San Francisco Giants: Let’s Meet New Pitcher Pierce Johnson

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 19: Pierce Johnson
CHICAGO, IL - MAY 19: Pierce Johnson /

The San Francisco Giants took a chance on a new pitcher via waiver claim, so let’s meet the newest Giant Pierce Johnson.

There are some advantages to being the worst team in baseball. One of them is getting first dibs on waiver claims, and the San Francisco Giants are using that advantage. Earlier in the week, the Giants claimed pitcher Pierce Johnson off waivers from the Chicago Cubs. The team added him to the 40-man roster by officially ending Brandon Belt‘s season, putting him on the 60-day disabled list because of a concussion.

Johnson is a 26-year-old right-hander, and just completed his fifth full professional season after being drafted 43rd overall as a supplemental first round pick by the Cubs. Drafted as a starter, Johnson put together some fine seasons in the Chicago organization.

In 2013, which he split between Single-A and Advanced-A, he posted a 2.74 ERA, 1.285 WHIP and struck out 9.4 batters per nine innings while allowing just five home runs in 118.1 innings. Following the season, Johnson was added to the top-100 prospect lists, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball America.

He continued his minor league success in 2014, posting a 2.55 ERA, 1.244 WHIP, and striking out 8.9 batters per nine innings while pitching for Double-A. He returned to the level in 2015 and had another strong campaign, with a 2.08 ERA and 1.137 WHIP, though his strikeout fell drastically to 6.8 per nine innings.

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Johnson was promoted to Triple-A in 2016, and it became the tale of two seasons. He began the year as a starter and hit a wall. In the rotation, he owned a 7.75 ERA and 1.893 WHIP even though his strikeouts jumped back to 8.9 per nine innings. Opponents hit .294 off Johnson with a .900 OPS, and he walked 6.6 batters per nine.

He was moved to the bullpen later in the season, and things clicked for the young pitcher. His ERA dropped to 3.22 and WHIP to 1.164 while his strikeouts took a meteoric rise to 14.1 per nine. Opponents managed just a .176 average and .625 OPS. His walk rate was still rather unsightly at 5.2 per nine, but was an improvement over his mark as a starter. His overall improvement as a reliever prompted the Cubs to add him to their 40-man roster after the season.

2017 saw Johnson return to Triple-A, and work almost exclusively out of the bullpen. He didn’t match his bullpen numbers from the previous season with a 4.31 ERA and 1.454 WHIP, but he still struck out 12.3 per nine while continuing to cut down on his walks (4.5 per nine). There could be some hope that bad luck points to some of Johnson’s regression, as opponents totaled a .392 BABIP in 2017.

Johnson also made his major league debut in 2017, appearing in one game on May 19th. Though he can still boast a perfect 0.00 ERA, his lone inning of work wasn’t so pretty. He struck out two but allowed a pair of hits and a walk with two unearned runs coming in to score as the defense committed three errors behind him. The conditions weren’t in Johnson’s favor, however. He pitched in heavy rain and had his outing interrupted by a rain delay that lasted nearly two hours.

Repertoire-wise, Johnson features a good fastball that has reached the mid-90s on a more regular basis since moving to the bullpen. When he dials it back a bit on velocity, it takes on a lot of arm-side run. In addition, he features a changeup and a slider as offspeed pitches, with the slider serving as his main secondary offering. The slider has sharp, downward bite and can get some glove-side run as well. His changeup is still a work in progress, and he didn’t throw the pitch at all in his major league debut.

His windup is rather simple, with a medium-sized leg kick and not a whole lot of moving parts. He does short-arm the ball a bit, and has trouble repeating his release point which can contribute to his control issues. Overall, Johnson has the stuff to be a contributor at the major league level, but the pitching staff has work to do on refining Johnson as a pitcher and harnessing that strong stuff.

Claiming Johnson is another one of those low-risk type of moves that could turn into a high-reward type of move, similar to the Sam Dyson trade they made earlier this season. The Giants picked up Dyson for next to nothing, and he has become a key member of the bullpen this season and in the future (3.03 ERA, 13 saves in 14 chances). Of course, Johnson doesn’t come with the track record that Dyson did, but the potential is there.

The last player the Giants claimed off waivers to appear in a big league game was Hunter Strickland, who was claimed from the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013 and made his debut the next season. The team is trying to turn that fortune, having claimed a couple of players in the past few weeks. They also added infielder Engelb Vielma on a waiver claim from the Minnesota Twins recently.

A positive with the Johnson claim is that he still has options remaining, so the team won’t need to keep him on the 25-man roster next season at risk of exposing him to waivers. They can freely move him between the major and minor leagues next season, allowing him to continue to hone his craft at Triple-A while also bringing him up if a need were to arise.

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This is a lottery ticket move, and for the cost of absolutely nothing, the Giants really don’t have much to worry about. If things go well with Johnson, they’ve got their hands on another big league pitcher. If not, better luck next time.