He went through his bullpen and came out satisfied. Johnson topped out at 87 mph and believes he was the second hardest thrower that day.
“I had nothing to lose,” Johnson said. “It was probably my best bullpen I threw in a while. Every pitch was working, and they seemed pretty impressed.”
Johnson walked off the mound more motivated than ever. He knew there was one more aspect to unlock, to transform himself into a legitimate draft prospect. Senior season was on the horizon, and he was determined to not make it his last.
He picked up his phone.
Dr. Josh Heenan is the founder and president of Advanced Therapy Performance (ATP), a rehab and training facility in Stamford, Conn. He is a former strength coach at Sacred Heart University with a Doctorate of Integrated and Natural Medicine. He has helped the Sacred Heart baseball program reach new heights and developed multiple MLB draft picks.
Throwing 90 mph is a basic requirement for any pitcher to start gaining serious interest from MLB scouts. Through a decade’s worth of research and development, Heenan has created a system that consistently allows pitchers to reach that threshold.
It’s called the “90 mph Formula” and features a group of measurable data points – like momentum potential, force production, stable power position, force transfer and arm power – one must reach to throw that speed in a healthy way. The proposed metrics correlate with a reduction in ulnar collateral ligament injuries. It protects the most important part of a pitcher.
“You start to see trends in the gym,” Heenan said. “It works as a very unique way to have checks and balances. I thought it was going to be good for the community to share that.”
Johnson had been following Heenan’s work through social media for quite some time, before he decided to shoot him a message.
“He had been adamant that our services were going to be one of the final things to help him unlock the last bit of power so he could try and make a career out of baseball,” Heenan said.
Johnson signed up as a remote programming client. After some initial tests to evaluate his strength, size and mobility movement, ATP devised a workout program.
“Brian knew exactly what he wanted to get out of it, came to us with his goal, and we built a program around those goals and catered that to him,” Heenan said. “It is really geared towards athletes that want to take their performance to the next level and know they are already putting in the hard work they need to reach those goals.”
Once Johnson built up the strength needed to reach the desired metrics, he started to focus on improving mechanics.
Driveline Baseball is at the forefront of baseball research and analytics. Several pros travel to Seattle to dress themselves in spandex geared with sensors that allow Driveline to trace their pitching motions and build analysis from a strictly scientific standpoint.
There have been countless success stories to come out of this warehouse out West, and Johnson wanted to be a part of that family.
Although he did not fly out to the training facility, he was able to accomplish a lot remotely. Johnson purchased several training aides including plyo balls, weighted baseballs, a recovery trampoline and wrist weights to start a program designed to clean up his arm path and increase the engagement of his whole body on the mound.
“In terms of the summer, trying to help out myself without coach being there, it’s much tougher,” Johnson said. “Training remotely allowed me to fix my mechanics. It’s so in depth and in detail.”
He was set -- a duffle bag of about 30 pounds he lugged around -- and ready to begin his most productive offseason.
Fall season for Springfield College was rapidly approaching in September. Johnson kept grinding, throwing for an hour, before lifting for an hour and a half, four to five days a week. About a week before he reported, he made a trip to the Field House with teammates Jordan Elkary and Alex Denoyelle.
With Denoyelle set up behind the plate and Elkary manning the radar gun, Johnson tested himself for the first time since his last outing with the Suns. He reared back and fired with intent and maximum force -- something he’d learned was vital through working with Heenan and Driveline.
After the second pitch, the radar gun showed 90 mph.
“I was pumped up,” Johnson said.
He kept going. Kept developing and tirelessly working to increase his velocity for a couple more months. By the end of October, at Springfield’s fall scrimmage against Elms, scouts were in attendance. Johnson was just hoping he could replicate the same velocity he showed in that early September bullpen.
Similar to his scout day in August, he felt good. Although this time, three months later, the velocity was seven mph higher.
Johnson topped out at 94 mph against Elms.
“I’m like ‘No way. Check the gun. It’s got to be broken,’” Johnson said. “Getting from 87 to 90, then getting from 90 to 94 is like the craziest little things. It’s nuts.
That’s baseball. That’s pitching.”
Johnson put himself on the map. It didn’t surprise Heenan.
“The results aren’t uncommon. Brian just happens to be extremely dedicated, so I think his results are going to be more dramatic,” he said.
Drabinski added, “He’s the definition of a gym rat. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve played with. It’s just nonstop. That’s the type of kid he is.”
The interest from scouts skyrocketed. Johnson started becoming familiar with a lot of the New England area evaluators. At the Winter Meetings, where major league and minor league representatives gather in a different location every December to discuss offseason league business, he networked.
More of them started showing up to his starts. The sport he decided to focus on after middle school was looking like it could become a career.
“He continues to blossom every year,” Bob Johnson, a UCONN baseball standout and former MLB draft pick, said. “He plays because he just loves the game. If you don’t love the game, you’re just not going to make it.”
The same scouts, along with trainers, family, and former coaches flooded Brian’s inbox with congratulatory notes when he no-hit Emerson this season on March 24. It marked his second career no-hitter (his first of nine innings), making Johnson the first pitcher in D-III program history to throw multiple no-hitters at Springfield.
“I went and sent a blast text message to all of my players and all of my family to let them know,” Gable said after he found out. “We’re certainly pulling for him around here.”
Johnson’s accumulation of two near perfect performances almost never happened.
In the seventh inning, Ryan McCahan grounded a ball to the right of Noah Bleakley at first base. Johnson blanked and forgot to cover the bag.
“I would have been pissed off at myself,” he said.
Bleakley had enough time to gather the grounder and step on first base for the second out of the inning, and the no-hit bid continued.
“That would have been a horrific way to lose a no-hitter,” Simeone said.
As the ninth inning approached, the pressure of this feat had been building in Johnson’s head for three innings.
“The ninth inning you’re just counting down,” Johnson said. “I was just trying to do a deep breath after every pitch. Not get ahead of myself.”
He punched out CJ Rogers, then induced a groundout for the first two outs. Joe Paladino stepped up as the Lions’ final hope. He was the “short guy” who already struck out three times that game.
“I was going to be mad if this kid got a hit off me,” Johnson said. “I was hoping they wouldn’t bunt.”
He popped his first fastball for a strike, followed by three balls. Johnson worked a full count with another fastball in the strike zone.
“I knew I could do it,” he said.
His last pitch, a curveball, dropped in for strike three.
A phenomenon that occured in the MLB just seven times in the past three seasons, Johnson just completed twice himself in the same time frame.
“It was a sense of relief,” he said. “That’s just a reward for all the work in the offseason.”
The odds are stacked against Johnson as a Division-III pitcher coming from a school that has not produced a draft pick in 25 years. Although, it helps that he has ties to the last player who accomplished that feat.
“I think it would be great how the story happened and how everything came together, because that’s what Springfield is all about,” Robinson said. “It was a perfect connection with everything. It connected all the dots.”
It’s easy to call it quits after this spring. The overwhelming majority of players to come through Springfield have. But Johnson is too close to forfeit this opportunity.