Marcus Johnson spent his first two years of college as a dynamic reliever out of the Duke bullpen. With the departure of numerous starters after last year, the Duke coaching staff moved Johnson into the starting rotation this season.
Johnson is the ace of the Duke pitching staff this spring. Scouts are eager to see how the junior right-hander performs as a starter. He has a quality three-pitch repertoire, size and potential to thrive in an increased role.
This season will be an important year for Johnson. Scouts project Johnson as a potential early-round pick in the 2022 MLB draft.
“It’s a blessing and a spot I have wanted to put myself in for a while,” Johnson said. “I’d be lying if I said I ignored it, but the guys who go towards the top of the draft usually have a lot of team success. I need to go out there and be one of the best players in the country and help Duke win a bunch.”
After making three appearances in a pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Johnson posted a 3.05 ERA with 59 strikeouts and 12 walks allowed in 56 innings as a reliever last season.
Now, as a junior, the 6-foot-6, 210-pound right-hander hopes to take the next step in his development. He throws a fastball, slider, and changeup from a three-quarters arm slot and clean delivery.
Johnson primarily relies on his fastball, slider combination. His fastball is a quality offering that sits in the mid-90s and touches 97 mph. It also features some arm-side run.
His slider is his top pitch. The high-spin above-average pitch features depth and is a swing-and-miss offering.
Johnson has the potential to work as a starting pitcher long-term. He locates his fastball and slider well and consistently attacks the strike zone.
“My ability to command the baseball is my biggest strength, especially relative to my other peers,” Johnson said. “I didn’t throw as hard before, so I had to have that pitchability because if I didn’t, I wasn’t going to get outs with my velocity. I pride myself on still doing that now, even though I am throwing at a higher velocity.”
In the offseason, Johnson worked on his changeup. He threw the pitch in catch play and bullpen sessions to regain feel and confidence for his changeup after rarely using it in his first two years at Duke.
Johnson has made strides with his fading changeup. It will be a critical pitch in helping him increase his strikeout numbers this spring.
“Coming out of the pen, I relied on two pitches and didn’t need the changeup as much,” Johnson said. “I lost a little feel for it. I’m working on getting it in the strike zone more because it is an effective pitch. I just need to throw it over the plate more to get swings and misses on it.”
Last year, Duke won its final eight regular-season games. The ninth-seeded Blue Devils continued that momentum into postseason play as they captured their first ACC Tournament under the current tournament format.
Duke won one game in the NCAA Regional before being eliminated last year. This season, the Blue Devils hope to make a deeper run. Johnson will play a key role as Duke’s top starter this season, especially with the injury to highly-regarded starter Henry Williams.
“I think winning one last year, even though we struggled quite a bit early in the season, reminded everyone that it is possible,” Johnson said. “But I don’t think the expectation is anything else besides getting to (the College World Series in) Omaha, winning as many games there and walking away with something special.”
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Dan Zielinski III has covered the MLB draft for seven years. He has interviewed 356 of the top draft prospects in that period, including four No. 1 overall picks. Multiple publications, including Baseball America, USA Today, MLB.com and The Arizona Republic, have quoted his work, while he has appeared on radio stations as a “MLB draft expert.” Follow him on Twitter @DanZielinski3.