By: Brian Frank
Kyle Johnston has been an integral part of the Bisons bullpen since his Triple-A debut last August, as is evidenced by his miniscule 1.85 ERA in twenty-seven career games with the Herd.
“He has a really good fastball,” Bisons manager Casey Candaele said recently. “It jumps at 95 to 98. He’s developed his slider, which is a real game changer. He throws that at about 89 to 91 miles per hour. He’s also worked on a changeup and has done a really good job developing that. That’s probably the pitch he’s working on most right now. He throws it well in games and he’s not afraid to throw it. So he’s got a three pitch mix that he can use.”
“He’s a competitor,” Candaele continued. “He likes to be on the mound and he competes when he’s out there. Nothing fazes him and he gets after it. You’ve got to respect that.”
Johnston has a 2.16 ERA in thirteen relief appearances this season. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.
Johnston’s success began back in Flower Mound, Texas, where he helped lead his high school team to a state championship. He completely dominated during his senior season, going 11-2 with a 0.30 ERA. He was named the Dallas Morning News Player of the Year and the Texas Sports Writer’s Association Player of the Year after his incredible season.
Johnston also fired a perfect game during the second round of the state playoffs during his senior year. He fanned sixteen batters in the masterpiece.
“When I think about it, it’s like it was yesterday,” Johnston said of his perfect game in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “Second round of the playoffs at the time. We had a really solid team with a lot of commits to a bunch of different universities around the country. I remember throwing an awful bullpen and thinking that this is going to be torture. The game started and the first hitter I went 3-0, then 3-2 and got the strikeout. Then I had a 3-2 count in the fourth inning and the last batter of the game had a 3-2 count. That was the big thing that stood out was that the only 3-0 and 3-2 counts were those three specifically, but other than that it felt like we were cruising. It felt like everything was just kind of falling into place and it just unfolded into being a pretty special night. It was a lot of fun.”
Johnston said that the highlight of his senior season wasn’t the perfect game, but was instead what would eventually follow – winning the Texas 5A state championship.
“I think at the end of the day the highlight has got to be the state championship with my teammates,” he said. “Just to strive for a goal like that – being on varsity my senior and junior year and having the coaching staff we had for those couple years and to be able to have the year we had with the ups and downs and the challenges and adversity. Then being able to come out on top and win like we did. That just tells you the strength we had as a team. And to have that brotherhood and have each others backs – that was definitely the highlight. At the end of the day, my last game as a high school player was winning outright. That’s definitely got to be number one.”
After high school, he went on to pitch for a perennial power in college baseball – the University of Texas. The decision to become a Longhorn was an easy one.
“Being in the state of Texas since I was three years old, and seeing the Longhorn everywhere growing up and understanding that title of – you’re a Longhorn, this is what it comes with,” he explained. “I think that has always been attractive. So when the moment came and it was time to make a decision when they came and called – I thought no question, it had to be Texas. That was definitely a dream come true and it was amazing.”
In his first two college seasons, he played for legendary coach Augie Garrido. Garrido, who passed away in 2018, retired at the end of the 2016 season as the winningest manager in college baseball history with a record of 1,975-951-9. He won five College World Series – three at Cal State Fullerton and two at Texas – and was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2016.
“Playing for Augie was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Johnston said. “One of the biggest things that stood out to me was he turned his players into men. You come to college as a freshman at eighteen years old. You come in the first day and look at Augie and you’re almost star struck the first day – like this is the legend. You get to shake his hand and he looks at you and says ‘Alright, welcome to it. This is it. You’re a big part of this team now and we want you here. You’re a Longhorn. There’s a reason why you’re here and we want to make the most of it.’”
“To be with him for those first two years, it definitely changed my life. It changed my mentality about baseball – coming to the yard with a purpose each day and understanding how to be a true professional. He prepped us for the bigger picture and for the next step. He was definitely a legend and we miss him every day.”
After Garrido retired, Johnston played his senior season at Texas under new head coach David Pierce. Pierce still leads the Longhorns and has carried on the winning tradition in Austin, winning the Big 12 Conference regular season title twice, being named Big 12 Coach of the Year twice, and winning the Baseball America College Coach of the Year in 2018.
