The Minnesota Twins were supposed to have a jubilant plane ride to Northeast Ohio. They had just won the final two games of their homestand and expanded their lead in the American League Central. A five-game series with the second-place Cleveland Guardians awaited, and the Twins were ready to re-establish themselves as the best team in the division.
But just when the Twins were getting back to finding their rhythm, Wes Johnson scratched the record.
News spread that Johnson was leaving the team to take the pitching coach job at LSU. None of it made sense. Why would Johnson leave MLB to go back to college baseball? Why would he leave a first-place team? And why would he do all of this in the middle of the season?
It comes down to two possible outcomes. Either they made Johnson an offer he couldn’t refuse, or they simply gave him a better life.
Let’s examine Johnson’s current role on the Twins. Minnesota’s pitching staff ranked in the 20s in team ERA during Derek Falvey and Thad Levine’s first two seasons. But after Johnson arrived, they became a top-five staff in only two seasons. The Twins saw a massive jump in strikeout rate, and Johnson was doing some of his best work this season.
But Johnson’s role is defined by more than stats. He was the mastermind behind the operation.
When Falvey and Levine took over the Twins, the cupboard was bare in terms of quality pitching. Although they made a trade to acquire Jake Odorizzi, nobody reached their full potential until Johnson came aboard in 2019.
Minnesota’s decision to hire Johnson was initially met with skepticism. He had spent his entire career in college baseball. It had been a long time since a coach had jumped to the majors without getting a minor league role. As one of the leaders of the Trackman technology, the Twins believed that Johnson would give them an advantage.
Dan Hayes of The Athletic reported that the Twins’ front office had a motto: “In Wes We Trust.” His ability to evaluate talent has been a big factor this season. Chris Archer and Dylan Bundy have gone from bargain-bin free agents to respectable pieces of the rotation.
It could also play a bigger role as the Twins approach the trade deadline. Johnson’s recommendations were sure to play a vital role. He could have identified relievers to trade for who he could work with and get the best version out of them. The trades would have provided a viable alternative if the price to trade for Frankie Montas or Luis Castillo surpasses what the Twins are willing to give up.
Johnson was worth every penny the Twins were paying him. If they had matched LSU’s offer, which reportedly will pay him $750,000 per season, fans would have been thrilled. However, it may have created an issue within the clubhouse.
If Johnson was doing that much and making roughly $400,000 per season, as Hayes reports, there’s a chance it’s the high end of what assistant coaches are being paid. Raising Johnson’s salary would have set a risky precedent for the Twins and the rest of the league. It’s easier to let the deep pockets of college baseball boosters poach members of the staff rather than overpay for coaches that rarely last more than a couple of seasons.
But Hayes also reported that Johnson never asked for a raise after the Twins tried to convince him to stay. That means that Johnson might just enjoy the lifestyle of a collegiate coach.
The collegiate season begins in February and runs until mid-June. While the offseason is likely filled with recruiting trips and watching some of his own players play in summer leagues, it doesn’t match the 162-game grind of an MLB season.
Think of where you would rather be on a summer day. Would you rather be scouting a team in the Cape Cod league or agonizing over whether to put Tyler Duffey in the game on a 90-degree day in Detroit?
There also is the appeal of working with younger pitchers. MLB teams operate with a long-term view, which could limit what Johnson truly wants to do with his staff. There’s almost no chance a booster is calling the dugout if Johnson wants to send his ace out into the eighth inning. In fact, that booster is probably encouraging him to do so.
Also, consider that younger pitchers may be more receptive to coaching. Matt Shoemaker blamed the Twins coaching staff for his performance during the 2021 season. It’s less likely that a 20-year-old would have the chance to do the same if he disagreed with Johnson’s approach. If he did, the younger pitcher would transfer and Johnson would be left to plug in the next arm.
In the end, Johnson is getting paid significantly more money to take a job he has more interest in. It doesn’t make this a normal situation, and it has the Twins looking for a new pitching coach.