Let’s Revisit Some Overlooked Reliever Signings

Pierce Johnson
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022–23 offseason got off to a faster start than we’ve seen in years. For the first time in the (albeit short) history of the FanGraphs top 50 free agents list, our entire top ten was off the board by Christmas. In such a busy time, it was inevitable that certain transactions would fly under the radar. Few among us dwelled on Pierce Johnson’s deal with the Rockies after Carlos Correa (supposedly) came to terms with the Giants that same day, or Scott McGough’s deal with the Diamondbacks, which dropped mere hours before Carlos Rodón became a Yankee.

Two months ago, I doubt anyone was all that bothered FanGraphs overlooked those signings. But at the quietest point of the offseason, I want to give them their due.

Johnson signed a one-year, $5 million deal with Colorado; that’s a higher AAV than Jace Peterson or Wade Miley could command. Meanwhile, McGough inked a two-year, $6.25 million deal with Arizona, more guaranteed money than either Tommy Pham or Mike Zunino took home. Johnson will be one of the highest-paid pitchers in the Rockies’ bullpen. McGough is the only reliever the D-backs have under a guaranteed contract through 2024. Clubs don’t hand out that kind of money willy-nilly; each should play a sizable role in his team’s bullpen.

Johnson might have earned himself a multi-year contract this winter had he not spent most of the 2022 season on the injured list. He hit the IL in April with tendinitis in his throwing elbow, and there he sat until mid-September. When healthy, the right-hander has been an excellent middle reliever; since 2020, he’s tossed 93 innings for the Padres with a 3.19 FIP, good for 1.5 WAR.

The most noteworthy thing about Johnson is his pitch mix, which Ben Clemens wrote about two seasons ago. He throws a nasty curveball as his primary pitch, a four-seam fastball as his secondary pitch, and that’s it; that’s all. Over the past two years, he has used his curve at a higher rate than any other pitcher:

Highest Curveball% (2021-2022)
Pitcher IP (min. 10) Curveball%
Pierce Johnson 73.0 66.1%
Jimmie Sherfy 15.0 63.9%
Brandon Workman 28.0 50.9%
Eduard Bazardo 19.1 47.9%
Matt Barnes 94.1 47.6%
Keone Kela 10.2 46.3%
Alex Lange 99.0 45.1%
Zach Jackson 48.0 44.6%
via Pitch Info

You might have concerns as to how a curveball-heavy approach will play at Coors Field. The high altitude can stifle vertical drop, and curveballs tend to have more vertical movement than any other pitch. But Johnson’s curve has never relied on vertical movement; instead, it has a ton of horizontal break, which shouldn’t be as affected. That being said, he does allow a higher-than-usual number of fly balls on his curve because he often throws it high in the zone. Those fly balls have the potential do a lot more damage at Coors than they did at Petco Park, so he would be wise to locate further down this season. Alternatively, he could pepper in a few more four-seam fastballs, on which he has a lower-than-average fly ball rate.

Johnson was already throwing more fastballs last season than he did the year before. He was throwing curves at a ridiculous 72% rate in the first half of 2021, though that dropped to just under 63% in the second half and then fell a little more to 61.4% in 2022:

Johnson’s regular-season pitch mix has been relatively stable since the 2021 All-Star break, which suggests he’s found a mix he’s comfortable with. He took an exploratory risk with his elevated curveball usage, then whittled it down until he found the right balance.

That’s all well and good, except that things took another turn in the postseason, when Johnson went curve wild, throwing it 45 times out of 60 total pitches:

Johnson’s Playoff Pitch Mix
Series Curveballs Fastballs
NLWC 15 6
NLDS 20 4
NLCS 10 5
Total 45 15
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

This approach worked like gangbusters. Johnson faced 15 batters and retired 13 of them, punching out six and walking none. He struck out Brandon Nimmo, Mookie Betts, and J.T. Realmuto, to name a few. His curve induced 11 whiffs on 22 swings and an average exit velocity of just 84.5 mph.

Johnson and the Rockies coaching staff, then, have some decisions to make. More curveballs after the way he dominated with the pitch in the postseason? Or fewer curveballs to protect him from the dangers of Coors Field? I’m excited to see which they pick.

