pierce johnson daytona cubsIf 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.

Season Summary

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.

Digging Deeper

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.

  • jh03

    Luke: ” an ERA of 3.10 on a K/BB of 3.36, a 9.6 K/9 and a 9.2 BB/9. ”

    I think (hope) that BB/9 is wrong haha.

  • T Vuc

    Have enjoyed these series of articles. Just one suggestion for future Prospects Progress articles regarding pitchers: It would be helpful to have just a bit of background as to their “stuff”. At the very least, some info on their fastballs — i.e., tops out at Xmph, generally sits are between X and Xmph.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      I provide info on stuff when I have it and know it is accurate, but that first paragraph under “Prognosis” applies to some extent much more broadly. Often the only consistent velocity data I have comes from stadium radar guns, and I know that those are not always accurate. Tennessee’s for example, runs about 3 MPH slow.

      I’m working on ways to get better info on velocity, stuff, and so forth, but right now I’d rather not provide those figures than provide figures I can’t be sure are accurate.

      Fortunately, we have some folks like TC (below) who are able to fill in some of those gaps.

    • http://www.shadowsofwrigley.com TC

      Just a quick overview:

      Fastball – sits 90-92 most days, but has ability to sit 93-94 (only did so in warm weather). Good arm-side run, should generate a lot of weak contact and grounders with it. Has trouble commanding it glove-side. Front leg gets too stiff at times, causing him to consistently miss arm-side. With increased command, and if he sits in the 93-94 range, it’s a an above average pitch.

      Breaking-ball: has a few looks, gets a tad slurvy at times, but mainly a slider. Usually throws it high-70s/low-80s. Good movement, commands it well, way too good for the MWL hitters who saw it. Occasionally flattens out, but is generally an above average pitch.

      Changeup: I saw it, like, 4 times in the few months he was in town. It’s got similar movement to his fastball, drops off pretty well, command of it is not great right now. Might be an average or better pitch down road, but I certainly haven’t seen it enough to say..

      One last thing: He’s got an excellent pickoff move. He’s very athletic and has very quick feet. He’ll be able to control the run game pretty well

      • Hee Seop Chode

        Wow, that’s a great scouting report. Much appreciated content!

      • Alex

        Honestly, not to be a kiss ass but have you worked as a scout before?

  • E

    I liked the Johnson pick as soon as it was announced. Here’s hoping this guy keeps it together and makes his debut sometime in ’15.

  • http://www.shadowsofwrigley.com TC

    Video of his stuff that I compiled from footage that I took this year at Kane County:


    Full start from Johnson early in year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVnQBYKfs98

    The thing that impressed me most with Johnson was how he was able to hold velocity near the end of his time in Kane County. I saw a few starts in April where he was 90-91 all game, but in his final Kane County start he was pumping 94mph gas through the 7th inning. If his fastball looks like THAT in a few years, he’s got everything to be a #2. If he settles back down into the 90-92 range, he’s still got the stuff to be good, but more of an average #3, which we should all still be very happy with

    • Rcleven

      Nice work putting this together.
      Only got to see him twice at KC. Seemed to be on the road for rotation turn. Was consistently
      hitting 93mph in the games I saw him. Seems to throw two breaking balls one in the mid 80’s second in high 80’s. Got to meet him with the on field meet and greets before the games. Seemed surprised that anybody was watching him outside the organization. Nice kid.

  • Bluz Cluz

    I’m a big fan of C.J. Edwards, but Johnson is still the best Pitching prospect in the system, imo. He looks like a guy who could be at the top of a rotation. He may not be an ace, but he is definitely in the next tier. Anyhow, our pitching void in the upper minors has started to fill. This will be a big year for those pitching in Tennessee. This year, the legit prospects will start seperating themselves from the rest of the pack.

    • C. Steadman

      its definitely a tough choice between the two…I’d take CJ based on the video game numbers and the ceiling…Pierce’s floor is higher probably…still really tough choice

    • Napercal

      Fortunately we don’t have to choose. We have both. I think something that probably gets overlooked but is becoming apparent is the impact of Derek Johnson. I saw Pierce Johnson and Rob Zastrany pitch at Kane County. Granted it was once each, but they appeared to be pitchers rather than throwers. By that I mean that they seemed to use pitch selection, location and changes in speed to get guys out. My biggest concern with young pitchers is always injuries. While you can work on mechanics to minimize the risk, there is really no other predictor.

      • C. Steadman

        i meant with a tough choice in who is the better prospect…but yeah good thing Cubs have both these guys

    • Rcleven

      Don’t forget Maples. If this kid gets his control issues straightened out. Has better pure stuff than Johnson but just isn’t consistent throwing strikes.

      • Edwin

        I’ve decided to forget about Maples until he actually shows numbers decent enough to believe in. That way I can be pleasantly surprised instead of continually dissappointed.

