What pitching coach's departure means for Twins

Johnson held position with Minnesota since 2019

June 28th, 2022

CLEVELAND -- Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson will be leaving the organization for the same position at LSU following Thursday's game against the Guardians, concluding a stint of three-plus seasons in Minnesota. The news proved as stunning for the Twins' clubhouse as it was for the greater baseball world.

Johnson had approached a few of the pitchers with the news before it broke, but many players learned of his impending departure via Twitter or text messages from friends as the team plane took off from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Sunday night ahead of this five-game series in Cleveland. Upon landing, the Twins called a team meeting at the hotel, where Johnson officially broke the news to the group.

"I would say shock is the first [emotion] that probably everyone felt," president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. "Whether you either read the news first or heard it verbally first, your shock was, 'Is this really happening?' or something like that."

In the wake of the news, the Twins won Monday's opener, 11-1, at Progressive Field behind seven shutout innings from Sonny Gray and four RBIs by Gary Sánchez.

“If you know me at all, letting people in and getting into relationships in that respect, I put my guard up a lot,” Gray said. “Wes is someone who was in. I was mad at him a lot today. I was happy for him a lot today. I used every emotion and everything that I kind of was going through and kind of used it to pour it into the game. But overall, I’m happy for him if this is what he wants and this is something that is going to be best for him and his family moving forward.”

Johnson said that he'd never anticipated going back to college when he took the Twins' job in 2019, when he became the first pitching coach to ever jump directly from the collegiate game to the Majors after two years at Arkansas. But his desire to be more present for his family and the opportunity that presented itself at LSU, which he described as one of "maybe two or three places in the country [he] would go back to for college," played into his decision.

"I have priorities in my life, and I don't hide those," Johnson said. "I tell people my priorities. It's my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, one. It's my family, two. And it's baseball, three. I'm never going to get those out of whack. ... You don't ever hear anybody on their deathbed going, 'Man, I wish I'd have stuck it out to see if we'd won 101 [games] and not done what's right for my family.'"

Why now?
It all happened quickly, Johnson said. He believes he got the formal offer from LSU around Thursday, and he said he accepted the offer on Sunday. Falvey said he knew that the university had some interest in Johnson a year ago, but the pitching coach opted to forgo that opportunity. This time around, Falvey said he had awareness that LSU pursued Johnson "hard" in the 24-48 hours leading up to the decision.

It's tough on the Twins in that they're midway through their Major League season, but this is how the calendar of college baseball works, with the College World Series having just ended. Players have to enter the transfer portal by July 1, and the recruiting grind continues.

"The college game is different," Johnson said. "You need to get set. If you're going to do it, you've got to go do it. You can't have one toe in water and another one on dry land. You've just got to cannonball in. I don't know any other way to say it. Now's the time. … It's the toughest thing I've ever done."

On the other side of that is the fact that the Twins are in first place, looking to fight off the Guardians and White Sox in the division, eyeing their first playoff victory since 2004. Pitching will be a big part of what gets the club there.

But none of the players surveyed in the Twins’ clubhouse highlighted that as a factor, with several noting that turnover is a consistent consideration on baseball rosters. This loss involves a coach, not a player -- but it’s a different side of the same coin. They’ve had to adapt to losing teammates; they’ll find ways to step up after losing a coach.

"Every single year, teams are different, and every single year, trades happen," Carlos Correa said. "I guess we've got to see this as a midseason trade. We're getting a new pitching coach, and [Johnson] is going somewhere that he's getting paid very well and he's going to be deep for years. You've just got to be happy for him."

Where do the Twins go from here?
The club intends to announce its staffing plans later this week, but it's safe to assume the Twins will count on their existing group to step up in big ways, including bullpen coach Pete Maki, assistant pitching coach Luis Ramirez and run prevention coordinator Colby Suggs.

Falvey wouldn’t rule out the idea that the Twins might call upon another staff member from their organizational depth to augment their group, but noted that the plan is to focus on having members of their current group step up.

"We've spent a lot of the last 24 hours now, or less than 24 hours, navigating that," Falvey said. "But we want to be respectful to everyone in the room, talk to different people, different staff members. It does create some juggling, but our plan here is to work with the internal group that we have to step into Wes' role."

Though Johnson ran the Twins’ operation, several pitchers emphasized the group-oriented nature of how the Twins created and executed their plans, and the above staffers -- as well as vice president of baseball operations strategy and innovation Joshua Kalk -- will remain to continue the plan. None seemed concerned about the club’s ability to carry forward its pitching philosophy -- though it’ll likely take time for people to adjust to changed roles.

"Something that Wes has contributed to is setting up our pitching operation so it’s a fully functioning setup and machine," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "It becomes a situation where it’s not just about one person. It’s not just about one pitcher. It’s about everything that we do as a group together, and I think we have an exceptional group."

What did he mean to this team?
During Johnson's tenure from 2019-22, the Twins' pitching staff ranked 10th in MLB in WAR, per FanGraphs, and 14th in ERA. He helped to guide Kenta Maeda to a second-place finish in AL Cy Young Award voting during the shortened '20 season.

In the three seasons before Johnson arrived, the Twins' pitching staffs had finished 23rd in 2016, 24th in 2017 and 22nd in 2018 in the Majors in FanGraphs WAR. Minnesota pitching jumped to fourth in WAR in '19, and rose to third in '20 before falling back to 24th last season and 21st this year. The '19 pitching staff set a club record with 1,463 strikeouts.

"A lot of good has come since he's been [here]," Tyler Duffey said. "A lot of guys have gotten right, guys with other teams now are still producing. He came in and we didn't know what to expect and he's left a lot of great things here."

The Twins appreciated the mindset that Johnson brought out of the collegiate ranks, with his comprehensive knowledge of all things modern pitching, including data, biomechanics and psychology. But on a day-by-day basis, it’s likely that the relentless energy and enthusiasm that filled the Twins’ clubhouse with confidence and manic energy will be the most apparent difference -- and that left a strong mark on many within those walls who all expressed support for their departing coach.

“It'd be selfish of us to be upset,” Emilio Pagán said. “It's a great situation for his family. When you care about people, you want the best for them. I care about Wes Johnson, his family and want the best for him.”

“He's not going to be making that decision unless it's going to be putting his family first,” Joe Ryan said. “It shows the character, the guy he is, and that's what's important to him. And I totally get that. So we're all pretty happy for him.”

"He's the best pitching coach I've ever had," Chris Archer said. "Been playing for a long time. He has a way of getting you to believe in yourself even when times are tough.”