FORT MYERS, FLA. – Twins pitcher Stephen Gonsalves had a bullpen session in early January in Poway, Calif., in the backyard of local pitching guru Dom Johnson.
On this particular day, there was a special guest. Wes Johnson, the Twins’ new pitching coach, was in town to meet Gonsalves and check out his throwing session.
As Johnson arrived, Gonsalves walked over to greet his new boss.
“I went in to shake his hand and, sure enough, he grabs my hand, pulls me in tight, picks me up, and twirls me around,” Gonsalves said. “He’s a ball of energy.”
Gonsalves is listed at 6-5. Johnson, 47, claims he is 5-7 — but he might have to stand on a Twins yearbook to get there.
“I like to have fun,” Johnson said. “That’s why I do this, right? But I can’t bear hug you, man. I might get in trouble.
“I might head butt ya.”
Johnson is just getting to know his new team, but already he is keeping things lively. He has given nearly everyone around him a nickname. Taylor Rogers is “Olympian” because he lives near Colorado Springs, home of the Olympic Training Center. Adalberto Mejia is “The Big Puma.” And Kyle Gibson, after losing nearly 20 pounds after battling E. coli during the offseason, is “Lifejacket.”
“I’m worried that he’s so light now that a strong breeze will blow him into the ocean,” Johnson said before turning to Gibson to ask, “Can you swim?”
“Oh yeah,” Gibson said. “It’s probably easier now since I’m lighter.”
While Johnson’s style is deliberately lighthearted, it’s Johnson’s unique background that landed him with the Twins — despite never working in Major League Baseball.
He studies biomechanics. He uses analytics. He is into the gadgets teams invest in to help train pitchers. He earned a reputation in college as a velocity expert, someone who can help pitchers throw harder — although he says it’s difficult to do once a pitcher is no longer in his teens.
During his college coaching career — he had stints at Southern Arkansas, Central Arkansas, Dallas Baptist, Mississippi State and Arkansas — 30 of his pitchers were selected in the MLB draft. That includes five in 2015 from Dallas Baptist, where Johnson earned a masters in kinesiology, and six in 2016 out of Mississippi State.
The Twins were interested in him after 2017 but felt Garvin Alston would be a better fit with manager Paul Molitor. After the Twins went 78-84 last year, both Molitor and Alston were let go. Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine, building a history of hires from divergent backgrounds, went after Johnson again and landed him.
He is the first pitching coach to move directly from college to the majors and is believed to be the first coach or manager to leave college for the majors since Dick Howser left Florida State to manage the Yankees in 1980.
In a Twins season stuffed with story lines, Johnson’s hiring could be the most fascinating.
“I just put my head down and grind every day,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to wake up every day and go to work, and people are going to talk and say and do things, and the first time we have a bad outing … I know what’s going to happen.”
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Falvey can’t remember the exact year. Neither can Johnson. Both said it was around 2012.
Falvey, then working his way up the Indians organization, was in search of knowledge. Major league officials are often too secretive to talk shop, so Falvey went to Houston to attend the Texas Baseball Ranch, an annual pitching symposium. There, along with current Astros pitching coach Brent Strom and a bunch of college and high school coaches, was Johnson.
Johnson spoke of the TrackMan radar system, which provides information on pitch velocity, spin rate and angle. He was using it at Dallas Baptist. How could such a small school invest in such a system? It didn’t. Johnson admitted that one of his players purchased it for the team.
“He was talking about using TrackMan information really before most of the pro teams were,” Falvey said. “The key to it was not just grab data but try to understand a guy’s pitch mix a little better, understand what he could do a little differently, then use it to help him coach.
“What really stood out was his energy, his passion for it. His curiosity. The ability to go learn.”
After the presentation, Falvey and Johnson met for the first time, not knowing their paths would cross years later.
“Derek asked a couple questions,” Johnson said of their meeting. “It was kind of cool.”
Johnson said his interest in analytics goes back to 2006 when he was a high school coach in Arkansas. He later studied biomechanics and became comfortable applying that around 2011, when he was at Central Arkansas. He studied the TrackMan system at Dallas Baptist. Long before that, he had his pitchers working out with weighted baseballs. A younger pitcher might be able to find an extra mile per hour or two while using them in drills, but he feels it really helps older pitchers recover better.
By 2015, Johnson felt he was able take all the information and create specialized programs for each pitcher to help him maximize performance. That’s what he plans to implement with the Twins.
Gonsalves was immediately attracted to Johnson because of his reputation for helping pitchers gain velocity. Gonsalves’ fastball averaged 89.9 mph last season, according to Fangraphs, so he has spent the past couple of seasons throwing fewer of them while working on his other pitches.
If Johnson can help him, he’s all ears.
“I love it,” Gonsalves said. “Everyone is throwing harder now. I think what I have is pitchability and intelligence of the game, throwing changeups and stuff. If he can find me a couple miles on my heater, too, it will be more of a weapon.”
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Needless to say, college baseball seems to be rooting for Johnson. Moves from college to MLB rarely happen. Derek Johnson was the pitching coach at Vanderbilt when he was hired by the Cubs as minor league pitching coordinator before the 2013 season. He became the Brewers pitching coach in 2016 and will be the Reds pitching coach this year.
Before Wes Johnson, that was the best jump for a college pitching coach.
Arkansas lost to Oregon State in the College World Series finals, which turned out to be Wes Johnson’s final games with the Razorbacks. Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said he enjoyed their two seasons together and Johnson will be missed, but how can he turn down a major league job?
“I know it is kind of unprecedented,” Van Horn said. “It’s kind of a different thing. A college coach coming right to the big leagues. But I think you might start seeing more of it in the future, and you might see some head coaches moving into spots in organizations as field coaches.”
Tony Vitello, Tennessee’s coach, was on the same staff with Johnson at Arkansas. Vitello said Johnson should have little trouble adjusting to the major leagues because he can relate to players without being hard-nosed, a good blend for coaches of this era. And Johnson does it his way, without swearing. Which, Vitello said, is more entertaining.
“He will come up with all kinds of words to get his point across,” Vitello said.
When asked for an example, Johnson pretended to be mad at the questioner.
“What in the wide world of sports is wrong with you!” he shouted. “That’s my go-to.”
Even if Johnson, who was born in Atlanta but grew up in Sherwood, Ark., wasn’t coming from college, he seems to scratch where the Twins itch. Members of the organization grumbled last season when Ryan Pressly thrived after being dealt from the Twins to Houston on July 27. Pressly said it was because the Astros suggested that he throw his spiking curveball more.
That was exactly the information the Twins research department was trying to get to Pressly. The Twins are starting over in 2019 with Johnson, who will have no problem passing that information along. Jeremy Hefner, the Twins major league advance scout last season, is the assistant pitching coach this season. The structure is set up for a smooth flow of information from the keyboard to the mound.
Can Johnson be a trailblazer for college coaches behind him and show it doesn’t matter where a coach comes from if he is analytically savvy? Maybe. He prefers to focus strictly on results and on using his biomechanics and analytical expertise to develop Twins pitchers.
He is also wondering if he can get away with bringing a stepstool to the mound so he can see eye-to-eye with 6-7 Michael Pineda.
“Derek and Thad have hired me to do a job, no matter where I’m from,” Johnson said. “They believe in me, and I believe in them. I believe in the guys we have in that clubhouse, and my job is to wake up every morning and make them better. And we are going to do that.”