The 2022 season continues to be a rollercoaster for the Minnesota Twins.
Delayed season due to the lockout. The flurry of roster moves in March. Signing Carlos Correa. A frigid April, losing newly-acquired starter Chris Paddack to Tommy John surgery, and Royce Lewis coming up to the big leagues and suffering a season-ending injury.
I’m probably missing some other oddities, but you get my point. It’s been a ride. Despite that, they are still a first-place ballclub just a couple of weeks from the All-Star Break.
Pitching has been the one area that has kept the Twins in the hunt for most of the season. Running the staff has been Wes Johnson’s job. After a down season last year, he has been a big part in rebuilding a pitching staff almost entirely from the ground up. Minnesota’s 3.78 team ERA is 11th in baseball. Reclamation projects, newly called-up prospects, and established arms make up this staff, with Johnson’s fingerprints all over it.
For lack of a better term, Johnson has thrown his pitching staff a curveball.
Johnson is leaving Minnesota to take the same position at Louisiana State University. Questions popped up through social media and in Twins Territory. Why the sudden departure? Then reports confirm that he is leaving mainly because LSU is doubling his salary, and he can be closer to his family. Johnson’s still on staff through the current series in Cleveland, but he will not join the team back in Minneapolis on Friday.
Rocco Baldelli will now have a new pitching coach for the first time since the Twins hired him in 2019. Besides aiding Baldelli during his first few seasons managing a pitching staff, Johnson’s impact in Minnesota runs deeper. Without Johnson’s presence, we will find out how much his influence was carrying this pitching staff.
The Pohlads hired Derek Falvey and Thad Levine to run the franchise in 2016. Their biggest task was to reshape the team’s pitching development, which didn’t happen overnight. In 2017, the Twins had a 4.59 team ERA, which was 19th in baseball. In 2018, their 4.50 team ERA ranked 22nd that season.
The Twins experienced a turnaround in those areas under Johnson. In 2017, Minnesota’s 7.3 K/9 ranked 29th. Things got better under Garvin Alston in 2018. The Twins’ K/9 rose to 8.59 K/9, putting them at 16th in the majors. Their 4.50 team ERA was still high, and the team finished 78-84, but they were ready to turn a corner.
Enter Johnson, who was an unconventional hire when the Twins hired him away from the University of Arkansas in late 2018. College coaches rarely make the jump to the big leagues, let alone being the pitching staff of a first-year manager with limited coaching experience. Johnson had a reputation as a forward-thinking and analytically-minded coach. Someone who knows how to get the most out of his staff.
The hire paid off in 2019 when the Twins had a top-10 staff with a 4.18 team ERA. They followed that up in 2020 with a top-five 3.58 team ERA. The Twins also had a 9.0 K/9 rate, 14th in baseball, meaning the underlying numbers indicated that the improvement was not a fluke.
How much success goes to Johnson? How much goes to Falvey and Levine for setting up the infrastructure? Despite the slow start, Falvey and Levine began implementing their philosophies into the organization. They moved on from the pitch-to-contact approach under Terry Ryan and modernized the staff, using power pitchers who got more swings and misses. However, Johnson was able to capture that and take it to another level.
Kenta Maeda enjoyed his best season under Johnson. José Berríos and Jake Odorizzi became All-Stars with Johnson’s tutelage. The Twins bullpen had developed into one of baseball’s best during the 2019 and 2020 campaigns. Turning former starters like Tyler Duffey and projects like Caleb Thielbar into legitimate options during that time.
This season might have been Johnson’s best work so far. The Twins had to completely rebuild their pitching staff, with only Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober returning. More young arms like Josh Winder and Devin Smeltzer have made a positive impact this year, with Johnson guiding them along.
Johnson also made the Twins a free agent destination for free-agent pitchers. Chris Archer was a free agent who likely had a few suitors during the offseason, even with his injury history. He chose to come to the Twin Cities because he felt the team, and Johnson, will give him the best chance to have a bounce-back season. Archer isn’t going to win a Cy Young this year. However, his 3.14 ERA and consistent five-inning starts have given the Twins more value than expected for a player with injury concerns like Archer.
“He really helped re-instill confidence in me every day,” Archer told the Star Tribune. “He’s the best pitching coach I’ve ever had, top to bottom. Analytics, biomechanics, instilling confidence, game plan. Every single facet you could think of, he’s been the best.”
Archer committed to the Twins after discussing Minnesota with a former teammate in Odorizzi. The former Twin reportedly “gushed” about the atmosphere at Target Field with guys like Johnson in place.
Internal options such as assistant pitching coach Luis Ramirez, bullpen coach Pete Maki, and run prevention coordinator Colby Suggs will replace Johnson’s duties until the end of the season. Outside of some bullpen issues lately, the Twins starting pitching has been solid. It’s easy for everyone when things are going well, but what happens when the pitching has a down stretch? What will happen when Johnson isn’t there?
Under Falvey and Levine, Baldelli and the Twins have created an infrastructure most players want to play for. Johnson has aided that in the mound. Over the rest of the season and even the months following, we’ll see just how big of an impact Johnson has on this team. We’ll also learn how much of Minnesota’s success is a result of the pitching staff or the infrastructure the front office created.