On the surface, the San Francisco Giants claimed a struggling, career minor-league relief pitcher off waivers from the Chicago Cubs last September.
But on the other hand, the San Francisco Giants have a good track record of converting throwers who have talent, but just can’t put it together.
That could be the case with Pierce Johnson, a former top pitching prospect.
The Tampa Bay Rays drafted Johnson out of high school in the 15th round of the 2009 MLB draft. But instead of signing, he went to Missouri State, going 1-2 with a 7.52 ERA in 11 relief appearances in his first year.
After starting off slow in 2011, his sophomore year, he turned it up in April. Starting on Apr. 5 of that year, Johnson had a 2.36 ERA in 53.1 innings pitched, striking out 55. He held opponents to a .217 average.
His 10-strikeout, complete-game shutout on Apr. 5 against Kansas propelled Johnson all the way to professional baseball. In 2012, the Cubs selected him in the first round of the 2012 MLB Draft.
Johnson had some ups and downs in his professional career.
In his first full season as a starting pitcher in 2013, he went 11-6 with a 2.74 ERA in 21 starts for both the Kane County Cougars (A) and the Daytona Tortugas (A). He struck out 124 batters in 118 1/3 innings pitched, holding batters to a .249 average.
In 2014, Johnson was promoted to AA mid-season, where he went 5-4 with a 2.55 ERA, striking out 91 in 91 2/3 innings pitched. But his Achilles heel was his walks. In AA that year with the Tennessee Smokies, he averaged just over five walks a game.
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But things got rocky for Johnson in AAA.
In 11 starts with the Iowa Cubs in 2015, he went 4-6 with a 6.14 ERA. However, he only gave up 60 hits in 63 innings, amassing 75 strikeouts.
Johnson’s 2017 season with the Cubs was better, but he still struggled after he was converted to a reliever midway through 2016.
In 43 appearances, including one start, Johnson had a 4.31 ERA in 54 1/3 innings pitched. However, he only gave up 52 hits and struck out 74 batters.
Again, the problem for Johnson–he averaged over four walks a game.
Johnson made a lone relief appearance for the big-league Cubs in May 2017, pitching a scoreless inning and striking out two. He did walk a batter.
But after he had a 1.45 WHIP for AAA in 2017, the Cubs designated him for assignment in September.
Although Johnson can throw in the mid-90s, as can many young relievers in today’s game, the knock on him is his wildness.
But Johnson says an injury in 2015 turned out to be “a blessing in disguise,” as it gave him time to develop a tool to make his pitching repertoire better. Johnson told MLB.com:
"“They’ve always told me to work on my changeup. I threw my changeup way more this year than any other time.”"
The Giants hope to harness that raw talent into a polished pitcher. Like Jeff Samardzija, now his teammate, Johnson throws hard and strikes out a lot of batters, but doesn’t have much to show for it in the ERA or WHIP column.
If he can cut down on those walks, Johnson could be a hidden gem in the bullpen for the 2018 Giants.
He’ll have a chance to improve with new pitching coach Curt Young when pitchers and catchers report on Wednesday.
Maybe the new haircut will help too.