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Front Page: The Trend-Setting Twins

When the Twins hired Wes Johnson last November, it was a rare move in which a Major League Baseball team tapped a college coach to join the big league staff. Outside of the industry, the hiring was a curiosity considering the lack of experience in handling professional pitchers but those following closely knew that Johnson was viewed as one of the sharpest teachers anywhere in the game. We're far from anointing the decision as an all-out success but everything is trending in the right direction.


The Yankees, who parted ways with pitching coach Larry Rothschild last week, are now trying to follow the Twins down the collegiate path.According to D1 Baseball's Kendall Rogers, the Yankees have made "college pitching coaches a high priority" for the position. Rogers says that the Yankees have interviewed Michigan's Chris Fetter and Johnson's replacement at Arkansas, Matt Hobbes. The Yankees also inquired about Arizona's Nate Yeskie (a Driveline favorite) and TCU's Kirk Saarloos but both coaches turned them down.


This past spring, I asked Johnson what he thought were the key differences between the college game and professional ball and what made that appealing for teams.


"I think the college game, we have the resources, we have a smaller number of players, so we are able to go in and do a lot of research with biomechanics and Trackman and write those individual plans," Johnson said. "As you’re seeing that’s just where the game is going and so these guys have the experience doing it, so it makes it easier. You look, basketball, in the NBA and the NFL, that’s not uncommon but for some reason it is uncommon in baseball. In the NFL you have great head coaches who never played a day of college football or anything of that nature, and they are phenomenal. Same way in basketball."


That's a huge factor for major league teams. College ball is where the forefront of development lies and the technology aspect was embraced heavily. Major league teams were late to utilize and some teams recognized that they didn't have the coaching infrastructure to incorporate the changes. Pitching coaches like Rothchild, while unbelievably knowledgeable about the craft, lacked the experience working with the advancements.


"I think that college baseball has been slightly ahead of professional baseball in some regard," said the Twins' minor league catching instructor Tanner Swanson. "I think from an educational standpoint there’s just more people in that space who understand how this stuff works and we’re seeing how it is utilized now and implement it in a professional environment."


As this continues to unfold and more college coaches are picked from the amateur ranks, keep in mind that this was Derek Falvey vision all along when he assumed the position of Chief Baseball Officer with the Minnesota Twins.


“When I came here, one of the things I thought about over my career in baseball was where are the people learning and growing and developing as coaches," Falvey told me. "I found when I was in different positions I would go to different conventions, college conventions or off-sites or these events, and I met these different people from college and thought wow, these people really have curious minds, they are high character individuals, they care about baseball deeply."


You may be surprised by the amount of money college pitching coaches at large universities make. Before leaving Arkansas, Johnson was making $250,000 a year and the Twins reportedly offered him a deal that is "well north" of $350,000 per year. The Yankees obviously have the biggest pocketbook so they could throw money at whoever they feel is the top coach but, for many teams, they typically pay between $150,000 to $300,000 for a pitching coach. Not everyone is as bold as the Twins when it comes to handing out money to unproven coaches. So you can see why some coaches, like Nate Yeskie who is earning “elite SEC school range” income, might turn down the opportunity. After all, most SEC head coaches make over a million a year and pitching coaches have a payday of half of that.


Beyond just income, the time dedicated to the job is significantly different and could favor a switch to the professional ranks. While pro baseball coaches have higher scrutiny (although you could argue SEC coaches are constantly under the microscope), college coaching requires a year-round commitment and does not have the luxury of regrouping during the offseason.


The Twins hired their Gulf Coast League pitching coach, Zach Bove, out of the College of Central Florida (you can read more about him in my article in the Offseason Handbook). Bove noted that the main difference between pro and college ball for coaches is the extra downtime pro coaches receive.


“In college you have practices and games and then you are going out on the weekends to recruit or have phone calls to make,” said Bove.


“People ask me how my time’s been and you have no idea,” said Johnson. “It’s 365 days a year in college. You’re on the phone with advisers, agents, parents and kids. Then you got your guys. You put it all into a funnel and let it come out on a calendar and you definitely have more free time in professional baseball than coaching in the SEC.”


