By Addison Harbour
Ole Miss Baseball Head Coach Mike Bianco signed college baseball’s No. 1 ranked recruiting class in 2016. That class had Ryan Rolison—who was draft eligible as a sophomore—drafted No. 22 overall in May 2018. One player from that class was Cooper Johnson out of Mundelein, Illinois.
Johnson was ranked 39th overall in the country, No. 3 catcher and the No. 1 prospect in the state of Illinois, according to Perfect Game. The Cincinnati Reds drafted him in the 28th round of the 2016 draft, but Johnson honored his commitment to the Rebels and enrolled fall of 2016.
Johnson’s freshman and sophomore year at Ole Miss were below average, and his contribution was slim. Johnson played in 42 games as a freshman and hit .213. This was followed by a sophomore year during which he only played in 26 games and batted a .235, a slight improvement from freshman year.
This year has been a breakout year for the upperclassman. Through 33 games, his batting average is .294 with four home runs and 17 RBIs. However, his offensive stats are not what makes him so appealing to Major League Baseball teams. It is Johnson’s unbelievable skills behind the plate as catcher.
With this season coming to an end, Johnson has thrown out 14 base-runners on a steal. Johnson’s pop time stays below 1.8, and he consistently throws over 90 m.p.h. from home to second.
Johnson is also unbelievably athletic behind the plate. He moves very well, and balls rarely get past him. This year, his arm talent has also been shown off making plays on bunts. For example, one play in particular – a bunt – went down the first place line. Johnson burst out from behind the plate picking up the ball and throwing to first while diving showing a great display of raw athleticism and arm talent.
This year’s Ole Miss team also does not have a Ryan Rolison that could go in the first round of the draft. The best argument for someone on the 2019 team getting drafted higher could be Grae Kessinger or possibly Will Ethridge, but Johnson is no doubt the best position player prospect for MLB teams.
Ryan Olenek passed on the draft last year and will not have any leverage this year, so teams won’t look to draft him until late. Thomas Dillard is exceptional offensively, but the high school catcher turned left fielder is likely to struggle at either position in the next level.
Kessinger would be the best argument as far as fielders go. Draftsite.com predicts Kessinger and Johnson as third-round picks in 2019 in their 8 round mock draft. No other Rebels are listed in the mock draft.
Grae Kessinger was part of the No. 1 recruiting class in 2016 out of Oxford High School. The homegrown talent has started since freshman year and has improved every season at Ole Miss.
Kessinger started slow in 2019 with just a 217 batting average at on March 9. Kessinger has a 27 game streak of reaching base along with a base hit in 19 of those. His average is sitting at .342. His improved batting along with his great range and arm from shortstop makes him a great major league prospect.
Cooper Johnson, along with Grae Kessinger, have been super fun to watch grow up in front of the Ole Miss fan base’s eyes. Both players struggled as freshman and had a slightly improved sophomore campaign. Kessinger received a lot more playing time as a sophomore.
Now a junior, Kessinger is batting well above .300, and Johnson is keeping his average around .300. It is impressive how Bianco and his coaching staff have developed the 2016 freshman class.
Bianco is a former LSU catcher, which no doubt helped influence Johnson’s decision to attend Ole Miss and develop in college instead of in the minors.
Bianco has a long history of coaching excellent catchers at Ole Miss – Stuart Turner, Henri Lartigue, and Nick Fortes just to name a few. Johnson’s development at Ole Miss shows how great a catcher’s coach Bianco is. This should help land another talented catcher in the future to replace Johnson.
The 2019 MLB draft begins Monday, June 3 after the regional round of the NCAA baseball tournament. As the season winds down, it will be interesting to see how much these players, especially Johnson and Kessinger, improve on their draft stock.
How well these two players close the season hitting could determine who is drafted higher in June. The value of a catcher, such as Johnson, will help him be Ole Miss’ highest drafted player in the 2019 MLB draft.