Pierce Johnson is learning to pitch. That’s bad news for opposing hitters, because the 6-foot-3 right-hander has big-league-quality stuff. It’s good news for Cubs fans, as Chicago’s north-side team drafted him 43rd overall in 2012 out of Missouri State University.
Johnson had an opportunity to begin his professional career three years earlier. In 2009, Tampa Bay took him in the 15th round out of Faith Christian Academy in Arvada, Colo. Johnson opted to go the college route, though, which included an opportunity to spend two summers pitching in the Cape Cod League. Now he’s one of the top prospects in a system loaded with high-end potential.
Johnson talked about his maturation as a pitcher — including the fine-tuning of his repertoire — earlier this month.
Johnson on transitioning from a thrower to a pitcher: “Needing to make that transition was a big reason I went to college. I wasn’t physically mature, and I wasn’t a pitcher. I just threw hard. I hadn’t played against the best competition, either. Once I got to college, I learned you have to really hit the inside and the outside, change speeds and know what you‘re trying to do.
“Since I got to pro ball, a bunch of coaches have helped me out. Ron Villone and Storm Davis are two. I’ve come leaps and bounds from where I started. There were parts of the game I didn’t know well. I probably still don’t know very much, but I’m learning every day.”
On choosing Missouri State over the Rays: “I though a lot about it. God put me in these shoes for a reason, and I feel I’ve made the right decisions so far. The Rays are a standup organization. I definitely feel they could have made me into the pitcher I am today, but I’m on the route I’m on for a reason.
“I really didn’t have many [college options]. Part of it is that not everyone comes out to Colorado. The weather is so finicky in the spring that you can come and there will be a freak snowstorm. It’s not like going to Arizona or Texas to see somebody play. I also didn’t play for a travel team until my junior and senior year, so I don’t think I really got seen very much.”
On playing in the Cape Cod League: “The competition was obviously great, but it’s not like I hadn’t played against good teams. We started out at Georgia Tech my freshman year. But the Cape was where I realized how good I could be. That was kind of where I gained confidence. Going up against the best hitters in college baseball gave me some of the confidence I’d lacked.”
On what makes him a power pitcher: “I think it’s my off-speed. My slider — my curveball, which a lot of people call it — is a good breaking ball. It’s a power pitch. That’s probably why I’m called a power pitcher.
“I can run my fastball up to the mid-90s at times, but I’m not a guy who can hit triple digits or anything like that. I think maybe [the power pitcher label] comes from me having potential, too. I have some weight to gain. I’m still maturing physically and maybe they see me gaining more [velocity].”
On his power breaking ball: “I consider it a slider, but it’s kind of morphed into a slurve, I guess. Some days it looks more like a slider and some days it looks more like a curveball. I can tell you that when I get a guy two strikes, I try to get more on top of it, so it looks more like a curveball. I’m trying to bury it. The one I throw to get over for a strike is more of a slider.
“The difference is in my release point. When I want it to be more of a curveball, I finish more on top. Otherwise, I throw it just like a fastball, only on the side. That’s how I get the slider motion on it.
“I think I have better control over my slider, most days, than I do my fastball. That’s maybe starting to change now, but I’ve had so much success, and have so much confidence in that slider, that I feel I can throw it anywhere at any time. The velocity is 80 [mph] to 82.”
On his fastball and changeup: “I’m more of a four-seam guy, but I get movement on my four-seam. I attribute that to my arm angle. I’m not directly over the top — I’m more three-quarters — and it’s got some inside run [to the arm side] and some sink.
“My changeup is definitely better than it was at this time last year. I wouldn’t say I have as much confidence in it as I do my slider, but I’m gaining more confidence in it. I’m getting closer to feeling I can throw it at any time.
“It’s a four-seam circle. I put a little finger pressure on certain fingers to get a little different movement. It’s a pitch I’ve really developed in the last year or two. Like we were talking about earlier, I used to be more of a thrower. I had to put another pitch into my mix — and even though it hasn’t been as good of a pitch for me — it’s added to my success. Storm helped me a lot with it.”
On his cutter: “I throw a cutter. It’s a pitch I had in college, but the Cubs wanted me to focus on my changeup, so I kind of put it in my back pocket. Halfway through this year, when I got down to Daytona, Storm and I worked on it. I started throwing it in games. It’s another pitch I can mix in there once in awhile. I can use it to keep hitters off balance and maybe get a ground ball, especially working in to lefties. Obviously, guys have had huge success with a cutter.”
On Baseball America saying “some scouts retain concern about his arm action”: “In all honesty, I have no idea what they meant by that. I’ve never had big arm problems. I had a forearm strain, but I threw a lot of breaking balls in the game that happened in. I’ve never had a shoulder problem. I do really good arm care and try to be as smooth as possible with my delivery, just kind of an easy motion. I’m not herky-jerky and don’t have any recoil in my arm, or anything like that.”
On Byron Buxton and setting up hitters: “I faced Buxton in the Midwest League, then we both got moved up and I faced him again in High-A. One game, in his first at bat, I caught him looking on a fastball away for strike three. Later that game, he got a single and I picked him off first. That’s a memorable moment for me, because he’s such a threat on the bases. He can really take advantage of his speed.
“On the strikeout, I think the scouting report on me is that I like to throw the breaking ball. That may actually be true, but I’ve also been throwing a lot of fastballs. I figured he was looking breaking ball, so I tried freezing him on a fastball, and did. Setting up hitters is something Ron Villone and Storm Davis have helped me with a lot. I threw [Buxton] a fastball in, that he fouled off, then I threw the fastball away.
“Storm and Villone have also showed me you can attack guys certain ways depending on where they stand in the box, or if they have a long swing. You can gain an advantage from recognizing things like that. Another thing you can do is set up a pitch you’re going to throw later in the game. As much as anything, gaining a better understanding of those things — learning how to pitch — is what gave me the best success this year.”