Wes Johnson is rarely seen sitting down. He stands in the dugout during games, often fidgeting as he watches his pitchers perform, ready to act at the first sign of trouble.
Twins pitchers have learned that Johnson will not hesitate to step in when he sees something amiss.
Actually, they have learned that Johnson will step in when everything is going well, too.
“He likes coming up to you, and it always seems like he has a little nervous energy,” Twins righthander Kyle Gibson said. “And it’s always in the middle of a start, he’ll come up after every single inning and go, ‘Hey, you need anything? Can I get you anything?’ No, it’s the second inning.
“It’s just his personality. He’s just trying to serve people.”
And Johnson, 47, has served the Twins well in his first season as pitching coach. Eyebrows were raised when the Twins hired Johnson from the University of Arkansas because no pitching coach had made the jump from college to the majors. But Johnson was the progressive mind the Twins sought to reinvigorate their staff. And that is what has happened.
The Twins entered the All-Star break with the sixth-best ERA in baseball at 3.97. They also are fifth in fewest walks (255) and quality starts (42), sixth in on-base percentage allowed (.309) and ninth in opponents’ batting average (.246). The Twins are talking with teams about adding pitching before the July 31 trade deadline, but the staff has been effective and a big reason why they hold a 5½-game lead over the Indians in the American League Central.
“[Johnson has] had an incredible impact,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Both with the pitchers, the work he does with them, and also in our clubhouse as well. He’s a very unique guy in a lot of ways. He has tremendous knowledge. He has the ability to connect with people well. He’s got a great personality. He brings a lot to the table. And I think we are very happy to have him here.”
Johnson studies biomechanics and applies that knowledge daily. During one of his first talks with the staff during spring training, he mentioned that the body has about 600 muscles, of which half are needed to throw a baseball.
“There’s been a lot of debate on this, but you’re going to use anywhere from 200 to 300 muscles to throw a pitch,” Johnson said. “It’s been biomechanically proven.”
His point: Even the greatest pitchers in the history of the game can’t get 300 muscles in sync. Many pitchers have heard a variation of that before, but it was a reminder that there’s room for deviation while executing a pitch. They don’t have to chase perfection.
“Keeping a simple mind-set really helps out,” said Jake Odorizzi, who was named to the American League All-Star team but didn’t participate because of a blister on his finger that landed him on the injured list. “That’s what it really boils down to.”
Johnson uses every gadget on the market that helps pitchers improve their mechanics and quality of pitches. His package of technological savvy, biomechanical expertise and pitching acumen is adaptable. Some Twins pitchers, such as Gibson, Odorizzi and reliever Trevor May, are analytical and enjoy conferring with Johnson about their mechanics. Others, such as starter Michael Pineda and reliever Tyler Duffey, prefer being told what adjustments they need to make rather than being told why. Others, such as All-Star Jose Berrios, are in the middle.
“They are all into it,” Johnson said. “There’s just different ways of getting them the information.”
It can be debated if players make coaches look good or the other way around, but several Twins pitchers are enjoying fine seasons under Johnson. Martin Perez was on the free-agent market around the time of TwinsFest in January, when the club signed him for one year at $3.5 million with a $7.5 million option for 2020, then showed him some data on his pitches and mechanics. With a couple of tweaks and the addition of a cut fastball, Perez is 8-3 with a 4.26 ERA. His average fastball is a career-high 94.2 miles per hour.
Pineda, in his first season following Tommy John surgery, has had some uneven outings as he worked to regain his trusty slider. But he fell into a groove over the past month, posting a 2.83 ERA over his past five outings.
Odorizzi spent the offseason studying and revising his mechanics, then continuing that work with Johnson. The result? The best season of his career so far, with a 10-4 record and a 3.15 ERA.
Berrios made his second consecutive All-Star Game appearance Tuesday. Taylor Rogers has become one of the most reliable lefthanded relievers in the game. And the Twins have gotten contributions from minor league free-agent righthanders Ryne Harper, who throws a big curveball, and Mike Morin, a changeup specialist.
Some pitchers are still works in progress. May hit 98 mph with his fastball Sunday and entered the break feeling as good about his mechanics as he has all season. He’s been working with Johnson on using his hips more to take stress off his arm, as well as working on his fastball location. He said he’s been frustrated at times, but has stuck with the process and is beginning to see results.
When Johnson addressed the staff in spring training for the first time, May liked what he heard and has not been disappointed.
“He talked about how we’re going all in, making decisions based on data,” May said. “Pitch selection and sequencing and things like that. He said, ‘We’re going to give you all the information and we are going to work with you one on one. Each person, each individual.
“When he said, ‘We’re going to give you all the information and then work with you,’ I was all in. I was all in before, but that was a very straightforward statement. We have all this stuff, and you can have it if you want it.”
The biggest challenge Johnson has faced in his jump from college to the majors is the schedule, with a game nearly every day. His preparation hasn’t changed much, however, and Johnson has gotten results. The Twins are within range of their first division championship since 2010.
“It’s a lot of the same,” Johnson said. “Watching video, trying to get your guys better, trying to get anything you are seeing to help them get better. That really hasn’t changed a lot.
“Obviously, the players are better.”