Reilly Johnson drew a walk in nearly 10 percent of his plate appearances with Vancouver in 2018.
This episode of C’s Chat is with 2018 Vancouver Canadians catcher, infielder and outfielder Reilly Johnson.
The native of Lake Wales, Florida was able to cross the Canadian border in 2018 thanks in part to Toronto Blue Jays catching legend Pat Borders. The 1992 World Series Most Valuable Player coached Johnson at Winter Haven High School where he batted .389 with 20 runs batted in during the 2015 season. Johnson only made two errors behind the plate to help the Winter Haven Blue Devils reach the Class 6A state final.
Borders praised his young protege by calling attention to his “high-end personality” as well as his quick release to second base and his running ability for a catcher.
Johnson also had plenty of good things to say about his former coach .
“Playing for Pat was good. It was great. He’s a great mentor and a great coach and he really knows the mental side of baseball. Just the smaller things that he helped me pick up with catching and just like calling the game and the sequencing and stuff like that, he really helped me along at such a young age. I think it kind of transformed the way I looked and thought about catching.
He helped me out a lot not only with catching (but) with everything else in baseball, he was really good with. He was a great high school coach and he had some other things going on and now he’s with the Phillies (as manager of the Class-A Williamsport Crosscutters). He’s where he belongs. He deserves to manage again at a high level because he’s got a high-level mindset for the game and he’s doing that now. I was blessed to have him for the three or four years that I had him in high school. I think that’s he’s doing a great job with the Phillies.
We still keep in contact every now and then. I haven’t seen him in a while but I’m sure I’ll see him when I get back home.”
Having a major-league caliber coach at the helm was something Johnson and his teammates appreciated.
“We always knew that Pat was a great big league player. He played long before I was born and up until I was a small kid. We all knew he had a lot of information to give to us as young high school kids. We appreciated that as a team. We all kind of respected Pat at a different level than you would another coach because he had been there, he had done that. He has World Series rings, he’s a World Series MVP. You have to respect that to a certain level and we definitely did.”
Johnson would go on to junior college with the State College of Florida Manatees and wore Borders’ #10 in his first season on campus. He batted .295 in 2016 before boosting that mark to .343 in 2017. He won NJCAA Region 8 Baseball Player of the Week honours in late March of 2017 when he batted .533 and reached base in nine straight plate appearances before adding a sacrifice fly.
Johnson also excelled off the diamond as he was named to the Florida College System Activities Association’s All-Academic Team for 2016-17.
Johnson would hear his name called by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2017 Major League Baseball draft where he was selected in the 30th round. He said he was surprised to get the call.
“I was actually by myself at home. I honestly didn’t think much about the draft at first. I found out (when) I was watching the tracker on my computer. I got a call from my scout who said they’d try to take me in the 30th round and I started watching the tracker. Sure enough, they did take me in the 30th round and I was kind of in shock.
I was by myself at home. My parents (Ernie and Tara) were at work and my sisters (Madison and Emily) were out doing stuff. It was just a surreal feeling. It’s something I never thought would happen for me but I think if you believe in yourself enough, I think that anything could come true.
It was a surreal feeling for me. My family and I went to dinner that night and celebrated. It was a good moment from my entire family and we celebrated accordingly.”
The first stop in Johnson’s pro career was Bluefield, West Virginia.
“Bluefield was a great learning experience for me. I played under the legendary Dennis Holmberg. He’s a great guy to have your first season with. His son (Kenny Holmberg) is actually the manager of the Spokane team. Great guy, great coaching staff in Bluefield. He really helped me a lot with getting things eased into pro ball at a good pace.
I learned a lot in Bluefield and it really put pro ball into perspective for me. It was a great season for me just to have as an experience. I didn’t have the best year but I definitely learned a lot of things in Bluefield.”
Reilly Johnson has seen time at four different positions in his two-year professional career.
Playing The Field
Though Johnson batted .232 with Bluefield, he showed a good eye at the plate with an on-base percentage of .333 in his 97 plate appearances. He made one start at third base but he saw the majority of his time wearing the catching gear and that’s where he likes to be.
“As I find myself playing other positions sometimes, I realize that I take great pride in always being a part of the game like as far as like every pitch is concerned. Just being a part of each pitch.
I call my own game now. Ever since I’ve been in the organization, we call our own games, all the catchers do. Just keeping my mind per se is what I like the most about catching.
When I find myself playing in left field or second base or any of the other positions I do play, I feel stagnant almost. I had to keep myself focused in other ways but when I’m catching, it just comes naturally. I stay focused a lot better behind the plate because I’m always thinking ahead and doing something, whether that would be calling pitches or thinking about the runners on base, stuff like that. Catching always had my attention in the right spot.”
The 2018 season saw Johnson play second base and left field and he sees the benefit of expanding his defensive portfolio.
“With the role that I’ve been given here on this team and on other teams, I think that being able to play other positions has gotten me some more at-bats and that’s always a good thing. I think that versatility can take you a long way in this game. There’s not much more of it anymore. Everyone’s really specialized when it comes to positions and what they’re good at but I think it’s a good tool to have.
I’ve always tried to keep that up the best I can whether it would be taking ground balls in BP (batting practice), taking fly balls in BP, stuff like that. I think it’s really key to have versatility and I think that this game has become so specialized that it’s hard to do so but then again, the guys that you do find that play the positions such as Ben Zobrist and guys like that in the big leagues, they made a career out of being versatile players and I think that’s something that I would love to do.”
