NATIONAL HARBOR, MD. – Sean Johnson is in the spotlight. The Twins’ new director of scouting is on the clock because the club holds the first overall pick in the June first-year player draft.
But there’s another reason to notice Johnson, and the Twins. Johnson, a black man, is replacing Deron Johnson, who was the only black scouting director in baseball. This comes at a time in which Major League Baseball is pushing clubs to hire more minorities in decision-making roles. Commissioner Rob Manfred, during owner’s meetings in November in Chicago, again implored them to embrace the cause.
Sean Johnson, a former catcher at Wichita State who once dreamed of being a college coach, understands the significance of his appointment.
“Absolutely,” Johnson said. “I know the responsibility that comes with that. We talk about it all the time. It’s an honor to be a face that could maybe encourage people to do some things maybe they thought they couldn’t do before.”
Johnson was an area scout with the Marlins in 2001 when he was part of a purge after the club was purchased by John Henry. He hooked on with the Twins, who needed a scout in March — not the best time to need to fill a position — when Lee MacPhail IV left to join Montreal. He was promoted to West Coast supervisor in 2008, and his skills continued to develop.
“He’s always been an out-of-the-box thinker,” said Deron Johnson, who is being promoted to senior adviser of the scouting department. “We have mostly old-school scouts, mostly older guys. He’s innovative. He always had good ideas. He’s brought ideas to the draft room during his time as West Coast supervisor, and we have used some of his ideas.”
Sean Johnson, 41, also believes in a blend of traditional scouting methods and modern statistical analysis to help paint a fuller picture of prospects. And that scratches right where new Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey itches.
“We haven’t used [analytics] a ton,” Sean Johnson said. “We are just getting into that. In my mind, we’re going to incorporate it more into our process. The more data you can have that’s applicable to your decisionmaking helps you make better decisions. That’s a big thing on my list of things to do.”
Other teams have noticed Johnson, too. He interviewed three times for scouting director positions with other teams in recent years, twice with Arizona and once with San Diego. He was where MLB wants more minorities to be — in position to land bigger roles.
The league had hired search firm Korn Ferry to help with minority recruiting. While Korn Ferry has a track record of finding such candidates in other sports, it has been much tougher for them in baseball. The recent run of executive hires — including the Twins’ hiring of Falvey and Thad Levine as general manager — has not included a minority.
In fact, no minority GM has been hired since Arizona named Dave Stewart in September 2014. He was fired shortly after last season, along with senior vice president of baseball operations Dejon Watson. Watson, who is also black, interviewed with the Twins for the GM job before Levine was hired. MLB, with only three minority GMs in the league, ended its arrangement with Korn Ferry last month.
MLB keeps tabs on prospects such as Johnson, said Tyrone Brooks, senior director of the league’s front office and field staff diversity pipeline program, a program the league intends to develop further.
“Sean is a great example of the Twins, during the time he’s been with that organization, developing him,” Brooks said. “I can’t comment on why they felt they needed to make a change, but obviously they felt he was ready for this opportunity.”
Johnson will get to display his scouting acumen right off the bat next June when he announces the first pick of the 2017 draft.
“Sean is someone who, when you talk to guys in player development, has all the things we were looking for in a scouting director,” Falvey said. “He fit the profile. When we had the chance to meet him and talk about plans for the department and what our vision was for how we would operate in amateur scouting, everything aligned. It was a relatively easy decision for us.”