CLEVELAND — Joe Ryan found out via text message from a couple of former coaches. Tyler Duffey received messages from friends on other teams. Carlos Correa saw the news on Twitter and did a quick check to see if the source was verified before showing it to third baseman Gio Urshela, who was sitting next to him.
Quickly, whispers of pitching coach Wes Johnson’s departure became the buzz on the Twins’ team charter Sunday night as word passed throughout the plane. By the time the news broke, Johnson had only had a chance to speak with a few players and members of the coaching staff.
Some, like Correa, made their way back to where Johnson, 50, was sitting on the plane to confirm the shocking reports. This wasn’t how Johnson wanted the news of his departure — he will leave the Twins after Thursday’s game to take over the pitching coach job at Louisiana State University — to break. But shortly after the Twins arrived at their team hotel in Cleveland, Johnson and manager Rocco Baldelli addressed the team. There, the pitching coach was able to explain his decision, and he received plenty of support from those in the room.
“I don’t know if I’ve slept a whole lot in the last week,” Johnson said. “ … Toughest thing I’ve ever done.”
The primary motivation for the move, Johnson, who will receive a raise at LSU, said, is to spend more time with his family.
Johnson is married with three kids. The youngest, Ava, is 12 and because of the nature of his current job, Johnson said he was hardly seeing her. The new job, he said, will allow him to go to work and come home for dinner at night with his family.
“I have priorities in my life and I don’t hide those. I tell people my priorities. It’s my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, one. It’s my family, two. And it’s baseball, three. I’m never going to get those out of whack,” Johnson said. “ … It’s like, ‘OK, I’ve got a family.’ You don’t ever heard anybody on their deathbed going, ‘Man, I wish I’d have stuck it out to see if we’d won 101 and not done what’s right for my family.’ ”
Given that, players within the clubhouse, after getting over their initial shock, described his impending departure as bittersweet. While they’re sad to lose Johnson and his expertise, they talked of being understanding his decision and being happy for him and his new opportunity.
“Any time there’s change, there’s mixed emotions,” reliever Emilio Pagán said. “But it’d be selfish of us to be upset. It’s a great situation for his family. When you care about people, you want the best for them. I care about Wes Johnson, his family and want the best for him.”
Johnson came to the Twins from the college ranks — the Twins plucked him from the University of Arkansas — in 2019 and since he arrived in town, Twins pitchers have a 46.8 fWAR (Wins Above Replacement per FanGraphs), which is good for 10th in the majors in that time span.
Starter Chris Archer spoke glowingly of his impact, calling him the best pitching coach he’s ever had in every facet of the game — analytics, biomechanics, instilling confidence, game plan, you name it. Ryan talked about specific things they had worked on — how to attack a game, different ways of dissecting hitters, arm path analysis — and how he would carry Johnson’s notes along with him. And Duffey, who had the best season of career in 2019 upon Johnson’s arrival, called his impact “huge.”
“A lot of good has come since he’s been (here),” Duffey said. “A lot of guys have gotten right, guys with other teams now are still producing. He came in and we didn’t know what to expect and he’s left a lot of great things here.”
When the Twins hired Johnson straight from the college ranks, they made history. To see him go back to the college game, Baldelli said, is “not incredibly surprising.”
Johnson said he told Baldelli that there was only two or three schools in the country he would return to college for. LSU, a powerhouse program, was one of them. The university expressed interest in Johnson last year and he passed on their offer.
This time around, he knew that making the jump back to college was the right move for him and his family.
“No one wants to lose a valued member and friend in the middle of the season. That’s a fact,” Baldelli said. “But that being said, I think the vast majority of the guys are truly very happy because Wes is making the decision that is absolutely best for him and he feels very, very good about that and very confident about that despite the emotions and the sadness that go along with the change.”