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.