“I obviously wish I had more time with him and his staff and getting to know them more, but seeing it from afar and being able to witness Texas baseball like it is nowadays, it’s definitely a lot of fun to watch,” Johnston said. “I’m glad to see that they’re doing well. The program is in great hands and I’m really excited to see what happens over the next few years.”
Johnston had many highlights in his three seasons with the Longhorns, from unforgettable walk-off wins to memorable Big 12 tournament and NCAA regional games. But the biggest highlight was just being a Longhorn.
“One thing that stands out to me is my freshman year start at the Big 12 tournament,” he said. “That was definitely something I wasn’t expecting. I found out the morning of. Other moments that stands out for me – there are definitely a couple walk-off wins. We had a couple wins against A&M. The weekend series against O.U. when Kacy (Clemens) hit a granny – that was awesome. Junior year going to the regional at Long Beach and getting into that playoff situation. Obviously that didn’t go the way we wanted it to but just getting that taste and that idea of what it’s going to be like. I think that really got me excited. I think just my time there at Texas in general – being able to live out that dream and be with the people I was with. It was all just kind of a day by day thing with – Wow, I’m really living this life, you know? It was definitely a perspective of – I’m having this opportunity, I’m not going to waste it.”
Johnston on the mound for the Herd last season. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.
Johnston was drafted by the Washington Nationals in the sixth round of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft. He had success as a starter, working his way up to High-A Potomac, when he received a phone call at the trade deadline in 2019 that changed his career.
“We had a late night the night before and I was starting that day so I slept in a little bit. It was probably about 12:00,” he remembered. “I was just hanging out on the couch. I wasn’t going to go to the field until about 3:00 or 4:00. I got a call around 12:00 or 12:30 saying ‘Hey we need you to come to the field early.’ I said ‘Alright, okay, sounds good.’ Keep in mind I had zero idea I was getting traded.”
On the drive to the field, he received another call, this time from Nationals farm director Doug Harris telling him he’d been traded to the Blue Jays.
“The whole day was a whirlwind. It was just something I thought I’d never experience in my minor-league career. To say goodbye to that team was definitely hard. We had a bunch of prospects on our team. We had a great team. We had a bunch of guys that were family. Everybody was really close.”
“Then showing up as a Blue Jay on day one, I felt like a guest player on a travel ball team at first – but they took me in with open arms and it’s been nothing short of amazing over here. I couldn’t be happier with how it’s been so far. The coaching staff, the front office, all the players, everybody has been nothing short of amazing. I’m definitely thankful for where I’m at and we’ll see where it goes from here.”
He finished the season pitching in six games for High-A Dunedin. Then in March 2020, everything changed again when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the minor-league baseball season.
“I spent my 2020 season in Flower Mound, Texas, working out every day and just keeping my focus on that fact that I could get a call at any time and just staying ready,” he said. “So we stayed ready all year. We threw our intrasquads we had to throw. We threw our bullpens we had to throw. It was a way to be ready to breakout the next year.”
In 2021, when minor-league baseball finally resumed, he made six starts for Double-A New Hampshire at the beginning of the season. He then transitioned to being a full-time reliever. He prospered in his new role, posting a 0.71 ERA in fifteen games out of the Fisher Cats bullpen, before being promoted to Buffalo where he had a 1.04 ERA in fourteen games.
“I’ve done both in my life growing up,” he said of moving from the rotation to the bullpen. “I’ve always had that bulldog mentality of just loving the adrenalin, loving the pressure of – I could either be the hero or the villain. I could be the winner or the loser. It’s mano y mano. Having that as a starter is always great, but transferring that to the bullpen and having that mindset – it’s been fun. And to be around the guys I’ve been able to be around last year in Triple-A and Double-A, and now. It’s great to see the different mindsets, the different ways of being ready and the different ways to get ready. I’ve just soaked it in and I’ve taken things that I like and don’t like and transformed it into what I am now. I’ve enjoyed the process and I’m ready to learn more.”
