There’s no doubt that the Twins front office and manager Rocco Baldelli took a chance when they brought in Wes Johnson last season.
After making a name for himself at Arkansas as one of the smartest coaches in Division I baseball, Johnson became the first major league pitching coach to come straight from the college ranks.
The gamble has already paid off.
The Twins posted a 4.50 team ERA in 2018, which ranked ninth in the American League. Last season, their first with Johnson, the team ranked fifth at 4.18. And through the first two weeks of the 2020 season, the Twins entered Saturday ranking third at 2.99.
Johnson said this past week before the Twins’ series at Kansas City that coaching during the pandemic has gone as well as could be expected, and he gave Baldelli a lot of credit.
“It’s fine, it’s still baseball, still have to get three outs, still have to manage the pitching staff, still have to manage throwing, got to try to get guys better every single day,” Johnson said. “But having Roc’s leadership here and such a calm presence — I am pretty high energy and can get going, and he keeps me in line really well. I have learned so much from him. I owe Rocco a lot. Very happy I am here with him.”
The Twins front office went out and made a number of moves to bring some veteran leadership to the pitching staff. They added three new starters in Homer Bailey, Kenta Maeda and Rich Hill. Johnson said that group is making a huge difference.
“They have come in and brought a lot to our staff, not only just in their veteran presence on the mound but in their leadership off the field and in the clubhouse with our guys and trying to help give them tips,” Johnson said. “You know these guys have been around for a while and they’ve had some pretty good ideas on how to handle a short season. I think it has just been good to have them around and have their knowledge and wisdom.”
Dobnak makes his case
The biggest surprise so far has been the pitching of Randy Dobnak. The 25-year-old rookie righthander has a 0.60 ERA after three starts.
Still, Johnson said the club isn’t ready to say Dobnak, who also impressed the Twins when he was called up last year, is a full-time starter.
“I think Rocco and myself and [bench coach] Mike Bell, just our staff in general, we all sit down and we play matches quite a bit. So to say that Randy is a full-time starter, I don’t know if I can say that just yet,” Johnson said. “But Randy is throwing the ball exceptionally well. He has had three starts now and thrown a lot of strikes, controls the running game, he checks a lot of boxes when he is out on the mound. He just needs to keep getting better each start, and he has.
“If he does that, there won’t even be any questions about whether he’s in our rotation or not. He’ll force us to say that.”
Still stretching starters
The Twins haven’t yet had a single starter make it to the seventh inning. Johnson said the club hopes to see pitchers go deeper into games as the season goes along. The Twins will need starters to give relievers a rest during this fast season, but the starters still need to get stretched out, Johnson said.
“We still want our starters to be able to go deep. You look now and it’s still going to take them a little while. I mean we’re close to getting our starters where we want them to be from a length standpoint, but we’re still probably one to two outings away from that,” Johnson said. “That means that your bullpen takes on a lot, and it can stress them out.
“It’s still a 60-game season. … It’s easy to look at your bullpen and get real excited, but you still have to give them rest and the body just knows that we pitched yesterday, it doesn’t know that we’re in the middle of a 60-game season.”
‘The best guy in the game’
One reliever that Johnson has no questions about is closer Taylor Rogers, event though the lefthander suffered his first blown save of the season at Pittsburgh on Thursday.
Last season, Rogers posted 30 saves with a 2.61 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 69 innings.
Rogers gave up only one hit and no runs in his first four appearances this season, but the Pirates then touched him up for a single, a ground-ball double past third base and then a two-run single through a drawn-in infield. Johnson said that Rogers is the best closer in baseball, even with one bad game.
“Come on, in our mind, and I don’t think it’s too biased to think that he’s the best guy in the game in the ninth inning,” Johnson said. “We have extreme confidence in Taylor and his ability and what he can do in the ninth inning. There’s times I wonder if his heart is even beating out there. He just looks like he’s playing catch in the backyard.
“Extremely confident in him. We think we’ve got if not the best then one of the best guys in professional baseball closing games in the ninth inning for us.”
• Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said he is not a patient man, but he knows he is going to have to be patient this season: “Just like the players. When they get a guy hurt they understand it’s part of the game and we all understand that if a guy misses two weeks because of COVID then somebody has to come in. And, again, they’re not going to cancel games. So we have to go out and figure out how to win them.”
• BetOnline has the Twins’ World Series odds at 10-1, which ranks third behind the Yankees (9-2) and Dodgers (5-1). Baseball Reference calculated the Twins’ playoff odds at 99.9% this past week.
• Lance Lynn continues to be one of the best pitchers in baseball with the Rangers. The former Twins pitcher leads the AL with a 0.49 ERA over 18⅓ innings. He has 24 strikeouts and has given up nine hits and only one earned run.
• Former Apple Valley standout Gary Trent Jr. is playing great in the NBA bubble for the Portland Trail Blazers. Through five games, he has averaged 20.6 points per game while shooting 62% from three-point range (29-for-45).
• Former Timberwolves All-Star point guard Sam Cassell is an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Clippers. Cassell got his coaching start under Flip Saunders with the Wizards in 2009.
• Ryan Wittman, the Eden Prairie grad and son of former Wolves coach Randy Wittman, recently became a vice president for G2 Capital Advisors in Boston. Ryan held the Cornell all-time scoring record until 2019, when he was passed by Matt Morgan. Randy Wittman played a huge role in getting Bob Knight to return to Assembly Hall at the University of Indiana in February, Knight’s first visit to the basketball arena in 20 years.
• Teddy Bridgewater has been getting a lot of praise as the new Carolina Panthers quarterback. The ex-Vikings star is scheduled to face his old team at U.S. Bank Stadium on Nov. 29.