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  • The Twins Hired a Data Guy. Wes Johnson Built a Communication Program.


    Peter Labuza

    Why was Wes Johnson so critical to this team's recent success? A look back at the changing perception of how he was brought on and how he's leaving.

    Image courtesy of Bruce Kluckhohn, USA TODAY Sports

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    If you go back to the reports around the hiring of Wes Johnson, all of them are data analytic-obsessed articles. Not surprising: as late as 2019, signaling that Big Data was the future of everything still seemed like a good bet. The New York Times headline reads: "The Science of Building a Better Pitcher."

    Often noted, but still somewhat sidelined, is Johnson and his own personality. “He’s so bubbly, and he just bounces off the walls with energy,” described Texas Baseball Ranch found Ron Wolforth. He was as known for his skills as his nickname creator in college ball. And according to Dallas Baptist University head coach Dan Heefner in 2018, where Johnson often worked with the most scrappy of baseball prospects, it was not about simply reading the charts. "He really understands the numbers, but he can communicate it to a player in a way that simplifies it."

    The ultimate question of data in sports has been one the entire sport has been grappling with since 2002. There was a traditional way of doing things, and then there was the new way. Even in Joe Maddon’s exit interview with Ken Rosenthal, he had a few key words for upstairs management and their thoughts on how to play the game. 

    This is what made Johnson unique and a critical part of this sports team and perhaps how sports teams continue to build from here on out: good data is only as good as its communication. Johnson, who is leaving for Louisiana State University, was an expert communicator and changed pitchers based not just on what he saw, but how they needed to learn. Going forward, the Twins and other sports will need to find ways to keep coaches like Johnson if they truly want to succeed.

    Johnson was hired in 2019 in retrospect as part of one particular mistake by the former front office. A struggling Twins team sent Ryan Pressly to the Astros, where his WHIP dropped from 1.33 to a 0.58 as the closer for their World Series contending team. In Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik's The MVP Machine, they reveal some critical details about what was happening in both organizations. The Twins data team knew about the effectiveness of Pressly’s curveball, but for one reason or another, could not find a way to explain it to the young pitcher. Pressly remembers that the Astros did at first throw too many charts with too many axises in trying to explain the effectiveness of his pitch, but the book notes the important role of Brent Strom, the oldest coach in the league and a particular joker as well in telling pitchers what they needed to know. Players might not understand MBAs, but when the right person tells them in the right way, it can transform how they develop.

    Derek Falvey explained in 2019 that he hired Johnson based on the kinds of data and analytical approaches used in college ball and seemingly hired Johnson on that basis. But in repeated articles of those on the ground since joining the team, Johnson is less a coach than a counselor. Having mentored with young guys barely understanding their mechanics much less how to bathe properly, Johnson had to learn how to talk to kids who might be easily erratic to new information. He developed trust first, and information second. During Sunday's broadcast and before he likely knew of the unexpected news, Chris Archer gushed about how much Johnson had essentially saved his career by developing their unexpected program for him despite the limited workload. 

    As one article on 2020’s Spring Training (before COVID shut it down) suggested, “The key [for Twins pitchers] has been having a coaching staff and analytic department that has worked together to identify and deliver the message to the player in ways that can help them understand how it will help them on the field.” Rather than lead by analytics, he acted as a bridge.

    More so, what Johnson talks about with pitchers feels very different. Take this Twins Daily profile from 2019:

    Quote

    “We know that hip speed is a function of velocity and command as well,” Johnson begins in his upbeat southern accent. “And hip speed is generated through your glutes and we’re just trying to activate the glute medius. We’re trying to get the glute med to activate first instead of your quadricep because when a guy’s quadricep activates first, his hip speed goes down. So we’re just trying to activate the glute to get the hips to rotate faster to get command and-or velocity, whichever one.”

    If that was too technical, Kyle Gibson later offered an abridged explanation: “The goal is to use the big muscles in your legs.”

    Even though Gibson gets the last word, the joke buried inside is actually revealing of how Johnson connects the body rather than the numbers. It’s one thing to tell a player to throw their slider more and give them the expected batting averages; Johnson sticks close to the thing players understand best: what their body is feeling.

    A continuing anecdote appears in many of the Johnson profiles: he often let other pitchers do the work for him. This isn’t some lazy choice, but again, thinking about how to create effective communication. As Johnson told FiveThirtyEight in 2019: “I can’t always speak the language that gets them to learn the fastest. When [Martin Perez] first started with the cutter, I said, ‘Hey, you gotta go talk to Jake [Odorizzi].’ Your job as a coach is yes, to coach the guys, but it’s also to close the feedback loop and make it as small as possible.” And with this year’s rotation that barely knew each other, Johnson ensured the team fed of each other’s energy and made them into a family (likely leading to the $500 foul out competition)

    There is no rule against more coaches. Just ask the San Francisco Giants, who outperformed their projections by a stunning 20 games and the dozen or so they employ (according to a recent interview with Fernando Perez on Effectively Wild, he explained they use a log system to avoid contradictory information). 

