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The Padres’ season depends on Pierce Johnson

And the rest of the bullpen. And the offense. And Fernando Tatís Jr. mostly. But hey, Johnson might throw important innings!

San Francisco Giants v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

At the time of writing, it’s not certain that Mike Clevinger will be ready for the NLDS, and if he is, the Padres probably won’t be able to use him twice as is the usual workload for aces in five-game rounds. San Diego will also be without Dinelson Lamet which is an even bigger blow as Lamet put up vastly superior numbers to the Padres’ marquee deadline acquisition.

What this means is that San Diego will need to go deeper into their bullpen. The back of the bullpen was already going to be more of a factor considering there are no off-days, and losing the number one starter exacerbates the issue.

Fortunately, San Diego has more than just Drew Pomeranz and Trevor Rosenthal for the high leverage spots. Adrian Morejón has gotten a lot of deserved attention, but Pierce Johnson has often gone overlooked.

Originally drafted by the Cubs, Johnson got most of his big league experience prior to 2020 with a half-season stint in San Francisco in 2018. The results weren’t pretty. Johnson threw 43 23 innings to a 4.51 FIP, striking out just 36 while walking 22 and surrendering five homers. Along the way, Johnson flashed a curveball with 97th percentile spin, but never got those results to translate.

Johnson signed with the Hanshin Tigers of the NPB for 2019 and dominated in relief. In 58 23 innings, Johnson struck out 91 batters and walked just 13. That was a strong enough performance to turn that into a two-year $5 million contract with the Padres and though his numbers are less gaudy, they’re still impressive.

Including three appearances in the postseason thus far, Johnson as a Padre has thrown 22 13 innings, struck out 32, walked 10, and given up just two homers. In the regular season, Johnson managed a 3.14 FIP and a 2.70 ERA.

The promise of Johnson was always how much spin he could impart on the ball. When he was right, it was easy to see how he could work out. Like so many others, he simply had trouble throwing strikes and part of that was his reliance on the cutter. Johnson kept his cutter to the glove-side part of the plate but so often missed outside with it.

Now, in some ways, Johnson’s cutter was his best pitch. It induced more swings and misses than his four-seamer or his curveball, and it didn’t get hit as hard as his fastball. The pitch, though, didn’t play to his strengths so when Johnson reworked his repertoire, he cut the pitch out entirely.

He also replaced the four-seamer with a sinker, but the biggest change in approach was how often he used that high-spin curve of his. In 2018, Johnson threw the fastball roughly half the time with an even mix of curves and cutters. In 2020, he moved to a more of a 50/50 split of curves and sinkers with preference to the curve. The whiff rate on the bender nearly doubled (from 25.8 percent to 48.1) and when hitters have made contact, it’s been soft.

A change in repertoire is one way to get ahead, but Johnson didn’t stop there. He also added roughly 3 MPH to his fastball and curve both by shortening his arm action and keeping his back leg bent.

Again, San Diego needs to squeeze every clean inning they can out of the staff if the Padres are to beat the Dodgers. Johnson likely won’t be closing out games, but games can also be lost in the middle innings. With how important pitching depth will be in this series and beyond, having another dependable arm that can take the ball is a huge plus.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.