If you are looking for an example of why signing high school pitching prospects can pay dividends, look no farther than Pierce Johnson. Tampa picked the right hander in the 15th round back in 2009, but failed to sign him. A few years later the Cubs chose him from Missouri State University and he instantly became one of top pitching prospects in the organization. Now that he has risen as far as High A, the leading question with Johnson seems to be one of ceiling. He is good, that is not in debate. The question is how good can he be.
That breakdown will arrive after this disclaimer. The goal here is not to re-rank the prospects (that comes next year) or to assess the strengths and weaknesses of farm as a whole (that also comes next year). The goal for this series is to take each prospect individually, study the progress made so far, and see what we can learn about the future for that player.
Among the standout features of Johnson’s 2013 campaign, his numbers actually got (largely) better when he advanced to the tougher competition of Daytona. Johnson himself, however, stayed consistent in a lot of ways across both stops.
Pierce Johnson, RHP
Born: May 10, 1991
Acquired: The Cubs selected Johnson with the 43rd overall pick, in the first supplemental round, in 2012.
Through 13 starts in Kane County to open the season Johnson posted an ERA of 3.10 on a K/BB of 3.36, a 9.6 K/9 and a 2.8 BB/9. He gave up just 4 home runs in those 69.2 innings (0.5 HR/9) and produced enough grounders to result in a GO/AO of 1.12. Those are all very solid numbers even taking into consideration that he was a collegiate starter and had more experience than many of the batters he was facing.
Those advantages became less relevant when he advanced to High A Daytona, though, and the results are no less impressive. In 10 games (8 of them starts) in the Florida State League Johnson dropped his ERA down to 2.22 on the basis of a K/9 of 9.25, a BB/9 of 3.88 and just one home run allowed in the 48.2 innings (that’s a HR/9 of 0.18 if you’re curious). The GO/AO declined to 0.86.
ERA is not always the best measure to use when looking at pitchers, and in this case that marked drop in ERA from 3.36 down to 2.22 might be a touch deceptive. The bad news is that he may not have been as good as that the FLS 2.22 ERA makes him look, but the good news is that he was still pretty darn good. His FIP…
Wait, What’s FIP?
We now pause this Prospects Progress to bring you some information on FIP. If you are already familiar with FIP, feel free to skip on a bit.
FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, is designed to measure how good a pitcher was at controlling the things he can (more or less) control.
For example, imagine we have two identical pitchers playing in identical stadiums facing identical batters under identical weather conditions with an identical defense behind them… with one exception. Team A has in-his-prime Willie Mays in center field. Team B has Prince Fielder in center fielder. In both cases the batter hits a quality pitch into medium left center field. Willie Mays makes the catch easily, but Prince Fielder never comes close to the ball and the hit goes for a double.
FIP says we shouldn’t blame the poor pitcher who had Fielder in center for that hit, and likewise says we can’t really give the pitcher who benefited from Mays all the credit for the out. In fact, the thinking goes, to really be fair to the pitcher we should come up with a way to evaluate pitchers that eliminates all factors that the pitcher does not control. That way we can assess directly, from one case to the next, how effective that pitcher is as doing the things a good pitcher should do.
The exact formula for FIP can be found here, but the important takeway is that FIP uses Home Runs, Walks, Hit by Pitch, and Strikeouts duly weighted and adjusted to be read like ERA to create a number that tells how good a pitcher at doing good-pitcher things.
This number, FIP, does not always do a very good job of telling how a player is performing today because there are a lot of factors that are not under the control of the pitcher in any given game. However, it does a better job than pretty much anything at telling us how a pitcher will perform in the future. In stat-speak that makes this more of a predictive stat, not a descriptive one (although it is often used for both purposes).
FIP is also widely used (with debatable impact) as a check for ERA. If we see a FIP that is wildly different from an ERA it probably means there is something going on there that is worth taking a look at. Maybe the team defense is exceptionally good (or bad). Maybe the pitcher is on a rotten run of luck. Maybe weather or other factors have played an unusually high role for or against that pitcher. All of that stuff is part of baseball and the use of FIP is not an effort to remove any of that from the game. FIP just helps cut through that fog of uncontrollable events so that we can better assess how good a particular pitcher is.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled Prospects Progress.
Where Were We?
As I was saying, even though Pierce Johnson put up wildly different ERAs Kane County (3.10) and Daytona (2.22), he actually performed much more consistently as measured by FIP. With Kane County he checked in at 2.98, and with Daytona at 2.95 (the decrease in home runs with Daytona was offset by an increase in walks). Strikeout rates stayed more or less the same between the two stops.
To me, this strongly suggests two things. First, Johnson really hasn’t been challenged yet. When we dig into the numbers that are more reflective of what he can control, Johnson was a model of consistency across the levels. Despite the increase in difficulty, he was still able to perform more or less the same. Fortunately for us, that performance was a very good one. At this level of minor league ball Johnson is simply dominant.
Second, that we did see a decrease in home runs allowed and an increase in walks in the Florida State League suggests that he did adjust his approach when facing the more advanced hitters in the league. That, in turn, implies that Johnson is a smart baseball player who can adapt his stuff to the situation. When he can easily overpower people, he’ll overpower them (and suffer a higher HR/9 as his mistakes are crushed over the fence). If that approach grows less effective on a consistent basis, he can shift gears and start attacking the edges of the plate (resulting in more walks). Either way, he can just plain get people out.
That’s a good thing.
Unfortunately, both Kane County and Daytona are virtual black holes when it comes to minor league game video coverage, so I was not able to watch enough innings of Johnson on the mound to give any assessment of his stuff myself. I can tell you that he entered the season with a very good fastball / curve combination that should serve him quite well as he moves up the system. He has some other offerings in the works, but I’m not sure of their status right now. Given a fairly normal progression I like his odds to enter 2014 with two plus pitches and a third one that grades out no worse than average.
Since I don’t think he was really challenged at Daytona, I see no reason to send him back there. I look for Johnson to open the season with the Tennessee Smokies where he will be a cornerstone of what projects to be a very, very good rotation. He still needs to increase his innings load somewhat before we can really look at him as a candidate for the major league rotation, and I don’t really see a scenario in which he jumps to the majors in 2014 for any reason.
There were some forearm troubles while he was in college, but so far those have not reemerged as a professional. Should he stay healthy and continue to pitch successfully for a 140+ innings in 2014, I think he could very well enter spring training in 2015 as a realistic candidate for the Chicago rotation. More likely he would open 2015 in Iowa and advance to Chicago in mid-summer.
As far as ceiling goes, he has all the makings of a good No. 2 or No. 3 guy in a major league rotation if the secondary pitches develop well, or a closer if they don’t.