PORT CHARLOTTE, FL. — One of the more intriguing players training with the Rays this spring is Micah Johnson, a left-handed hitting second baseman who has been impressive defending center field in camp.
Drafted out of Indiana University by the Chicago White Sox in 2012, Johnson, who came to the Rays via waiver claim, is a true polymath: a professional athlete who is an accomplished artist.
Johnson had previously played for the White Sox, the Dodgers, and the Braves, where a wrist injury derailed him for a good part of the season. During this off-season he was waived by the Braves, and then picked up and quickly waived by both the Cincinnati Reds and the San Francisco Giants before being claimed by the Rays. The Rays subsequently dropped him from the forty-man roster but brought him to spring training as a non-roster invitee.
He says, however, that this instability has not really affected him. After all, these transactions were on paper and didn’t require him to pack up and move. It had “zero effect on my life,” he reported, and did not impinge on his offseason focus.
Rays camp, he says, is a great experience:
The Rays are cool because they are open, honest with you. They don’t tell you what you want to hear but just the truth. They care about your health and well being. Honestly this is one of the best times I’ve had in my life.
His comfort in Port Charlotte is evident. He has been on fire at the plate, boasting a 1.11 OPS (as of March 14) while providing strong defense at second base and in the outfield. What accounts for his hot spring?
A lot of stuff goes into that. [This offseason] I worked on the mental side, it’s more mental than anything else. Physically nothing has changed, just little tweaks. Mottola is an amazing hitting coach. But it’s more mental....I have learned how to focus better this off-season and slow my brain down a little.
The Rays prize positional flexibility, and Johnson, who came up as a second baseman, has also been playing outfield ever since he was with the Dodgers. We asked him about the differences in preparation for infield and outfield roles:
You can do a lot of drill work for the infield, work on your hands, turns and stuff. In the outfield you get your work during batting practice. A lot more running. But that’s the main difference: more drill work for infield, while you do more reps in the outfield.
But he doesn’t have to worry too much about positioning or learning tendencies of opposing hitters, because Rays analytics staff provide that information, with coach Rocco Baldelli often playing the role of distilling the key findings for players. “There’s no guess work.”
What does Micah Johnson bring to the team? As we’ve noted previously, speed is Johnson’s best tool. Speed is not just about stealing bases, however, it can transform all aspects of his game:
It gives me the luxury to get a few extra hits a year. My two strike approach is a little different, try to go the other way and sneak one through. Range in the outfield – if I have bad reads on a ball I can usually make up for it.
As for his other strengths, Johnson notes his “humility” and ability to understand his role, along with his hard work and his preparation. This means being prepared to play every day even if you sit on the bench for two weeks. It means you make sure no one is outworking you.
Johnson brings a similar dedication to his artwork.
The Tampa Bay Times described his taking up painting just a few years ago, but where most of us take up a hobby and manage to be just good enough not to embarrass ourselves, Johnson has become an accomplished artist, with several exhibitions under his belt. He recognizes that he may get some special recognition because he is a professional baseball player — “being a player has probably afforded ... a few shows here and there that a normal artist starting out wouldn’t get. I don’t take that for granted at all.”
A little insight to how each painting of mine begins pic.twitter.com/0ghAzH3077— Micah Johnson (@Micah_Johnson3) March 6, 2018
But he is not interested in just being some kind of novelty act — a baseball player who paints!
I don’t want to be just known for being a baseball player who is pretty good at art, I want my art to be good plain and simple... I want my technique to be solid.
Creating pieces that draw on baseball themes, he recognizes, would likely boost his sales. But, while he does have a few baseball-themed pieces, most of his art draws on different sources of inspiration. Johnson, who also plays guitar and piano, believes that the brain can be trained to take on new tasks.
You can train your brain, I think it’s called neuroplasticity. Painting is something I never did but I started it, I practiced it every single day. I think that applies to everything, learning a new language…practice every single day, develop habits, rewire your brain.
What does the future hold for the talented Mr. Johnson?
At the start of camp he seemed to have only a slim chance of making the opening day roster. But he has outplayed his competition for the 25th roster spot, while injuries have slowed down both Brad Miller and Mallex Smith. This could create an opening for someone capable of covering second base and outfield duties.
Beyond baseball, Johnson looks forward to offseason travel (we captured some of his South American travel adventures), at one point hoping to visit all “seven wonders of the world,” perhaps visiting some off-the-beaten-track European destinations next year.
Johnson also looks for ways to have a positive impact on the community, for example speaking youth before a showing of the film Black Panther recently in Tampa.
My message to minority youth today at #blackpanthertampa screening. All you people on twitter who say I suck at baseball I don’t care! Because I give it my all because my parents my coaches they gave me their all and I already beat the odds. pic.twitter.com/5xeRn7wqDA— Micah Johnson (@Micah_Johnson3) February 17, 2018
He has expressed interest in someday becoming a general manager too, liking the idea of being a decision maker. At one point he had considered pursuing a law degree as a pathway to front office work, but Indiana University has made it difficult for him to complete his last few credits via online learning (what’s up with that, IU?), which may now make it difficult to pursue graduate education.
At any rate, his minor in labor relations could be be an asset to his future front office aspirations.
Johnson’s personal website states:
Standardized testing never offered a biracial bubble to circle and I learned to be proud that I had to circle the answer choice “OTHER”.
I asked Johnson what it meant to him to be “other,” and he spoke about his desire to cross boundaries of all kinds.
An athlete isn’t just an athlete — that’s his job, but he can also be an artist, and have opinions.
“I don’t want to be in a category because I have a particular job… to say you can’t talk about politics or stuff like that, makes zero sense to me.”
Micah Johnson has many jobs, and he also may have one with the Tampa Bay Rays in two weeks.