Pierce Johnson was a not-particularly-well-known reliever when the Braves acquired him a week before the Trade Deadline. He ended up being one of the club’s most reliable bullpen arms down the stretch, and he was rewarded with a two-year deal to keep him in Atlanta for the foreseeable future.
The Braves added Johnson on July 24, sending pitching prospects Victor Vodnik and Tanner Gordon to the Rockies to complete the deal. On the surface level, Johnson was experiencing a down year with lowly Colorado with a 6.00 ERA across 39 innings. But, naturally, the Braves don’t care about things like that, and probably targeted him for something like his 3.98 xFIP instead. They struck gold in the process.
What were the expectations?
Atlanta needed to bolster its bullpen for the second half of the season, and Johnson provided some intrigue from the right side. While the results had not been great while pitching in Coors Field (119 ERA-, 98 FIP-, 91 xFIP-), he owned strong strikeout numbers boosted by an excellent fastball/curve combination. There may not be a better situational upgrade in baseball than going from Colorado to Atlanta, and the Braves (rightly) banked on his talent and a change of scenery.
With Colorado: 39 innings, 6.00 ERA, 4.54 FIP, 3.98 xFIP, 30.9 K%, 12.3 BB%, 0.2 fWAR
With Atlanta: 23 2⁄3 innings, 0.76 ERA, 2.83 FIP, 2.09 xFIP, 36.6 K%, 5.6 K%, 0.5 fWAR
Yeah, I’d say the trade worked out.
Most notably, Johnson cut his walks by 60 percent and increased his strikeouts by 20 percent following the trade. He also benefitted from a significant defensive and environment improvement, though those didn’t really need to factor in to his increased effectiveness. He quickly gained the trust of manager Brian Snitker and often worked the seventh and eighth innings in high-leverage spots.
What went right?
Mostly everything after the trade. Johnson went scoreless in all but four of his relief appearances.
How did he find such success? It’s really all about his strange slider-curve thing, which held hitters to an elite .260 xwOBA-against over the course of the season, with a 40 percent whiff rate. The pitch has great spin mirroring with his fastball and, potentially as a result, gets whiffs even when finishing in the zone, which reduces Johnson’s vulnerability to walks.
Johnson didn’t show much of a platoon split xFIP-wise after the Braves acquired him, posting marks in the low 2.00s against both lefties and righties. Yes, lefties got a boatload of HR/FB off him to make his FIP much worse against him, but that probably won’t stick if he remains as effective as he was.
If you want an example of a fun Pierce Johnson outing, check out his one-batter performance on August 31. He came on to relieve A.J. Minter in the eighth with the tying and go-ahead runs on base, and struck out Amed Rosario on three straight fouls and then a whiff. In that PA, he started Rosario with three straight in-zone curves at 85 mph, before busting out a rarely-used slider at 90 mph to get a whiff on a pitch off the plate.
Johnson also appeared in three of the Braves’ four playoff games in 2023, striking out four and walking two across 2 2⁄3 innings without being charged with a run. He was on the mound for the weird catcher’s interference that scored a run in Game 1, threw a scoreless inning in Game 2 while the Braves trailed, and pitched a disjointed inning in Game 4 before the Braves were booted out of the tournament.
What went wrong?
When you post a 0.76 ERA during the final two and a half months of the season with those kind of underlying metrics, it’s hard to find much to nitpick. He did manage to only have five shutdowns to three meltdowns during his time as a Brave, but those meltdowns weren’t really on him. His game on July 26 in Boston, which was his first as a Brave, was probably the best example of this: Johnson came on in the seventh with a two-run lead, and his first batter faced as a Brave hit a soft liner over the mound and on a hop right to Ozzie Albies, who was standing on the second base bag for the easiest double play ever. But, Albies booted the ball, and two batters later, Justin Turner hit a routine fly ball... except that he hit it at Fenway Park, where it went for a two-run go-ahead double in a game the Braves ended up losing, instead of just a basic fly out.
He was also the guy that gave up a three-run homer to Kolten Wong, pinch-hitting for Mookie Betts, in that bizarre sequence against the Dodgers where they pulled Betts with a six-run deficit, but overall, there was little to complain about here.
His fastball gets hit really hard because it doesn’t have good “rise” despite its velocity, but he smartly doesn’t use it as his primary pitch, and it does just enough to set up his devastating breakers.
This was a tremendous trade for the Front Office that cost virtually nothing in prospect capital.
The Braves rewarded Johnson, a pending free agent, with a two-year, $14.25 million deal just days after the season ended. He figures to be featured prominently out of the bullpen once again alongside Raisel Iglesias, AJ Minter, Joe Jimenez, Reynaldo Lopez, Aaron Bummer, and others.
Since spending the 2019 season in Japan, Johnson has been a good-to-elite reliever, with a combined 83 ERA-, 80 FIP-, and 80 xFIP- in 155 2⁄3 innings. Though he’ll be 33 for most of the 2024 campaign, Steamer still projects him as a high quality, bordering on elite reliever. The main concern for him is going to be staying healthy, as he missed much of the 2022 season with elbow tendinitis. If he’s able to stay on the field, he’ll probably rack up decent reliever value, say half a win or more, for the Braves in 2024.