As for McGough, he last pitched in MLB eight years ago, spending the interim in the minors and in Japan. He’s no Paul Schreiber, who went 22 years between appearances in 1923 and ’45, but it’s still quite the feat to return after so much time away. When McGough last pitched in the majors, the Cubs were still cursed, Barack Obama was still president, and Meghan Markle was just an actor on Suits. A lot has changed.

Be that as it may, McGough seems to have timed his return perfectly, skipping over a handful of hitter-friendly seasons and coming back after the balance of power has shifted back in favor of pitchers. What’s more, after pitching in NPB, where extreme shifts are rare, he should be more prepared for the new rules than most of his fellow groundball pitchers. He shouldn’t have trouble with the pitch clock, either; he was quick to the plate in 2015, and especially so with runners on base:

Scott McGough’s Pitch Tempo
Pitcher Pitch Tempo (Bases Empty) Pitch Tempo (Runners On)
Scott McGough 16.4 18.4
Median (2015) 17.9 23.8
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

For a man who has only pitched in six big league games, McGough has quite the history. He was selected by the Dodgers in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, a few picks ahead of Betts; with 6.2 MLB innings to his name, he has more major league experience than all four players the Dodgers drafted ahead of him. A year after the draft, he was sent packing in the biggest deal of the 2012 trade deadline, when Los Angeles exchanged him and top prospect Nathan Eovaldi for Hanley Ramirez and veteran reliever Randy Choate.

Ramirez would help the Dodgers to their first of eight consecutive division titles the following season, leading the team’s position players with 4.9 WAR and finishing eighth in the NL MVP voting. McGough, meanwhile, performed well in his first two seasons with the Marlins organization, throwing 83.2 innings with a 2.90 ERA and 2.79 K/BB across three levels and moving from High-A to Triple-A in less than a year. But Tommy John surgery shut him down for the entire 2014 campaign, and he wasn’t nearly as sharp upon his return. He earned a call-up late in 2015 to help fill out a depleted pitching staff but failed to impress; though he pitched in only lower-leverage spots, he couldn’t miss bats and struggled with his control.

McGough spent the next three seasons in Double and Triple-A, bouncing between the Marlins, Orioles, and Rockies. Though he increased his strikeout rate and pared down the walks, he continued to allow far too many hits and home runs. Finally, in 2019, he left for Japan, suiting up for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. They helped him work on a splitter, which became a key weapon in his arsenal, and he showed improvement every season since:

McGough’s Career in NPB
Year ERA IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 HR/9
2019 3.15 68.2 8.4 2.9 2.91 0.3 9.3
2020 3.91 46.0 10.2 2.9 3.47 0.8 8.2
2021 2.52 64.1 10.6 3.2 3.30 1.0 6.0
2022 2.35 53.2 9.9 2.2 4.54 0.8 6.5
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen specifically mentioned McGough’s new splitter when discussing the signing in December. Amusingly enough, the last NPB pitcher that Hazen signed also threw a splitter as a major part of his arsenal: Yoshihisa Hirano. Indeed, Hirano and McGough have quite a bit in common. Hirano threw a four-seam fastball and featured a nasty splitter as his put-away pitch, just like McGough. Hirano signed for two years and $6 million at 34 years old; McGough signed for two years and $6.25 million at 33 years old. And Hirano proved a good addition, throwing 119.1 innings in Arizona with a 3.47 ERA and 3.85 FIP.

It’s difficult to predict how NPB skills will translate to MLB, but McGough’s numbers are promising. He ranked fifth in the Central League with 9.9 K/9, sixth with a 4.54 K/BB, and ninth with 6.5 H/9 (min. 40 IP). Those are better numbers and rankings than Hirano had in the year before he came overseas. On top of the stats, McGough was the closer for the 2021 Japan Series champions and 2022 Central League pennant winners. It’s clear the Swallows highly valued his talents. The Diamondbacks do, too.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgenstenmlb.

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Roman Ajzenmember
1 month ago

Johnson was fantastic in SD since coming over from NPB. As a Padres fan, it’s a shame we didn’t keep him. Given the effects of altitude and the anonymity of playing for the Rockies, he could well be a sleeper pickup at the deadline if the Rockies decide to act like a major league team this year. If not, the same dynamics will make him an intriguing FA next offseason.