Pierce Johnson will make his first start for the High-A Daytona Cubs Monday after a well-deserved promotion. Johnson was tearing through Midwest League lineups with a lively 91-93 mph fastball and a power curveball that most hitters at the level couldn’t touch. In 69 2/3 MWL innings, Johnson posted a 3.10 ERA while striking out 25% of batters faced and only walking 7.4%. If you toss out his disastrous first outing, his ERA was a fantastic 2.54 over 67 1/3 innings.
Johnson’s age and advanced stuff made him a great candidate for promotion, as he had little else to learn in Kane County. In his final start with the Cougars, Johnson threw seven innings in muggy heat, striking out 5. Despite the heat, Johnson was throwing 94 mph in the 7th inning, showing arm strength that he did not have earlier in the year. Though he did not have his changeup working, the power curve and strong velocity he was offering was just too much for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. At High-A, he will be challenged if he doesn’t mix in his change more often, which is why it is time for him to head on out to Daytona.
Because this is likely the last time I’ll see Johnson in person for a long time, I’m going to do an updated scouting report, highlighting changes I’ve seen in him since April.
Johnson throws with a funky delivery, one that hasn’t changed a whole lot since the beginning of 2013. He repeats it well and it does not cause him control problems, so at present there is little reason to overhaul the delivery in an effort to eradicate the funk. One thing I have noticed is Johnson’s foot-strike and follow through – in April, Johnson’s left leg would get a tad stiff at times, causing him to fall off towards first and affecting his command. Recently his leg has stayed more flexed through his delivery, providing him with more consistently good posture at his release point. The arm action, which has an Inverted-W look, has not changed since April, and it will likely always be a cause of concern.
Johnson’s fastball is by far his best pitch. It has plus velocity at 92-93mph, and the occasional increase in velocity and excellent movement help it grade out even higher. Johnson commanded his fastball very well in his last start in Kane County, painting the inside and outside corners with regularity. Its life made it quite difficult for MWL hitters to square it up, and he generated a good amount of groundouts in his time in the MWL. The heavy, sinking action should allow this to continue. If Johnson is able to consistently hold velocity late in games, his fastball is going to be a great pitch.
Johnson’s curveball was slurve-y at times in April, as I noted in my April piece on him:
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, but others have lacked depth and appeared more like a traditional slider.
This is no longer the case for Johnson. He throws a power curveball with good horizontal movement and occasionally great vertical drop. He has enough feel for the pitch to manipulate the shape, which sometimes has a big sweep to it. Johnson commands the curve pretty well nowadays, and can spot it on the low-glove-side corner with regularity. At the 1:15 mark in the video above, you can see the best one he’s thrown so far, which features great late-breaking 11-5 movement. At 81 mph, it fits very well in his power repertoire, and has the potential to grade out very closely to his fastball.
Johnson’s changeup isn’t much to write home about right now. He throws it with similar arm action to his fastball, and it’s trajectory is that of an exaggerated version of his fastball. Johnson clearly does not have much faith in it at the moment, and he has struggled to command it on the rare occasion I’ve seen him throw it. It will need serious improvement to be an average pitch at higher levels.
This is where Johnson has improved the most since the beginning of the season. Johnson’s command was brutal when I saw him in late April, missing high and arm-side with almost every fastball he threw. When I saw him last Sunday, he was hitting his spots with consistency, working the fastball in and out. Whenever his fastball command is on like that, he’s going to give opposing batters huge problems.
I really enjoyed watching Pierce pitch this year. He’s obviously ready for the higher levels, and I can’t wait to get a shot to watch him again later in his career.