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Bag thief Bryce Johnson brings blazing speed from gridiron to base paths



© Matt Kartozian | 2023 Mar 9

The game is getting faster. To get faster with it, the Giants are letting Bryce Johnson run wild. 

The distance between bases is shorter. The pitch clock allows baserunners to time up their jumps better. Pickoff restrictions tilt the game-within-game scale toward base-stealers. 

It all combines for an environment with more action on the basepaths — one that rewards the best athletes who can get on base. An environment in which Johnson, a former sixth-round pick with 11 MLB games of experience, can lead the spring training world in a major statistical category. 

“I wasn’t looking to lead the whole thing, like I wasn’t trying to,” Johnson, 27, told KNBR. “I was just doing my thing. But we’ll take it.”

With outfielders Austin Slater and Mitch Haniger set to open the season on the injured list, Johnson and his spring training-best 12 steals have the inside track to an Opening Day roster spot. The former standout high school wide receiver also hit .333 with a .874 OPS in the Cactus League, putting the ball in play and letting his legs do the work. 

There are other former football players on the Giants — Brandon Crawford and Logan Webb each starred as high school quarterbacks — but nobody brings the type of dynamic athleticism Johnson can provide or the type of speed Johnson brings. 

“I think that’s kind of translated,” Johnson said. “Looking back actually, it’s huge for me. Because I was training a different type of running style, stuff like that. I think the background, the football era, definitely is playing a key part in my game right now.” 

At Cyprus Ranch High School in Houston, Johnson would play everywhere on the field as a receiver. In the slot, on the outside, in the back field on gadget plays. His junior season highlight reel is full of plays in which Johnson makes defensive backs look silly on fly routes, comebacks and outs. 

As a senior in high school, Johnson ran his fastest 40-yard dash: 4.49 seconds. For reference, both 49ers stars Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffrey clocked in at 4.48 at their NFL Combines. 

“He could run, but he was also skilled,” Johnson’s high school football coach, Gene Johnson, said. “He caught well, he had great body control, able to get in and out of breaks. Sometimes a guy’s fast, he can steal bases and run deep routes, but he was a complete player…”

Johnson earned scholarship offers to play football at small schools and some preferred walk-on chances at bigger colleges like University of Houston, he said. He eventually chose to pursue both at Sam Houston State. 

But about a week of convincing from Sam Houston State’s baseball coach, Matt Deggs, led Johnson to drop football. 

Deggs knew Johnson from recruiting as an assistant at University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Johnson’s speed on the base paths would fit perfectly with Deggs’ uptempo, complex offensive system. 

Johnson excelled immediately. He hit .310 as a freshman at the top of the order and patrolled center field with aplomb. 

“By far the best defender I’ve ever had,” Deggs said. “I’ve always said water covers three quarters of the world, Bryce Johnson covers the rest. That’s true, man. He’s just a silky smooth defender.” 

After Johnson’s freshman year, Deggs gave him summer school homework: learn how to hit left-handed. If he could hit from both sides at the plate, even just a little, Johnson could add a few infield hits every week. 

“And that cat did, man,” Deggs said. “He went home for three months over the summer and came back hitting left-handed…Taught himself how to do it.” 

In 2017, Johnson’s junior season and last of college, the Bearkats became the first team in their conference to ever reach the NCAA Super Regional. Johnson’s football-level athleticism made him a key cog in the program’s history-making season. 

“I think a lot of the things that made him a successful football player were some of the skills he was able to use in baseball — and vice versa,” Johnson, the Cyprus Ranch coach, said. 

Like many prospects, and many sixth rounders, Johnson’s transition to pro ball wasn’t seamless — even on the base paths. He got caught 10 times in 35 stolen base tries in Low-A. In 2019, he went 26-for-41 in steals.

Minor league coaches, including former steals champ Vince Coleman, helped him become more efficient.  

Much of base-stealing, in the analytics age, has come down to simple math in recent years. Teams calculate how long a pitcher takes to deliver the ball, a catcher’s pop time and a runner’s speed. The new rules add new factors into that equation, throwing it off kilter. 

Johnson said in the minors — where pitch clocks have been implemented for years — only a couple of his steals last year came from gaming the timer or changing strategy due to a pitcher’s disengagement limit. He got picked off just once on a pitcher’s second throw-over, and never again after that learning experience, he said. 

“I think all base stealing is all on me,” Johnson said. “It’s on my jump. How long he takes, and it’s my job to figure out how long he takes…obviously, you get to two pickoffs, you think ‘Oh it’s a piece of cake.’ But you still got to get a good jump, the guy behind me can throw me out. So I would say just a few, but it’s still fully on me.” 

At Triple-A last year, Johnson swiped 31 bags, second most in the organization behind Vaun Brown. He got thrown out just five times. 

This spring, with the similar set of rules in place, Johnson told his manager Gabe Kapler that he wants to be a “menace.” 

That description has certainly applied. Johnson is a perfect 12-for-12 on steal attempts in Cactus League play. Nobody else, in the Cactus or Grapefruit League, has swiped more than eight. 

On one sequence in mid-March, Johnson legged out a double play attempt, stole second, advanced to third on a wild throw and then scored. In the same game, he also bunted for a single before causing the same exact chaos on the bases: steal, advance on an error, score. 

“If I can get a good jump, I feel like I can beat anybody,” Johnson said. “They probably play a little bit of a factor, but I’m not thinking about the rules too much.” 

Sunday’s spring game against the Athletics in the Oakland Coliseum was one of the few games in which Johnson didn’t steal a bag. But his speed was still a factor. He walked twice and scored both times after reaching base. Against A’s left-hander Ken Waldichuk, Johnson shuffled and danced off first base, earning substantial secondary leads.

“He’s just kind of causing havoc for pitchers,” Kapler said on March 22, via NBC Sports Bay Area.

“You can tell that they’re speeding themselves up, they’re just very uncomfortable with him out there and it’s great for him to get that reputation,” Kapler said. “It’s not like one of those things where you want to be like, ‘Oh, let’s use this sneak attack.’ That advantage goes away really quickly. We want teams to see him as a base-stealing threat and a challenge to contain on the bases and he’s been that all the way through camp.”

Johnson has taken small lessons he learned with the pitch clock in the minors and applied them to the Cactus League. After a pitcher throws over once, he’s much less likely to try another pickoff move. By glancing over at the pitch timer, Johnson can take off with more conviction if the clock is dwindling down. 

When asked for tips about how to run with the pitch timer and disengagement limit, Johnson tells teammates to stay aggressive no matter what. To run on your terms, not the pitcher’s.

The rules matter. But not nearly as much as 4.5 speed. 

“I think the rules kind of favor me,” Johnson said. “I took advantage of it last year. I thought it really benefited me and picking my times of when to go. I think it’s definitely to my advantage.”