Odd. Surreal. Weird. Confusing.
Those were the terms used by members of the Twins’ traveling party Sunday evening to describe the 90-minute flight to Cleveland, when word leaked out that highly regarded pitching coach Wes Johnson accepted a significant raise to become the new pitching coach at Louisiana State University, multiple sources confirmed to The Athletic.
Johnson was sitting at his customary seat at the coaches’ card table for what should have been a happy flight after the Twins closed out a series victory Sunday. News of his move broke shortly before takeoff to Cleveland, where the first-place Twins open a crucial four-day, five-game series against the second-place Guardians on Monday.
Though Johnson will remain with the Twins through the conclusion of their series against Cleveland, he will leave the team for the SEC school following Thursday’s game.
“Further announcements will come later this week,” the Twins said in a statement released Sunday night.
Many on board the flight were still unaware of the news when the team landed in Cleveland at 8:30 p.m. ET. Shortly after arriving at their downtown hotel, the Twins held a mandatory meeting in the ballroom.
Wes Johnson is on the charter to Cleveland. #MNTwins found out yesterday about the talks with LSU. Doesn’t sound like it’s known what his status is for the rest of the season.
— DanHayesMLB (@DanHayesMLB) June 26, 2022
Johnson reportedly received an annual salary around $350,000 from the Twins when he left the University of Arkansas for MLB in November 2018. He will now be paid $750,000 per year by LSUsources confirmed.
In any context, an MLB pitching coach leaving for a college job is surprising, but what makes this truly shocking is that Johnson is leaving a first-place Twins team, in the middle of the season, and getting a massive raise to do so.
In this case, at least, the SEC trumps the AL Central, which has the potential to send shockwaves through MLB if other big-time college programs attempt to lure major-league coaches in a similar manner, more than doubling what is a fairly typical salary in the big leagues.
Johnson made no request to the Twins for a raise in salary, according to sources. LSU was very aggressive in the negotiating process and Johnson moved forward even after the Twins asked what they could do to potentially make staying more appealing.
When the Twins hired Johnson in 2018, he became the first coach in four decades to go from college straight to an MLB club. To reverse course and head back to the college ranks for an assistant role is similarly unprecedented, especially given the timing and lack of warning.
Twins officials were fond of saying “In Wes We Trust” regarding his recommendations for reclamation projects and minor-league signings, believing in his ability to tap into unseen value with mechanical and pitch mix changes. And manager Rocco Baldelli made no secret about the outsized role Johnson played relative to some other MLB pitching coaches, often deferring to Johnson on day-to-day pitching questions, not unlike an offensive-minded football coach handing the keys to the defense over to a defensive coordinator.
“I don’t try to play pitching coach,” Baldelli said earlier this month. “I do let Wes take control and set up a plan for each one of our guys. You’re always going to have times where guys are not throwing the ball the way they want to, even your trusted guys. That’s going to happen. You kind of get back down to the plan of what you’re trying to accomplish when you get out there on the mound. Beyond the plan, are we executing the plan? Are we throwing the pitches that we want to throw, the way we want to throw them? Or not? Wes is really good about that. He’s done that many times over for us.”
Bullpen coach Pete Maki is expected to take over the lead pitching coach role from Johnson, but Twins officials have stressed that truly replacing Johnson will be a group effort involving multiple internal staff members. As of Sunday night, the team was still working through all of its staffing options.
Maki joined the Twins in 2017 after serving as the pitching coach at Duke University. He was initially hired as minor-league pitching coordinator but was promoted to the major-league staff in 2021, replacing Bob McClure.
In three-plus seasons with Johnson as pitching coach, the Twins ranked No. 7 among AL teams in ERA, including No. 6 so far this season. That’s a significant improvement compared to the four seasons prior to Johnson’s arrival, when the Twins ranked No. 13 in ERA. They won two division titles in Johnson’s first three seasons, and are in a solid position to make another division title run this year.
Johnson will join Jay Johnson’s staff at LSU, replacing pitching coach Jason Kelly, who was hired as head coach at the University of Washington last week. LSU’s last College World Series appearance came in 2017 and it won its last national title in 2009.
Unaware of the shocking news that was coming 24 hours later, Twins right-hander Chris Archer praised Johnson after throwing five shutout innings Saturday against the Rockiessaying Johnson’s coaching and support have played a huge role in his improved health and return to effectiveness after several years wrecked by career-threatening injuries.
“I think Wes is one of my biggest advocates,” Archer said. “We do a lot of work, mental and physical, in between starts. We start talking a few days in advance, we put together a plan and we execute. He’s just really happy for me. Right there at the end (of Saturday’s start) we were just kind of reflecting on the week and outing. Just really taking that start in.”
(Photo of Wes Johnson in 2019: Jim Mone / Associated Press)