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Draft  | Story  | 6/23/2023

Cam Can Do It

Photo: Cam Johnson (Perfect Game)
As Cam Johnson recalls it, he was seven or eight years old when his father Steve shared an observation as visionary as it was succinct:

“Hey, man, baseball might be your sport.”

Steve Johnson may well have been the first person to posit that his son could be OK at America’s pastime. But he’s definitely not the last. To the contrary, with Major League Baseball’s 2023 amateur draft set to begin on July 9, the Cam Johnson Bandwagon is becoming awfully crowded.

The 18-year-old left-hander is back atop the draftnik conversations thanks to a pair of high-profile mound showings that appear to have greatly assuaged concerns about his pitching elbow. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, the LSU commit Johnson can’t be ignored as long as he’s pitching, and he’s pitching again, following a rest for tendinitis that cut short his senior campaign at IMG Academy.

Johnson “outshone every pitcher who threw at the (MLB Draft) Combine,”’s draft guru Jim Calls wrote this past week from Phoenix. And as MLB’s master statistician Sarah Langs pointed out on Wednesday’s telecast, the 95.9 miles per hour that Johnson’s fastball averaged in his Combine bullpen session would have placed him behind only two major-league southpaws in 2023, the Rays’ Shane McClanahan and the Marlins’ Jesus Lazardo, both of whom stood at a 96.7 average at the time of the Combine. Johnson actually hit 100 mph three times in a game this past season, according to IMG varsity assistant coach/pitching coordinator Steve Frey.

“There’s a reason why he gets comparisons to CC Sabathia,” said T.J. Hose, a former professional pitcher who has coached Johnson since his first year of high school.

Indeed, a veteran talent evaluator who has seen Johnson, speaking on the condition of anonymity, dropped the names of two big-time comparables: Sabathia, selected 20th overall by the Cleveland Indians in the 1998 draft, as well as Brien Taylor, popped first overall by the Yankees in 1991.

“He’s a big horse of a guy, and he’s coordinated,” the evaluator said.

It has required considerable coordination for Johnson to reach this point. His mother Tatia Johnson teamed up with her husband Steve, raising their family in Upper Marlboro, Md., to provide an excellent support system for their son, encouraging him to pursue his passion while not forgetting about his studies (Cam is now a criminology buff). Hose met Johnson during his time at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Md. and helped him refine both his mechanics and his mental approach to pitching; “You want to have your mind think of one thing at a time instead of lots of things at one time,” Johnson said. 

And as Johnson elevated his game in the summer between his sophomore and junior years, excelling on the national circuit, he engaged in conversations with professionals Mason Albright and James Wood about IMG, their alma mater, and decided to transfer there for the fall of 2022. Not only did that pay off on the baseball side, as he put together an 0.78 ERA over six appearances totaling 27 innings, striking out 43 and walking 12 for the team anointed by MaxPreps as the national champions, but living by himself, far from home in Bradenton, Fla., forced Johnson to grow as a person, too.

“No one’s there to wake you up,” Johnson said. “No one’s there to tell you to get your laundry. No one’s there to tell you to do your homework. It’s all on you.”

When Johnson felt something on the outside of his left elbow while pitching against Parkview on April 5, the game lasted only four innings, a 15-0 Ascenders shutout, he was self-aware enough to quickly say something to Frey, who pitched in the major leagues for eight years. Shortly after, the rest of Team Cam, which included his advisor Tom O’Connell, huddled to mull the next step.

“A week later, I started feeling better,” Johnson said. “But we all took precautions and we just decided to shut it down, because I can go out there and just throw and something happens. So we just wanted to make sure everything was OK and everything was just safe to throw again at full intensity. Just build my way back up.”

That buildup included an appointment with legendary orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, who examined Johnson and came away convinced that all was copacetic. 

“It’s real when he gives the thumbs-up,” Johnson said of Andrews.

Johnson looked oh-so real on June 12 in Lakeland, Fla. taking the mound in the Florida Athletic Coaches Association All-Star Baseball Classic in front of roughly 40 representatives from MLB clubs. It marked his first game in over two months, and to add to the challenge, the grounds crew at Henley Field took an inordinately long time to prepare, compelling Johnson to warm up three times before finally toeing the slab. His first inning hit some turbulence, as he gave up a pair of singles, walked another batter and saw his teammates struggle defensively, pushing two runs across, even as he struck out two. He responded to that messy liftoff with a dominant second inning, fanning two more and retiring the third batter on a grounder to short as he showed off a fantastic slider and promising changeup

“I took a deep breath in the dugout after that first inning (and said), ‘Let’s do this, baby. Time to turn it up a notch,’” Johnson said. “And after that, I was just on a roll. Back to my usual self. That slider was the best slider I've had and I've thrown. That changeup, I've been working on that ever since shutting down. It’s a new grip (he picked it up from Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez on a YouTube video) and I think that’s paid off very nicely.”

The Lakeland performance put Johnson back on stage, and the Combine elevated him to center stage. MLB Network analyst Dan O’Dowd, the former Colorado Rockies general manager, commended Johnson for his “physicality,” and O’Dowd’s TV teammate Harold Reynolds called Johnson’s slider “a separator.” Furthermore, Reynolds described Johnson’s frame as “a quick-to-the-big-leagues body. He could be in the big leagues by 20.”

(Concerning his physicality and fitness, credit Johnson for eating well, even while living alone. As he said: “I used to eat pizza. Now I have salmon. Instead of brownie bites, eat an apple. Just better habits, basically.” Many of us, even if we’re not aspiring to play a professional sport, can learn from him.)

“The sky’s the ceiling on this kid,” Frey said. It’s just a matter of Johnson’s preferred travel method, either going next to LSU and head coach Jay Johnson or signing with the MLB club that chooses him.

“It’s going to be a tough decision come that day,” Johnson said, looking ahead to the draft. “At the end of the day, it’s my decision. It’s my future. I think there's going to be a lot of stuff that’s going to be on my mind during that time but I know I have a team behind me that'll make those decisions and we’re going to think it through thoroughly and hope for the best.”

Steve Johnson called it: Baseball definitely is his son’s sport. So much so that the sport, it sure seems, is ready to bet heavily on Cam Johnson’s future.

-Ken Davidoff