I have seen Pierce Johnson twice now, once on Kane County’s Opening Day and this past Tuesday against the Clinton Lumberkings, and I have seen two different pitchers each time. He has thrown 7 1/3 innings thus far, surrendering seven earned runs on 7 hits and three walks while striking out eight, though you could easily argue that a lot of the runs he’s surrendered have been a product of poor defense behind him.
On Opening Day, Johnson breezed through the first inning, striking out two while sitting 90-92. His curveball showed good depth and he got some foolish swings out of the top of the Quad Cities lineup with it. His delivery was smooth and he was throwing strikes. Johnson K’d the first batter of the second inning but ran into serious trouble after that. Johnson’s stuff was clearly down in the second inning. He was throwing in the high-80s rather than 92, and his curveball was rolling up to the plate, lacking any of the depth it had possessed in the first inning. Johnson was tagged for a bunch of runs that inning (and received no help from his defense), and he was out of the game just an out into the 3rd inning. Johnson appeared to be shaken by the poor defense behind him, and that may have led to his struggles in the second inning.
On Tuesday, Johnson looked like the 43rd overall pick of the 2012 draft. He sat 91-93 for all 5 innings and topped out at 96, which was a relief after watching him struggle to hold velocity on opening day. He did give up 6 hits, but not much hard contact was made against him, and 2 or 3 of the hits should have been converted into outs. He struck out 4 batters, all of whom were at the top of the order, and his secondary stuff was much sharper. It was not a dominating outing, but it was good to see him rebound from such a horrendous first start.There are annotations w/ velocity throughout video
Johnson has a bit of a funky delivery, but he does appear to repeat it with enough consistency that repetition should not be a huge issue down the line. His front leg does get a bit stiff near the end of his delivery on occasion, causing him to fall off towards first base. This may be hurting his command. Also, as many other have noted, the arm action is likely a cause for concern.
Johnson throws a 91-93 mph fastball that has good tailing action. It was his best pitch in both starts, as opponents had trouble putting the barrel on the pitch. If he can hold velocity through games it is going to be a very good pitch.
Every report I’ve read says Johnson throws a “curveball”, but I have seen what appears to be two separate breaking balls from him so far (this doesn’t mean he’s doing that on purpose, though). He’s thrown a few good traditional curveballs, like the one at 1:04 in the video, but others have lacked depth and appeared to be more like a traditional slider. The good curveballs (4:06 in the video) he’s thrown have been 81-83 mph with sharp break, and are a glimpse at what should develop into a very good breaking ball. If he is only throwing one breaking pitch, though, he really needs to find consistency with it.
This was the worst offering I saw from Johnson. The pitch has fastball arm action and good fade, but he had trouble locating it. At 84 mph it isn’t going to be more than 8 mph slower than his heater, and because of that he will need to command it very well for it to be effective.
It is early in the season, but Johnson really struggled with his command in his second start. His fastball was getting away from him often to the arm-side, and he had trouble busting it in on left handers. His changeup was up and over the plate for much of the game, and his breaking ball was not thrown consistently until later in the game.
The Kane County bench called pitches for Johnson up until his 5th and final inning, during which he appeared to have much more control over his sequencing. It was his third time through the order, and it appeared he shook off multiple calls from his catcher. His pitch mix changed from fastball-heavy to offspeed-heavy, though he was still throwing 93 that inning. For whatever reason, Johnson’s stuff appeared better during this inning too – his breaking ball was sharper, he was locating his changeup, and he struck out two batters. This can be seen in the video from about 3:00 in until the 4:30 mark.
This leads me to believe that a lot of what we’ve seen from Johnson so far has been a product of pitch type restrictions from Cubs management. Johnson has had arm issues and his fastball command looked iffy, so it would make sense that they would want him working fastball-heavy sequences to protect his arm, build up arm strength, and improve on his command.
I would like to say that this means we should completely ignore Johnson’s results so far, but a lot of the contact against him has come against his off-speed offerings, so going fastball-heavy hasn’t exactly been the cause of his struggles.