance at the plate after a poor season in 2018 and now sets up with his hands near the top of his head. It’s a fairly unusual approach and adds length to his swing but it has been a net positive and he’s making more contact that he has in the past. He still doesn’t use his lower body well, and has a tendency to open up too much with a compact but choppy stroke, but reps with improved mechanics may sooth out some of those issues. Overall, it’s still a poor tool and pro pitchers will find ways to take advantage of it.

Backstops are often some of the slowest runners on a team, and Johnson is no exception. He’s not so large, but he is thickly built with strong legs and he’s only going to get slower with a catcher’s wear and tear. He posts run times that register as 30-grade on the 20-80 scale. For those less familiar with that grading scale, that’s two standard deviation below the mean. As a catcher, it shouldn’t impact his game very much — both MLB Pipeline and Baseball America chose not to comment on it in their scouting notes — but it is still a weakness.

Despite the fact that this section isn’t very robust, Johnson still will need to prove himself as a professional to earn a spot higher on our prospect list. The contact issues are glaring enough that finer points aren’t really called for yet. Lacking contact ability has been the downfall of many an otherwise solid prospect and he doesn’t have a track record of playing above his tools.

Outlook

There are several paths to the major leagues for a player like Johnson. It’s easy to envision him serving in a bench role, but it’s also feasible that he could become a second-tier regular. A lot hinges on how much good contact he’s able to make and whether his improving strikeout and walk rates continue to trend in the right direction. His future also depends somewhat on how much competition he has within the organization. It’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen but if Jake Rogers, one of the game’s top catching prospects, gives the Tigers just average production for a catcher, he’ll be a tough act to beat. But if Johnson can make some progress with the bat, he has a good chance to be the understudy.

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