“I think the hardest thing about adjusting to the bullpen would have to be your daily routine. Obviously as a reliever you’re not going to know when you’re throwing as much. It could be every other day, it could be every two days, you just never know. As a starter you have a five-day routine. You have something planned out for your start day. I think as a reliever it’s kind of more – if I throw today then I have to do this the next couple days. It’s more maintenance work to be ready for each day. Once you have that set routine with the little things each day, I think it’s easier.”
Johnston was promoted to Triple-A the day before the Bisons returned to Buffalo after beginning their season playing home games in Trenton, New Jersey, to accommodate the Blue Jays. He joined a Bisons team that was just a game out of first place. He’d go on to become a key member of a team that went on to win its first division title in sixteen seasons.
“That was easily one of the coolest experiences I’ve had,” Johnston said. “To come up here and to see it all coming together. Seeing the leadership in the dugout, whether it was from Christian Colón, or Tyler White, or Cullen (Large), or Logan (Warmoth) – I could go on and on. There were so many leaders in that dugout.”
One of the reasons the team was so successful was the depth of the pitching staff. Buffalo’s 3.46 team ERA was the second lowest in all of Triple-A. The bullpen had numerous arms Candaele could call on with confidence in high leverage situations.
“In the bullpen, we had (Bryan) Baker, (Kirby) Snead, Hobie (Harris), (Jacob) Barnes, (Jacob) Waguespack – I could go on and on. I’m sure I’m leaving some guys out. We had guys that came up and down and told us what the expectations are up at the top and how to be prepared. It was so cool. To have that in the back of my head now this year, being ready for that potential call up. I feel prepared. I feel ready. It has me excited for things to come.”
Johnston on the Sahlen Field mound. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.
Johnston has had the opportunity to work with many experienced relievers at the Triple-A level, including some who are now in the big leagues – like 2021 Bisons Pitcher of the Year Bryan Baker who’s now working out of the Baltimore Orioles bullpen. Baker made a big impression on Johnston last season.
“I think from a mentor perspective from the Blue Jays so far, being able to watch Bryan Baker in the same bullpen was one of the cooler things I’ve gotten to witness,” Johnston said. “Just being able to talk to him every day about his mental preparation, his physical preparation, the little things away from the field whether it’s the scouting reports or anything that he does to be ready for that ninth inning. I just wanted to sit there and be a sponge and understand and ask what are you doing to have this success? Because I want it.”
He also pointed out a current Bisons reliever, who’s had a big influence on him on and off the field.
“Away from the field, he’s in our locker room now, but I had the pleasure to work out with Derrek Holland the last couple offseasons,” he said. “To hear the things he’s been through in his thirteen years and to be under his wing during the offseason, and now in season, it’s made a big difference in my career and who I want to be as a pitcher. Those two guys (Holland and Baker) stand out to me and I couldn’t be more thankful to have the opportunity to play with them.”
Even with all of his success coming out of the bullpen, Johnston was quick to identify what he believes he needs to improve on in order to take his game to the next level.
“The biggest thing for me this year that I’ve circled in my head is strike percentage with all three pitches,” he said. “Whether it’s 0-0 or later in the count, I always want to be able to dominate the strike zone with all three pitches and stay ahead and be aggressive with hitters. The more I can do that I think the more success I’m going to have.”
After being a big part of last year’s division championship club, Johnston sees many similarities between this year’s team – which is off to a fast start, currently only a game and a half out of first place – and last year’s ball club.
“There’s definitely some similarities. Obviously it’s a totally different lineup. It’s a totally different bullpen. But from one through nine in our lineup every night, I would take our lineup against anybody. The locker room vibes are always great. We keep it loose. Keep it fun.”
“Even in the bullpen, we all know that we’ve got one job to do and that’s to put a zero on the board. Everybody understands that and we do whatever it takes to make it happen.”
Opposing hitters from around the International League can certainly attest to the fact that putting zeros on the board is something Johnston has been adept at in his time with the Herd.