Seth Johnson was struggling at the plate throughout the first month of his sophomore season last year at Louisburg College, a 750-student two-year private school in North Carolina.
Hitting was never his top trait, as he was a defensive-minded shortstop coming out of high school in 2016. It also was one of the reasons Louisburg was his lone offer to play college baseball.
In the midst of his troubles at the plate, Johnson threw a bullpen session on an off day and a teammate clocked him at 91 mph. He was desperate to contribute and approached coach Blake Herring about pitching. Herring was hesitant, especially since Johnson hadn’t pitched since middle school.
After throwing well in a junior varsity game, Johnson made five appearances during the season, totaling six innings.
Campbell University was the only school to offer him a chance to continue his baseball career after last season. His potential on the mound intrigued the coaching staff, and they believed he was worth the gamble.
Expectations weren’t high for Johnson entering fall practice. But he caught on quickly and earned the No. 1 spot in the starting rotation when the season began in February.
Johnson instantly had success against Division I hitters. In five starts this season, he’s shown glimpses of his potential while also gaining interest from professional scouts. After being an unknown player when the season began, he’s developed into a potential first-round pick for June’s MLB draft.
Johnson would be the first player drafted in the first round of the first-year player draft in Campbell history.
“It’s unreal,” Johnson said. “Growing up, my plan was always to play professional baseball. It is weird that I always thought that because I wasn’t the best hitter.
“But I feel like I am where I am supposed to be. I just took the scenic route. It wasn’t the route I thought I was going to take, but I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Johnson batted .254 with nine home runs, 20 doubles and 42 hits in his two-year junior college career.
If it wasn’t for him stepping on the mound, Johnson likely wouldn’t be in the position he is today.
The Campbell coaches heard about Johnson from Herring, who’s a Campbell alumnus, when they were recruiting pitcher Kevin Westlake.
Campbell pitching coach and recruiting coordinator Chris Marx sent assistant coach Jake Wells to watch Johnson pitch on April 3, 2018. Johnson surrendered a walk-off home run with Wells in attendance.
Johnson intrigued Wells throughout his 1 2/3 innings of work, though. He had a clean and easy arm action that allowed him to throw a high percentage of strikes with his 88-91 mph fastball.
“We had him over a couple days later and made him an offer,” Marx said.
He was hoping to continue his baseball career as a pitcher, and once Campbell offered him an opportunity, he jumped at the chance.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound right-hander entered fall practice with a limited understanding of how to pitch at the college level. He had solid control of his fastball but needed to increase his velocity. He also “didn’t really have off-speed pitches” when he arrived at Campbell, he said.
His athleticism has helped his quick transition to pitching. His fastball has sat in the mid-90s while his curveball has been his top off-speed pitch this spring.
Johnson hasn’t thrown his changeup on a regular basis due to the competition level, Marx said. Refining his slider is his top priority the remainder of the season, as he’s trying to gain a consistent feel for the pitch.
“I think he was scratching the surface early,” Marx said. “But the more he continues to go out there, the more he continues to improve and get a feel for what he’s doing. His stuff has been really good.
“I think he has a lot of really good things ahead of him. He definitely has a high ceiling and a bright future.”
Johnson has a 3.67 ERA with 29 strikeouts and 12 walks allowed in 27 innings this season.
In his first start of the season, he pitched against then-No. 9 East Carolina, who had multiple MLB draft prospects in its lineup. He lasted four innings and struck out five batters while allowing one hit and two walks.
Johnson took the hill against then-No. 10 North Carolina State in his second start. Against a lineup with pro-caliber hitters, he struck out four batters and allowed four runs and one walk in five innings.
He held shortstop Will Wilson hitless in three at-bats. Wilson, who might be the top college draft-eligible shortstop, struck out, grounded out to shortstop and lined out to second base against Johnson.
In his last three starts, Johnson has struck out 20 batters and allowed nine walks in 18 innings. His longest outing came against University of North Carolina Asheville when he lasted seven innings on March 22.
Although he has a limited track record, his intangibles could make him an intriguing draft prospect and someone teams take a chance on in the early rounds of the draft.
“I try to keep that chip on my shoulder when I think about other guys who went to big schools out of high school,” Johnson said. “I kind of try to outdo them in anything I do.
“A year ago, I didn’t have any offers and now we are talking about the draft. It’s just crazy to me, but it’s such a cool process to go through.”
Dan Zielinski III has covered the MLB draft for four years. He’s interviewed 133 of the top draft prospects in that period, including three No. 1 overall picks. Multiple publications, including Baseball America, USA Today and The Arizona Republic, have quoted his work, while he’s appeared on radio stations as a “MLB draft expert.” Follow him on Twitter @DanZielinski3.