The Rockies will no longer use right-hander Pierce Johnson as the closer, manager Bud Black told the team’s beat (relayed by Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post). Black didn’t declare a definitive replacement but pointed to Justin Lawrence and Jake Bird as candidates to step into the role.
Johnson signed a one-year, $5MM free agent deal with his hometown club last offseason. It was a roll of the dice from the Colorado front office considering he’d been limited by injury to 14 1/3 innings during his final season as a Padre. Johnson has been healthy in 2023 but hasn’t performed at the level the organization had envisioned.
Over 24 innings, the veteran hurler has been tagged for a 7.50 ERA. He hasn’t had any trouble missing bats, as he’s punching out 27.7% of opponents while picking up swinging strikes at a solid 11.9% clip. Yet his control has been far too inconsistent. Johnson has walked over 14% of batters faced. He’s also surrendered plenty of loud contact, and while it’s unlikely that nearly 40% of balls in play will continue to fall for hits, the combination of free passes and barrels has led to disappointing results.
Johnson’s raw save rate (11 of 13) isn’t bad. Each of his blown saves have come in his last two opportunities, though. A three-run ninth inning to turn a 4-3 lead into a 6-4 loss to the Giants yesterday will lead the club in another direction. Johnson could still play an important role in the Colorado bullpen, but it’ll come in middle to late innings work for the moment.
Lawrence and Bird have each performed much better through the season’s first couple months. The former carries a 3.41 ERA across 34 1/3 innings. A lower-slot righty, Lawrence presents a particularly tough look for same-handed hitters. He’s striking out almost 27% of opponents and generating grounders on over half the batted balls he allows. Lawrence has had scattershot control in years past, but this season’s 9.4% walk rate is tolerable.
Bird, 27, leads Colorado relievers with 41 1/3 innings pitched. He’s sitting on a 3.05 ERA and, like Lawrence, is keeping the ball on the ground at a high level. While a modest 9% swinging strike rate might make it hard for him to continue punching out a quarter of opposing hitters, that shouldn’t be an issue so long as he’s picking up grounders at a near-57% clip.