Pierce Johnson was once a highly touted prospect in the Chicago Cubs organization. A first-round pick in the 2012 Amateur Draft, Johnson was to represent the future of the Cubs rotation. Life doesn’t always work out the way we expect it, as true in baseball as it is anywhere else. Injuries and down performances resulted in Johnson seeing one inning with the big league Cubs before he was released following the 2017 season. Johnson didn’t fare much better after signing with the San Francisco Giants and thus at the end of the 2018 season, he was out of affiliated ball.
I’m pretty sure Johnson never envisioned himself thriving as a set-up man for the Central League’s Hanshin Tigers. Yet in 2019 he has been perhaps the best reliever in all of Nippon Professional Baseball. So much so that he finds himself as the first ever first-year foreign league pitcher from the Tigers voted into the NPB All-Star Game. This may not be where Johnson thought his career would take him, but at this point, it appears as if Koshien, the home city of the Tigers, is exactly where he belongs.
How exactly did Johnson turn his career around? The answer is simple, by throwing strikes. In this day and age of data surrounding us, it sounds odd to say it, but the only alteration Johnson has made to his game is to throw more strikes. During his time in affiliated ball, especially the last few years, Johnson was a pitcher who nibbled. Injuries had convinced him that he couldn’t spend time in the zone because his stuff wasn’t going to play the same. There was some truth to this, an ERA of 5.56 and a DRA- of 113 in his 2018 stint with the Giants tells that story rather succinctly.
When he debuted with the Tigers Johnson immediately went to work filling the zone with strikes. His stuff had always been good, bordering on great, he just needed to have confidence in himself. His last couple of years in affiliated ball had seen Johnson convert to the reliever corps. Johnson never truly committed to the role, especially in terms of how hard he threw the ball. In NPB Johnson has committed, adding a tick more to his pitches velocity. This has all come together for Johnson to produce a 0.64 ERA and 0.776 WHIP in 28 games with the Tigers. Over those 28.1 innings pitched he has walked 9 while giving up only 14 hits. Most impressively he has given up no home runs over that time, and very little in the way of hard contact.
Watching Johnson on the mound for the Tigers is to see the same raw stuff from his affiliated days but with the added conviction of believing in what he is throwing. It’s not surprising that Johnson’s career reclamation with the Tigers has gone mostly unnoticed. After all, set-up men are an afterthought on most teams, ill-advised as such disregard for an important role may be. Johnson has turned himself into a great set-up man with Hanshin. The former Sacramento RiverCat hasn’t just done that, he’s turned his entire career around with the Tigers. Where once he was on his last legs now he is a player rejuvenated. Johnson is better than ever and at only 28-years-old 2019 should merely be the start of a quality second half to his career.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Kyodo News