Padres: Pierce Johnson has emerged as a solid reliever

Pierce Johnson has emerged as a solid late-inning option for the San Diego Padres.

The San Diego Padres, on their way to a 37-23 record and a playoff appearance last year, got a lot of great individual performances. We know about Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado, among others. We also know about many of the great pitching performances, including those from Dinelson Lamet, Zach Davies, and Drew Pomeranz.

However, every team that plays well has unsung heroes, guys that get overlooked for their contributions to the team. Often, those players come from middle relief. One such player that came out of seemingly nowhere to have a great season for the Padres was right-handed pitcher Pierce Johnson.

Johnson, 29, was first drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 15th round in 2009, but did not sign. He was then attended Missouri State University and was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the first round – 43rd overall – in the 2012 draft as compensation for the team losing Aramis Ramirez to free agency and did sign.

Prior to 2014, Johnson was a top 100 prospect. However, he was never quite able to put it all together in the Cubs organization. He got into one game in 2017, giving up two unearned runs, before he was claimed off waivers by the San Francisco Giants. He was unspectacular in middle relief for the Giants in 2018, posting a 5.56 ERA in 43 2/3 innings.

Johnson pitched for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan in 2019 and was tremendous, posting a 1.38 ERA in 58 2/3 innings, turning that into another MLB chance, this time with the Padres. Johnson became one of Jayce Tingler‘s best relievers in 2020, posting a 2.70 ERA, allowing just six earned runs in 20 innings pitched, many of those outings coming late in games.

In fact, Johnson actually only allowed earned runs in three of his 20 outings. If we remove the game at Arizona in which he allowed four runs, Johnson was lights out the rest of the year.

Why was Johnson so much better in 2020 than in 2018? Perhaps his curveball use would explain. Johnson used the curve 28.3% of the time in 2018 and used his cutter 21.5% of the time. In 2020, he didn’t use the cutter; he went primarily fastball-curve, the latter of which he used 52.7% of the time. It’s roughly the same ratio he used in a small sample size in 2017; perhaps a return to his original form explains why he did so well.

Hopefully, Pierce Johnson will continue to be a solid middle reliever for the Padres in 2020. If he can continue to put it all together in 2021, it will continue a great story.