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2020 BYB Tigers prospect #26: C Cooper Johnson is a delight on defense

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The gifted defensive backstop has something to prove at the plate.

NCAA Baseball: Super Regional-Mississippi at Arkansas Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

Catcher is a tough position to play. It’s also a tough position to evaluate. Determining a player’s defensive capabilities isn’t as easy as observing an infielder’s or outfielder’s range, and some of their most important duties — calling a game, managing a pitching staff, and the like — even give professional scouts trouble. Then there’s the offense too.

The Detroit Tigers have a couple backstops that made it onto our top 30 prospect list this year. Current Catcher of the Future Jake Rogers is one of them, and the other is 2019 draftee Cooper Johnson. Good hitting catchers are rare, which is why Johnson’s glove is key in his standing as a prospect in the organization.

Background

The Tigers selected Johnson in the sixth round of the 2019 MLB Draft. He had been taken out of high school by the Cincinnati Reds in the 28th round back in 2016, but opted to attend Ole Miss instead. During his final year in college, he was named to the All-SEC second team, and to the conference’s 2019 All-Defensive team.

Johnson spent his first 14 pro games with the Connecticut Tigers (now the Norwich Sea Unicorns) before a promotion to West Michigan, where he closed out the year. Most of his at-bats came in a Whitecaps uniform, where he hit .179/.320/.298 in 103 plate appearances. Though he only played a handful of games at both levels, his performed slightly better in short-season ball. The one constant at both levels was patience and knowledge of the strike zone; he managed 23 walks in 160 plate appearances, nearly a 15 percent clip.

Strengths

Most of Johnson’s strengths right now are on the defensive side of the ball. His real calling card is his arm strength, which garnered a 65 grade on MLB Pipeline leading up to last year’s draft.

“Any discussion of Johnson still starts with his arm, a well above-average cannon that regularly registers sub-1.9-second pop times and helped him erase 45 percent of basestealers during the 2019 regular season.”

Baseball America was even more impressed with Johnson’s skill set, thinking he could be the real deal behind the plate... if the bat comes around.

If Johnson can just hit .230 in pro ball, he’ll play for a very long time. And even if he hits .210 he still might be a future big leaguer, 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. He handles a pitching staff extremely well, and his plus-plus arm discourages base stealers—he threw out 45 percent of attempted basestealers this year.

The Bless You Boys staff has gotten a few in-game looks at Johnson, and we have come away impressed with his smoothness behind the plate. Where many young catchers have somewhat mechanical movements, Johnson is able to move well and really stand out while wearing the gear. Pipeline also noted that Johnson “worked hard to improve his receiving and blocking, which had been subpar in the past but now elicit average to solid grades.”

Johnson has continued to put on good weight to fill out his 6’0” frame since being drafted. He is currently listed at 215 pounds, and that muscle does give him the bat speed to boast some decent raw power, though he will need to improve his hit tool for the power to manifest in games. Early returns are somewhat promising, as Johnson’s walk rate stood out in his short stint in pro ball last summer. While with West Michigan, he walked at an impressive 14.6 percent clip. He also drew 29 walks and got on base at a .371 clip in 207 at-bats at Ole Miss last year.

Weaknesses

A good eye helped bolster Johnson’s on-base percentage in both college and the pros, but he did very little else in the way of answering any questions from an offensive standpoint. Johnson swings hard at the plate, so when he does connect, the ball comes off the bat pretty well. Connecting is often the issue, however. With the Whitecaps, Johnson struck out at a 27.2 percent clip in 27 games.

Johnson doesn’t possess the best bat control, which is where the hard swinging leads to some swing and miss. His swing has a tendency to get long with a slight bat wrap, which means as he gets to his load position, his bat wraps behind his head slightly. That creates a long path through the strike zone.

Baseball America noted that Johnson tweaked his swing this year, which helped, but it’s still a bit long. His track record in wood bat leagues also isn’t the best.

Johnson can drive the ball with average power, but he struggles to make consistent contact. He’s never topped .300 in a season in college, and he hit .145 in two summers in the Cape Cod League. Johnson has hit better this year after tweaking his setup, and he now begins with a very high handset. His swing has some length to it, further adding to concerns about how much he’ll hit.

Johnson is not the fastest guy on the diamond, which is typical for catchers. This isn’t necessarily a weakness, as most catchers are well below-average runners, but it’s... not a strength. He can only be expected to slow down the more innings he catches.

Projected 2020 Team: West Michigan Whitecaps

This should come as little surprise considering how few games he played there in 2019. Johnson also has a lot to prove offensively at the level before moving up. Once he proves he can hit Midwest League pitching, then he should get a chance to move up and let his glove shine. Johnson will always be a glove-first prospect.