Wes Johnson boarded the Twins' charter flight to Cleveland on Sunday after the team's 6-3 victory over Colorado. It's likely his last flight with his Twins' pitching staff.
Johnson, the only pitching coach Rocco Baldelli has ever worked with as manager, has accepted a similar job guiding the pitching staff at college power Louisiana State, the Twins confirmed Sunday evening after the team arrived in Ohio. The 50-year-old Arkansas native will remain with the Twins during their five-games-in-four-days showdown with the second-place Guardians this week, then leave to begin his new job at LSU.
Johnson was a surprise hire by the Twins four years ago, having worked only at the high school and collegiate level before being chosen to replace Garvin Alston shortly after the 2018 season. But his decision to leave was even more stunning, particularly during the middle of a season with the team in first place in the AL Central.
Johnson guided a pitching staff that helped the Twins win back-to-back division championships in 2019 and 2020, and this season has helped to restore stability after last year's collapse. The team's 3.78 staff ERA ranks seventh in the AL, and that represents better than a one-run-per-game improvement on 2021's 4.83 ERA.
He has helped Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer re-establish their major league careers this year after injuries and ineffectiveness rendered them almost castoffs. On Saturday, after giving up only one hit over five innings against Colorado, Archer gave much of the credit to Johnson.
"Wes is one of my biggest advocates. We do a lot of work, mental and physical, between starts," Archer said. "When we put together a plan, we start talking a few days in advance. We put together a plan and we execute, [and] he's just really happy for me."
Why leave a major league job? Johnson hasn't addressed the media since word of his job change became public Sunday, but there are several plausible reasons.
For one, it's a return to his SEC roots — Johnson helped guide Arkansas to a runner-up finish at the College World Series in 2018 — and, given the athletic budgets at top universities such as LSU, likely comes with a pay raise. SEC teams likely can afford all the same analytical resources as MLB teams, too, but with fewer supervisors offering input.
College teams also generally play only three games per week and roughly 60 per season, as opposed to a 162-game MLB schedule, leaving far more time for family; Johnson is married with three children. And since he replaces Jason Kelly, who left LSU earlier this month to become the head coach at the University of Washington, it's worth noting that Johnson could be a serious candidate to replace his former boss, Dave Van Horn, when the 61-year-old Arkansas coach retires.
Johnson's departure leaves the Twins with an unexpected vacancy on Baldelli's coaching staff, and a crucial one given that the manager's playing experience was as an outfielder, not a pitcher. Johnson had considerable influence, even direction, on the day-to-day pitching decisions.
The Twins have not announced whether they will conduct a search for a successor, an awkward task during the season, or turn over the job to assistant pitching coach Luis Ramirez or bullpen coach Pete Maki, at least on a temporary basis. Ramirez, 49, has instructed pitchers in the system since 2006, and served last season as co-pitching coach at Class AA Wichita. Maki, 39, spent two seasons as Twins minor league pitching coordinator before being appointed bullpen coach for the big-league team in 2020.
The Twins also have a pair of experienced pitching coaches at Class AAA St. Paul in Virgil Vasquez and Cibney Bello.
Johnson helped coach Kenta Maeda to a 2.70 ERA and a 6-1 record in 2020, earning him a runner-up finish in AL Cy Young Award balloting, and in 2019 helped guide a staff that set a franchise record for strikeouts (1,463).