The career path of Troy Johnston has been anything but a straight line. But through mental strength and the ability to better himself in multiple ways even when unable to compete on the field, Johnston came into 2021 in the best shape of his career. Two months into the season, that is clear and evident as he is the top performer in the Marlins’ minor league system and in Minor League Baseball as a whole. Befittingly, the .325/.407/.522 hitter is our June Prospect of the Month.
Johnston was born in June of 1997 in Tacoma, Washington, the same city as Jeff Conine, the father of his teammate who in those days was helping the Marlins piece together their first World Series championship run. Johnston attended Governor John Rogers High School in Puyallup where he played three sports and dabbled in another: baseball, football, wrestling and golf. Ultimately, Johnston committed to baseball and was recruited to Gonzaga as the fifth-ranked outfielder in the state of Washington per Perfect Game. Among his other high school accolades, Johnston was also a three-time league batting champion, a First Team All-State selection in 2016, an All-Area selection in three years, and he won a scholar athlete award.
After an impressive first 35 collegiate games in which he hit .323/.413/.462 making him the West Coast Conference’s 14th best hitter and second best freshman bat, Johnston hit his first bump in the road in his sophomore year in 2018. Nineteen games into the season, Johnston suffered a broken hand and missed the remainder of the year. A year later, Johnston’s hand was fully healed and he was ready to return to the field. In 2019, Johnston played like a man among boys, torching the West Coast Conference for a .330/.402/.610 slash line, numbers which ranked sixth, 16th and third on the circuit. Among countable stats, his 27 doubles led the league and were second in the country and his 46 RBIs were sixth in the WCC.
Johnston credits his ability to rebound so well after serious injury to a unique experience he had during the rehab process: coaching at a local high school.
“One of my buddies was coaching at Farris High School in Spokane for a legion ball team and he asked if I could come help him out for that summer,” Johnston said. “The biggest part of that was actually seeing a different side of the baseball game and having the coaching aspect of it. I got to coach some fantastic high school players all throughout the summer and I think that helped me realize what baseball was all about and who I really wanted to be as a baseball player coming into 2019.”
Johnston’s performance in his junior year caught the attention of Marlins area scout Scott Fairbanks.
“What stood out about Troy is he’s always had a natural feel to hit. He uses the big part of the field and the majority of his damage was to center field or left center field,” Fairbanks said. “He hit  doubles in 2019 and the thought was he could eventually turn some of those into more home runs down the road.”
Johnston and Fairbanks were in contact for much of the 2019 season and then again leading into the Draft. Their last conversation occurred just moments before the Marlins called Johnston’s name in the 17th round.
“He shot me a text probably 30 seconds before they picked me and asked me, “Hey can you play first base?” and I told him, “Hey, I’ll play shortstop if you want me to. I’ll do whatever you guys need.” Johnston said.
“That was pretty funny,” Fairbanks recalled. “I’m not sure he owned a first base glove at the time.”
After the missed 2020 season, Johnston has begun seeing time at first base during games this season. Due to not manning the position since high school, he describes the experience as a re-adjustment process. Johnston credits work he has done with Beloit head coach and former Marlins’ first baseman Mike Jacobs in helping him through the process.
“In spring training and even now, we’ve been doing a lot of early work and working on a lot of different stuff to try to make me better and just the little parts of first base.” Johnston said. “It’s a little bit like riding a bike from high school. I just have to be good around the bag and all of that but the ground balls are definitely something I’m working on and I know having Jacobs there and pretty much everything that he’s teaching me has all been around footwork, how to approach it and really what I need to do to keep me in the lineup and keep me getting better every single day.”
Johnston has tinkered with his approach and mechanics offensively as well, leading to the added pop that Fairbanks foresaw when scouting him two seasons’ previously. Johnston says the main mechanical focus for him this season has been maintaining a more closed lower half.
“I always had to work against leaking and sliding forward a little bit. That “a-ha” moment for me was when I realized how much I can kind of preset my back hip and just get into my legs a little bit more,” Johnston said. “And then just have a nice easy swing where I could just explode off of that back hip a little bit more.”
According to Johnston, his moment of clarity came very recently.
“It didn’t come in the offseason; it came more so probably at the end of spring training really,” Johnston said. “I know that first week at low A I was working on it a little bit and then I think about the second or third week of low A was that moment when I was like, “Okay, this is it.” I’m still working on it: just loading that back hip and rotating around that.”
While he’s come by more power, the 24-year-old lefty has done so without sacrificing his vision and discipline. On the year, his K rate is at a very manageable 19.2% and his walk rate is at an even 11%. Johnston likens the ability to tap into more power while still maintaining his great vision to learning the science of hitting, getting as much work in as possible, starting at a very young age, keeping it simple and having a blueprint of the athlete he wants to be.
“When I was a kid, my coach called me a cage rat. I was always in the cage, I was always hitting, always working on something, just trying to get as many reps as I could,” Johnston said. “That’s really what it’s about: as much as it’s a mechanical thing and guys are going to have certain things in their swing and whatnot, really it’s all about reps.”
“It’s a very simple game so keep it simple: swing at the strikes and take the balls,” Johnston added. “I know it may be hard for a younger guy trying to learn the game, but try to figure out who you are and what you want to do to the baseball and how you want to approach that because that’s when you’re really going to have that “a-ha” moment when you figure out who you want to be at the plate, who you want to be as a person and who you want to be in the world of baseball.”
All-in-all, Troy Johnston is an extremely selective hitter that waits for his pitches. When he gets them, he executes an effortless and well balanced swing that has gained more leverage this season. He’s continued to improve at the plate despite a missed season, a jump in level and while learning how to play first base at the professional level. A true student of the game and a feel good story, Johnston has broken out in a big way. If his success continues, he has a starter’s ceiling on any big league team. Gaining positional flexibility and with the DH on its way, that future has an increasing probability of being here in Miami with the Marlins.
Listen to our full-length interview with Troy Johnston on Swimming Upstream here and wherever you get your podcasts.