You can never have enough pitching and the Atlanta Braves know that well enough. As we approached the 2023 trade deadline, Atlanta was looking to give themselves more bullpen depth to load up for the postseason.
One of the first trades made was for reliever Pierce Johnson from the Colorado Rockies. He was acquired in exchange for Victor Vodnik and Tanner Gordon.
Johnson had been having a hard time in Colorado as his ERA was sitting at 6.00 through 43 appearances. He was struggling much more pitching at Coors than he was on the road so the Braves used that knowledge believing Johnson would perform much more favorably with Atlanta.
His first appearance in a Braves uniform wasn't the best as he allowed an unearned run on one hit in 0.2 innings. However, Pierce became a vital piece of the Atlanta bullpen in a set-up role featuring a mid-90s fastball and devastating curveball.
The Colorado native completely turned around his season once he landed with Atlanta on July 26. Johnson appeared in 24 games for the Braves with 5 walks and 32 strikeouts through 23.2 innings. That was good for a 0.76 ERA, 2.83 FIP, and a .191 opponent's average.
He even pitched 3 scoreless innings in the 2023 NLDS and improved his career postseason ERA to 1.64 with 17 strikeouts through 11 games.
Johnson finished the regular season with a strikeout percentage of 32.5% which was in the top 4% of the league among relievers. His walk percentage was 10.8% and was the lowest of his career so far.
If you look at his page on Baseball Savant, you'll see Johnson also excelled in average fastball velocity (95.9 mph), chase percentage (33.3%), and whiff percentage (33.1%).
If there was one knock against Pierce in 2023 it was his hard-hit percentage of 47.1% which was in the bottom 4% of the league. However, a good bit of that damage came from pitching at Coors Field. That will likely be an area the Braves will look to help Johnson improve upon in 2024.
Pierce's performance for the Braves earned him a 2-year, $14.25 million contract extension for 2024. He was the first move of the offseason for Atlanta. Johnson will make $7 million each of the next two seasons. The deal also includes a club option worth $7 million in 2026 with a $250,000 buyout.
A lot of fans were skeptical of the decision to bring Pierce to Atlanta at first and rightfully so. His numbers weren't encouraging. However, he ended up being one of the best decisions Atlanta made at the deadline.
He is going to be a very important cog in the Braves bullpen for the next two seasons and seems to be a perfect fit within the clubhouse. Hopefully, 2024 will mirror the success he found in the second half of 2023.