Pierce Johnson Living Dream as Trusted Reliever with His Hometown Rockies

Pierce Johnson of the Colorado Rockies throwing a pitch.
(Photo by Kyle Cooper/Colorado Rockies/Getty Images)

Pierce Johnson: A Trusted Reliever with His Hometown Rockies

PHOENIX, May 31 — Making the majors is the fulfillment of a life-long dream. It becomes even more special when someone gets to play for the team he grew up watching and rooting for. Colorado Rockies reliever Pierce Johnson — a Denver native — is one of those players, but his story goes a bit further. His dad, Don Johnson, was Vice President of Marketing for the San Diego Padres from 1992 to 1998. Pierce was born in Denver in 1991 but moved to San Diego with his family when he was six months old. They lived there for eight and a half years before moving back to Denver. Consequently, he grew up rooting for two teams, the Padres and Rockies. In November of 2019, he signed with one of those two teams, the Padres. And in December of 2022, he signed with the other.

“Check that off the bucket list,” Johnson smiled. “I grew up watching Todd Helton, Larry Walker, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jeff Francis — big name guys that I got to watch all the time. Going to games there….” Johnson paused before continuing, “You can’t even put it into words. It’s just something that — you get the love for the game and certain places. I was fortunate enough to live in San Diego and go to Padre games and in Colorado and go to Rockies games. And now I’ve got to play for my two favorite teams.”

Pierce Johnson on the Field

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The Rockies certainly are glad to have him. Manager Bud Black had to manage against Johnson during the latter’s tenure with the Padres and the San Francisco Giants, where he pitched in 2018. Black said Johnson’s “stuff” has always stood out to him. “I liked the fastball, and I liked the breaking ball. Those are two real pitches — velocity on the fastball and a really sharp breaking ball.” Now that he knows Johnson and deals with him on an everyday basis, he has come to like his personality and attitude. “I like the head on his shoulders. The calmness, the poise. I like the competitor. There’s a strong aptitude and intelligence. You combine all that, you’ve got a really good major league pitcher.”

Brent Suter, who is also new to the Rockies in 2023, says that Johnson is “crazy clutch.” Suter certainly knows what he’s talking about. While Johnson’s overall ERA is 6.23, based on 15 earned runs in 21 2/3 innings, he is 11-for-11 in save opportunities. In save scenarios, Johnson has allowed two earned runs in 10 2/3 innings for a 1.69 ERA, holding opponents scoreless in nine of the eleven appearances (81.8%). Furthermore, Johnson’s overall WHIP of 1.800 (39 baserunners) drops to 1.125 in save situations, having allowed 12 baserunners in those scenarios.

What makes Johnson so tough in save scenarios is not only his poise but his “stuff.” Suter said Johnson does “unreal things when we need him most. He’s got a nasty curveball. Really good high fastball, low curveball tunnel. He really knows himself well, knows how to get back in his delivery. He’s been great for us.”

Coming to Denver

Johnson came to Colorado aided partly by the recruiting of relievers Daniel Bard, who was one of the top closers in baseball in 2022, and Tyler Kinley, who held opponents scoreless in 23 of 25 relief appearances in 2022 (92%) before suffering a season-ending elbow injury in early June. He also loved being able to, as mentioned earlier, pitch at home. “I get to see my family and sleep in my own bed,” he said. “My kids get to be at home more often. I don’t have to uproot them.”

From a competitive standpoint, Johnson likes the talent the Rockies have. “I’ve played against this team. It’s always been a good team. Always been a tough task for me to pitch against them. We have some really good talent here, and I’m having an absolute blast. I was excited the second they called, and I’m still excited to this day.”

This was exactly what he needed after the way 2022 went for him. He made six appearances for the Padres in April, holding opponents scoreless in five of them. “I had one rough outing in Atlanta,” he said, “and then I got hurt.”