It is odd to live in a world where the Minnesota Twins are the trend-setters and organization like the New York Yankees are trying to follow suit. The Twins did well in capitalizing on a market inefficiency but that avenue might be closing soon as other teams pillage college programs.


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So do you think the Twins will look in the college ranks for a hitting coach, promote from within, or find someone in another organization??


Good question.


By all accounts, Rudy Hernandez did a great job as the assistant hitting coach. I don't know much about his philosophy but if it aligned with that of James Rowson, it might be best to have some continuity. You could backfill the assistant hitting coach role with a younger, up-and-coming coach like the Red Sox did when they hired away Pete Fatse from the Twins.


The advancements on the tech hitting side in general lags behind the pitching one. There's obvious tools that can been used for measuring hitting -- Blast Motion sensors, Rapsodo for hitting, 4D Motion vests -- but the pitching side rapidly grew in the college ranks. You can see that pitch design has immediate value (i.e. change a release through measuring via Rapsodo and Edgertronic and you could have a totally different pitcher). There isn't a swing design equivalent. You see college coaches that are versed in the hitting tech usually hired at the lower ranks where these can be used more readily (you can't have Blast Motion sensors for game swings at the major league level). 


The thing that impressed me the most about Rowson was his humility. There are a lot of burgeoning coaches who put a lot of content and self-promotion on Twitter or Instagram. Rowson, while he's on Twitter, doesn't have any followers, follows only a handful of accounts and hasn't tweeted. It is significantly different than say, John Mallee, who was the hitting coach for the Cubs and Phillies and was fired from both roles. You could have the circular argument that today's players are very much Twitter immersed and that's where you need to be to reach them, but I can't help but noticed the analytically-bent Mallee has reportedly lost the room with two different teams and Rowson has been coveted by other organizations. 


Going back to the college ranks, there are several well-thought of offensive programs -- like Dan Heefner at DBU -- but I'm not certain there is an immediate bridge to cross for a college coach to jump to the big league ranks. While it seemed unorthodox at the time, hiring a pitching coach from the college game seemingly made more sense. For the next hitting coach, the real factor will be which coach has the best communication strength and that could potentially come from outside of professional baseball. 


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So do you think the Twins will look in the college ranks for a hitting coach, promote from within, or find someone in another organization??

I'm wondering the same thing. And how long will they wait to hire a replacement for Rowson? Seems like Rudy Hernandez would be the "logical" choice, but I don't know what the brass is thinking about filling this position.

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If a coach, college or pro, has to "boss around" a player... he's already lost and probably shouldn't be a coach anyway.   A good coach at any level gets buy-in from his players and makes them want to follow what he shows and teaches them.   That is the definition of leadership.

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To me, and I could be wrong, the problem with looking at the college ranks on the hitting side for a hire is not simply a lack of analytics and sportstrac type of data. The college game, offensively, from a coaching standpoint, is a lot like being a scout trying to factor in future production due to the aluminum bat.


At the heart of things, pitching is still pitching. When a college, or HS, pitcher is introduced to pro ball, they are suddenly facing lineups, generally speaking, that would equate to an all conference team. Except, no more aluminum bat. Now reverse that. Can a college level hitting coach make the adjustments to the wooden bat in regard to approach and adjustment?


No answer on my end. Just throwing it out there.

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I personally find it odd that the college ranks have out done MLB in this area... For all the talk about money ball and finding advantages, this one is strange... Good move by Falvine...


I also wonder if perhaps that's why they went heavy on college pitching in the draft this year despite experts saying it was pretty weak for college pitching... hope they say something, because their ptiching class in the 2019 draft was pretty uninspiring. 

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Interesting developments here...


The Yankees steal away Tanner Swanson. Then they juke and grab Matt Blake from the Indians instead of a college pitching coach. 


This is actually a more dangerous development. Blake's work with the Indians was instrumental in churning out a number of amazing pitchers out of their system. There's definitely a similarity on how these guys load their hips and move.




If you look around Twitter, some of the best industry minds are raving about this hire. Hard not to like it if you are a Yankees fan. 


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