Johnson sprinting his way through Spring Training

March 18th, 2023

MESA, Ariz. -- If gets in a game, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll attempt to steal a base. And there’s a pretty good chance he won’t get caught.

Johnson stole two bags in Friday’s 7-2 loss to the A’s at Hohokam Stadium, bringing his Spring  Training total to a Cactus and Grapefruit League-leading nine through 10 games. Though it’s always worth noting that spring stats aren’t everything, Johnson’s nine stolen bases are the most in Spring Training since 2018, when Roman Quinn also had nine -- in 22 games.

“We challenged him to be fearless, and he’s been exactly that on the bases and at the plate,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “Done a nice job on defense too. Solid camp so far from him.”

Johnson put that fearlessness -- and his speed -- on display in the third inning on Friday. After a leadoff bunt single, the 27-year-old stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error by A’s catcher Shea Langeliers. Johnson scored on the next play, an RBI single from Joc Pederson.

In the eighth inning, Johnson grounded into a forceout with Casey Schmitt retired at second, but legged it out to reach first. Like clockwork, he then stole second and advanced to third on an error by catcher Kyle McCann before scoring on the next play.

Four of Johnson’s nine stolen bases came in a single game, a March 13 contest with the Padres in which Johnson went 4-for-4 in attempts. The ability to be quick on the basepaths is only valuable if you’re able to get there, and through 10 Cactus League games, Johnson is slashing .318/.407/.409 with an .816 OPS. He hasn’t been caught stealing yet.

“It’s pretty unique,” Kapler said on Monday. “For a couple of years, we heard from the Triple-A staff about how dynamic this guy was. He could do a lot of things on the field. He was such a good baserunner, such a good basestealer. Great defender. Supposed to be like the best defensive center fielder we have. And we hadn’t seen it all that much. But I think today is a good indication of what he’s capable of.”

Speed is an area in which the Giants could use some depth. Last season, San Francisco had eight players who averaged at or above the MLB average sprint speed of 27 ft./sec. Seven of those players remain with the organization, but one, Luis González, will be sidelined until the second half of the season after undergoing back surgery on March 14.

Though Johnson’s speed has yet to translate to the Major League level (he hasn’t stolen a base in his 11 career big league games), he’s been consistent at the Minor League level. The outfielder has three professional seasons with 30 or more stolen bases: 31 in 2022 with Triple-A Sacramento, 30 in ‘21 with Sacramento and 31 in ‘18 with High-A San Jose. In each of those seasons, he was caught stealing five times or fewer.

On Johnson’s side are two of the rule changes implemented by MLB for this season. Between the new pickoff rules under the pitch timer, and the increase in base size from 15 to 18 inches, stolen bases are bound to be more plentiful in 2023. Johnson has also already had a taste of both rule changes in the Minors.

With just under two weeks until the Giants open their season in the Bronx, Johnson’s path to a spot on the Major League roster is anything but clear. Michael Conforto, Mitch Haniger, Mike Yastrzemski, Joc Pederson and Austin Slater are all ahead of Johnson, with Yastrzemski and Slater expected to platoon in center field. 

Haniger was diagnosed with a left oblique strain on March 11, and will be reevaluated in 10 days, Kapler said on Thursday. After dealing with right elbow neuritis, Slater exited his spring fielding debut on March 16 with left calf and hamstring tightness. Though it’s possible that injuries could open a lane for Johnson, it’s unlikely he’ll crack the Opening Day roster.

“It’s not about him having a sensational camp, it’s about what our Major League roster needs [are] come the beginning of the season,” Kapler said. “And then we’re always going to consider how he looked in spring, but also his track record at the Minor League level.”