  • mdavis

    big pierce johnson fan. and that AA rotation is really going to be that first true “Wave” that theoyer were talking about. Johnson, Black, Pinyero, Paniauga (maybe?), Edwards. Exciting building blocks.

    • FarmerTanColin

      I think the highest Paniagua starts is in Daytona while realistically in Kane County. He should be promoted as fast as he progresses though. Considering he will be 24 I think next season. Yes that AA rotation looks to be whatever the pitching version of murderers row is.

      Not to mention Ben Wells, Starling Peralta, Matt Loosen.

      I’ll be interested to see what becomes of guys that have been here for a while but no clear spot. Nick Struck, Rhee, Jokisch, Austin Kirk.

  • C. Steadman

    Luke, any excitement on Cubs DSL prospects OF Shamil Ubiera (OPS 813 in 2 seasons) or SP Jose Paulina(11 K/9 in 58 IP in 2013)?

    • C. Steadman

      Paulino i mean

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      Some, but excitement on guys in the Caribbean leagues should be somewhat restrained until they leave the Caribbean and show something stateside.

      Those are two I’ve been keeping an eye on, though.

  • Dougy D

    Good breakdown Luke. I saw him pitch for Kane County in Cedar Rapids and he looked pretty good. I am excited to see what he does next year.

  • FarmerTanColin

    If Johnson gets a solid change up to go with his 3 other pitches then I think his ceiling raises a bit due to effectiveness against lefties. Even though his splits were near identical, that could change as he progresses to the upper levels. A whole year in AA will be very telling to see where he stands.

    I like him a lot, between him and CJ I think they’re both solid. Johnson looks to have a better body. Johnson also seems very similar to Neil Ramirez. Ramirez relies on a changeup where Johnson does a slider but both were supplemental first round picks. Similar velocity and build.

    Worst case with him is that the bullpen looks a lot better.

  • Jon

    Dominating low A at the age of 22 isn’t much of an accomplishment.

    • C. Steadman

      continuing that dominance after a promotion to High A is

    • hansman

      So, this:

      “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”

      Wouldn’t it then be safe to say that he performed as he should have and that our anticipation of what he could become should be warranted?

      • Cub Fan Dan

        That is correct, unless you have a predisposition to view everything Cubs in a negative light.

        • hansman

          Also known as: being a realist, if you are predisposed to view everything Cubs in a negative light.

          • Edwin

            When it comes to prospects especially, it’s very beneficial to view everything in a negative light.

            • hansman

              I prefer cautious optimism.

              The glass is full but the half filled with gas, might be mustard gas.

            • Jon

              I like Pierce and am glad he’s in our system. Just pointing out that he’s old for his league. Two years out of college he needs to dominate at AA for results to mean anything.

              • FarmerTanColin

                Last year was his first year out of college and he pitched well in High A being 21-22 which he was not old for the league. He’ll turn 23 in May in AA so that puts him knocking on the major league door by 23-24. Seems to be right on schedule if not a little earlier than average.

                Maybe I’m misunderstanding your comment.

              • Norm

                I agree with Jon.

              • C. Steadman

                he was one year older than the Low A average of 21…but once promoted he was one year younger than the High A average of 23…he’ll start in AA where he’ll be a year younger than the average of 24…so its not like he was an elder in those leagues at all

  • jt

    There is so much going on in that little FIP equation. A thoughtful reader who considers your completed presentation should be able to begin to see how it works and how it can be used.
    Great Job.

  • SenorGato

    Not sold on Johnson as a starter yet. I really wish I was sold on a pitcher in this system.

    OTOH, I’m glad he was able to get through the whole year without injury. He looks a little bigger than he was in college too, another plus.

    Still, probably going to “underrate” him until I’m completely sold. I have to admit that throwing 118 uninjured, quality innings this year was a great start. Still want to be sold on further durability and then the quality of his stuff. To me he seems closer to a Jason Marquis than a Matt Garza type starter, and I want a little more upside.

  • You got bats, we got Wood. Travis Wood.

    One of my fraternity brothers grew up with Pierce, he said that Pierce has always had that “it” factor about him. I’m very high on Johnson, he’ll make a great #2 for us in the near future I believe. A rotation with Shark-Johnson-Wood-Arrieta/Baker-Brett/Luke would make for a darn good pitching rotation. Now, if we could just get some bats to score some runs…

    • SenorGato

      That rotation might make me cry. Everyone would have to hit their highest projections for that to be any fun.

  • Larry

    I saw him pitch in Omaha when he was at Missouri State, and he was a very dominant pitcher in that game. I believe he will be an MLB pitcher someday soon.

  • Cubfan Budman

    Great article as they all are in this series…but….I always thought FIP was a F&@#!ng Illinois Person. ..lol