Improved changeup could accelerate Johnson's path

Prospect fine-tuned the pitch following lat injury last year

February 3rd, 2016
Cubs prospect Pierce Johnson went 6-2 with a 2.08 ERA in 16 Minor League starts in 2015 after recovering from a lat injury. (AP)Morry Gash/AP

CHICAGO -- Pierce Johnson could have been accused of stalking Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester last spring. The way the Cubs' prospect saw it, he was simply taking advantage of the veteran pitchers in big league camp, and he'll likely be shadowing them again when they gather in Mesa, Ariz.
"I didn't want to be obnoxious in Spring Training," Johnson said about last year. "If I could be a fly on the wall around Arrieta, Lester and [Jason] Hammel and all the guys who had so much success, I took that opportunity."
Johnson is hoping all the information can help him take that next step to the Major Leagues. The 24-year-old right-hander will be in Cubs camp when pitchers and catchers convene for their first workout on Feb. 20 in Mesa.
"I asked Jake about his approach and different things," Johnson said. "I couldn't tell you how excited I was for how cool he was. He said, 'Hey, man, let's go watch video on you and we can talk about it.' Just the impression he made on me with that changed Spring Training for me and helped me a lot.
"All the success for [Arrieta] this year was awesome to see. You love seeing guys who work so hard and really approach the game the right way have success like that. He's a true testament of that. You work hard, and you have success."
Arrieta and Johnson discussed how to attack a hitter, and the latter said he applied Arrieta's advice during the season. However, he didn't adopt all of Arrieta's nuances and start eating kale with every meal or add pilates to his daily routine.
"What I took away from him and Lester was that whatever they did, they were focused and whatever the task at hand was, they conquered it," Johnson said. "That was something I implemented in my game and [it] helped me a lot."
The start of the 2015 season was a tough one for Johnson, the 43rd player taken in the 2012 Draft. The righty appeared in two Cactus League games last spring before sustaining a lat injury in March. The Cubs opted to take a cautious approach in his rehab. According to Johnson, being sidelined turned out to be "a blessing in disguise."
"They've always told me to work on my changeup," Johnson said. "I threw my changeup way more this year than any other time."
The injury gave Johnson extra time to fine-tune the pitch during his side sessions. When he finally joined Double-A Tennessee in June, he incorporated it into games.
"I was able to throw it for strikes, and that was huge," Johnson said. "I was throwing it to right-handed batters and left-handed hitters. Just having the confidence in that pitch made it that much better."
In the past, each time Johnson had gone to instructional league, the coaches said they wanted Johnson to develop the changeup. Coming out of Missouri State, he was a fastball-slider pitcher. Adding a third pitch -- and having confidence in it -- was what Johnson called a "game changer."

When Johnson finally got the go-ahead to return to the mound last year, he made 16 starts for Tennessee, posting a 6-2 record with a 2.08 ERA. He struck out 72 batters and walked 32 over 95 innings. To get more work in, he pitched in the Arizona Fall League and recorded seven starts. Johnson benefitted from the exposure of other organizations' pitchers and coaches.
"I've changed my mechanics a little to stay on line to the plate and I'm a little bit faster to the plate, which is something I wanted to work on," Johnson said of the lessons from the AFL. "Being able to get the input from other people molds you into the pitcher you want to become."
Which is why he paid attention to what Arrieta, Lester and Hammel did. The Cubs look at Johnson and Duane Underwood, 21, as the first wave of pitching prospects who could make an impact on the team as soon as 2017. Johnson is projected to open the 2016 season at Triple-A Iowa.

Since Johnson bonded so well with Arrieta, does that mean Cubs fans can expect the youngster to win 20-plus games this year?
"I sure hope so," Johnson said. "It was fun to watch the whole [Cubs] team last year, because I got to play with [Kyle] Schwarber and Kris Bryant and Addison [Russell]. All these guys are going up there and making huge names for themselves and contributing to the team.
"Honestly, I was a little jealous because I wanted to be up there as well. I couldn't be happier for those guys. They're good friends of mine, and it's cool to see really good, genuine people go out there and have success."