Life In The Bullpen
The 2018 Canadians had four catchers vying for playing time in Chris Bec, Yorman Rodriguez and Brett Wright. Johnson says one way to stay sharp behind the plate is by catching in the bullpen.
“Everyone has a role on this team and we do have four catchers on this team so playing time for all the catchers is a little bit more limited than normal. I think that the pen is really important for catchers such as me. It’s just to see some pitches and to receive and also to get comfortable with the guys out of the pen so you’re not uncomfortable in the game with the guys that come into the game from the pen. It’s just good to stay sharp. Warming up with as many pitches as you can.
Believe it or not, the bullpen is somewhere you like to be when you’re not playing other than being in the dugout and just watching. The bullpen is important for me to stay sharp with everything, my hand-eye coordination and everything like that. The bullpen is good, contrary to popular belief.”
Reilly Johnson rounds third base after hitting his first professional home run at Nat Bailey Stadium during the C’s 2018 home opener.
The 2018 home opener saw the right-handed hitting Johnson collect his first professional home run at Nat Bailey Stadium when he cleared the left field fence against the Everett AquaSox June 20.
“To be completely honest with you, I don’t hit home runs so I didn’t know I got it. I knew I hit it well. I just didn’t know I had got it completely so what I did was I hit it and I just honestly kind of ran as hard as I could. When I rounded first base is when I kind of peaked up and saw it go over the fence. It was just a surreal feeling. I’ve never hit a professional home run other than that one.
It was a great place to hit it, a great environment that night. The first home game. A lot of fans in the seats and it was a great moment for me and my family. They were all excited for me as well. Those have come few and far between so I’ll enjoy that one for as long as I can until I hit my next one. It was a great place to hit it here at this stadium for sure.”
Another 2018 highlight for Johnson was earning a promotion to the Lansing Lugnuts near the end of June. He got the good news from C’s manager Dallas McPherson in an interesting way.
“I was actually in the bullpen one night here against Tri-City earlier in the year. I got called into the dugout and just talked to our manager who had been ejected earlier in the game so he was in the office back there.
I came in with all my stuff and I had no idea what was going on. I came back and he just kind of sat me down and said, ‘Reilly, you’re going to head up to Lansing.’ He told me he was proud of me. He told me to keep working hard. I was told that it was probably temporary, which was true. I wasn’t expecting to stay. I worked hard to stay. You work hard and you just do everything you’re supposed to do. It’s not up to you whether you go up and down. You can only do what you can do.”
Reilly Johnson had hits in seven of his first 10 games with Vancouver before being promoted to Lansing in 2018.
Even though Johnson played just 10 games with the Lugnuts, he enjoyed his time in the Midwest League.
“When I went up, I learned a lot from the coaching staff up there, the players up there. It’s a great environment up there as well. Lansing has a lot of good things going from them up there. That team is a really good team. It’s a great group of guys up there. They welcomed me in. That was something that I really appreciate.
Even coming back here. This team here even welcomed me back in. I met some new guys I hadn’t met before. There were some guys that came up while I was gone. This team has done a really good job of welcoming me back into this team and this environment so I really appreciate that as well.”
Returning To YVR
Though Johnson was sent back to Vancouver in early August, he took the move in stride thanks in large part to the atmosphere of playing at the Nat.
“The fans here are much more passionate about baseball. They welcomed us as a team. It’s just a great environment. I love playing here. I heard stories before we got here about how great it was and I never really took them (seriously) but this place is an awesome place to play baseball. It’s unreal that this is a short-season A-team. This is a big league environment. I feel like it’s a big blessing to play here and I appreciate this organization and this opportunity to play at this level. I really do think this is a great place to play.”
Reilly Johnson modelled a new look and uniform number (#36) in his second tour of duty with Vancouver in 2018.
Going Without The Flow
Upon returning to Vancouver, Johnson looked like a different player. Gone was his long-flowing blonde hair he had at the beginning of the season.
“It was just kind of to keep it tidy. It was getting kind of tough to catch with I will say personally. The organization had let me know it’s time to get rid of the hair. Not to cut it all off but to make it shorter. When I got to Lansing, I figured I haven’t really ever had short hair so I figured I would try it so I went ahead and did it myself and got it all cut off.
I’m still having mixed reviews on the short hair. To be honest with you, I don’t know if I like it as much as much as I like the long hair but I can always grow it back.”
Looking back on his career, the 22 year-old Johnson believes he has gained maturity as he has gotten older.
“I think when I was really young, I was much more of a high-energy guy as far as everything was concerned off the field. On the field, I’ve always been high-energy. I think as I’ve grown and gotten older, I think I’ve kind of calmed down a little bit. I think I had to. One of my biggest problems was when I was a kid in high school and in my earlier parts of college, I never slowed anything down. I was always a hundred miles an hour with everything and being behind the plate, it’s always giving me something to do.
My mind runs way too quickly sometimes and I think that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to slow myself down. I think that’s been a benefit to my game. As of right now, I probably wouldn’t say I was the high-energy guy I was in high school and maybe my earlier years in college. I’ve definitely gained some other things as well along the way.”
My thanks to Reilly Johnson for this edition of C’s Chat and to C’s Media Relations Assistant Sharlene Canning for arranging the interview.