Right elbow tendinitis shelved him from late April to early September. Being on the injured list is something he described as “a dark place.” He explained further, “You’re part of the team, but you’re not. Not contributing, not in the day-to-day stuff. You’re not in the grind (or) in the battle with the team. So you have to look at baseball from a different perspective. It fuels the fire for the rehab process. But I think I grew as a player. I saw some things in myself that I could change mechanically, and even mentally, in the way I approach the game.”

Working Toward His Return

Johnson worked in depth with Padres pitching coach Ruben Niebla and bullpen coach Ben Fritz, people he called “phenomenal.” They changed his mechanics a bit to where he wasn’t too deep in his back leg and more upright. In addition, they got him to use his rotation, which Johnson says is his strength. “Everything translated really well,” Johnson said.

When Johnson returned to the Padres September 10, he was on a roll, rattling off six straight scoreless appearances. But the last three outings of the year, all at home, did not go so well. Three runs in 2/3 of an inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers, getting tagged with the loss. One run on two hits and a walk in 2/3 of an inning against the Chicago White Sox. Another run in an inning against the San Francisco Giants.

However, Johnson ended the season on a high note. He made three postseason appearances in the Padres’ run to the NLCS. In all three, he put up a zero. “It was so nice to get out there and compete with the team again,” he said. “Those are the most meaningful innings I threw — the playoffs. They weren’t necessarily high-leverage or games that we were winning, but I kept our team in the game and threw well. That was definitely something that I’ll never forget.”

Pierce Johnson the Teammate

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Johnson is described by Suter as “awesome.” He is a beloved teammate, according to both Suter and Bard. “He’s such good fun,” Suter said. “Energy every day. He’s relaxed but still brings light energy. Tells us all kinds of funny jokes every day.” Bard also mentioned the jokes, specifically saying he has a bunch of “dad jokes.” Suter added that he’s a “super-good family man” and has a “great background about him.” In addition, with him being a Denver native, he helped the new guys on the team get familiar with the area, according to Suter.

Bard’s relationship with Johnson dates back to 2015. Bard was rehabbing and trying to get back to the big leagues. Johnson was trying to work his way up to the majors. Their paths crossed on the Tennessee Smokies, Double-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. “We spent a couple of months together that summer, in ’15, and never knew we would play together again,” Bard said. “My career basically came to an end. Then I reconnected with him when he was in San Diego last year, catching up every time we saw each other on the field. I was super excited when we signed him, mostly because I knew the quality of person we were getting.”

In Good Hands

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Bard had to step away from the team during spring training due to anxiety, spending time on the injured list to recover. When that happened, Black brought together a group of Rockies relievers and told them he was going to “roll with” them. This group included, among others, Johnson and left-hander Brad Hand, a three-time All-Star with 131 career saves. “We’re just holding it down until Bard is completely back,” Johnson humbly said.

Knowing that Johnson was in the mix for late innings has helped Bard focus on recovery. “I knew how good his stuff is,” Bard said. “And he’s pitched in this division before. It was a matter of time before he ended up in a late-inning role. He got thrust into it right before the season started, and he handled it great. He’s locked down a bunch of saves for us. I’m happy for him.”

The Future for Pierce Johnson

Johnson’s teammates love him. The management trusts him. He’s “having an absolute blast.” And this is all happening in Colorado, a hitter’s paradise but a pitcher’s nightmare. To an outsider, it may not make sense. Some might think it’s crazy. Johnson says otherwise. “I don’t think it’s crazy at all,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s home for me.”

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Evan M. Thompson, Editor-in-chief

Evan M. Thompson, Editor-in-chief

Evan is the owner and sole contributor of Thompson Talks, a website discussing the Big Four North American Pro Sports as well as soccer. He also is a credentialed member of the Colorado Rockies press corps. His first and biggest love is baseball.

Evan lives in Gilbert, Arizona and loves history, especially of sports. He is the treasurer for the Hemond Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and also is a USSF and AIA soccer referee. He released his first book, Volume I of A Complete History of the Major League Baseball Playoffs, in October of 2021.

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