    Data has changed baseball, in some ways for the better. But replacing Wes Johnson might not be as easy as it looks, particularly during the midstream moment. These players—just like anyone playing baseball at any level—don't need to know the numbers. They need to know their own bodies. And coaching is a skill that might have changed over the last decades of baseball, but Johnson understood the critical skill: knowing how to tell players in the right moment.

     

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    Nice reflection.  I have always thought that judging coaches is almost impossible for those of us on the outside.  We have now had a hitting coach and a pitching coach come in, impress us and leave.  But the number of coaches is large and what they do and how effectively they do it is still a mystery that leaves Rocco taking the blame and credit for the rest of the team.  Thanks for the insights.

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    Can't really replace a personality like Wes so that is a loss.  Having an upbeat personality with lot's of positive energy really can help the confidence of those around you.  That coupled with the knowledge he has of the body and he is going to be very, very tough to replace.  I agree that his ability to communicate complex things in an easy manner made players more comfortable learning, growing and seeing results.  He also like Rocco was really good at team building, being approachable and looking out for the health of the players.

    That being said there are lot's of great pitching coaches throughout the Majors and the Twins seem to be a team that can find coaches other teams overlook.  Their coaches seem to get poached all the time.  I hate to see Wes go but I also think the Twins will find a good replacement.

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    26 minutes ago, Eris said:

    Are we perhaps giving Wes Johnson credit for the increased success of Twins pitchers, without questioning what role his coaching philosophy has had on the number of Twins pitchers on the DL—current number is 9 (not including minor leaguers on the 40 man roster). 

    How many pitchers does the average major league team have on the IL? Have the Twins been above or below average on number of pitcher injuries since 2019?

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    26 minutes ago, Eris said:

    Are we perhaps giving Wes Johnson credit for the increased success of Twins pitchers, without questioning what role his coaching philosophy has had on the number of Twins pitchers on the DL—current number is 9 (not including minor leaguers on the 40 man roster). 

    Seems like a fair question. I seem to remember early in the Falvey/Levine era that they were saying the next frontier in analytics was health--how to keep players healthy and on the field. (Maybe I'm mis-attributing this to them and it was someone else; anyone else remember this?) Anyway, it does seem like health, rest, figuring out how to keep players on the field as much as possible has been talked about a lot these past years, but as we all know the results have been mixed at best. COVID and the short spring training have been factors, of course. It would be interesting to look at how the team has performed in terms of IL days compared to other teams. Not just the raw number of IL days, but how quickly players come back, how IL stints relate to rest days, how IL stints relate to bullpen usage. Someone smarter than me has probably already looked at this.

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    Look,  I really like what Wes did for this organization,  but this has been a philosophy that was instilled from the top.  Wes communicated it well, but at this point the game plan on what works well is ingrained in this organization.  Look no further than what is occurring at A ball or AA ball.  The growth and teaching of the pitchers at all levels is going really well.  I actually expect maybe just a little bit of a fall off.  The biggest thing may be the talks on the mound to calm a pitcher.    Right now you have a lot of pitchers that have bought into the system,  that will not just fall off a cliff.  I am curious whether they fill the position internally, fill temporarily for the rest of the season, and or whether they hire someone from outside the organization.  I think we have enough internal candidates that understand the direction the Twins need to go - which will likely be the direction and they hire from within.  If the bullpen coach does well for the rest of the year he may get it by default.   

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    Great, great article. Perfect example of how relationships help make progress and growth at both personal and organizational levels. Yes, I'm pissed, but Wes will be missed here.

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    The greatest tribute to Wes and his communication style was summed up by Sonny Gray in today's Strib article. 

    "When Gray came out of the game, he and Johnson shared a long hug in the dugout. They didn't say anything to each other. But they both knew what they were communicating."

    "It's not all the time easy to go to a new place and feel welcome with open arms. But he had his arms open from the get-go. And never one time did I not feel that I wasn't a part of this," Gray said.

    "I'm going to miss him. I'm going to miss him a lot."

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    There is no better satisfaction in my career than drawing untapped potential from those who work with me.  That requires starting at their level of understanding.   And once their aha moment arrives, their confidence and skill soar.  Wes's example is one to emulate in many aspects of life.

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    Communication style is critical when you're trying to get people on board with your ideas or changes to the way they do things. It important to make people feel like there's a better way rather than making people feel like they were doing it the wrong way. Johnson clearly has a great rapport with the players and a leadership style that gets players to buy in. 

    It's a great asset, but it's not a unique one. The system Johnson put into place should let the results be continued. 

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    7 hours ago, Bigfork Twins Guy said:

    The greatest tribute to Wes and his communication style was summed up by Sonny Gray in today's Strib article. 

    "When Gray came out of the game, he and Johnson shared a long hug in the dugout. They didn't say anything to each other. But they both knew what they were communicating."

    "It's not all the time easy to go to a new place and feel welcome with open arms. But he had his arms open from the get-go. And never one time did I not feel that I wasn't a part of this," Gray said.

    "I'm going to miss him. I'm going to miss him a lot."

    tears sniffle GIF by South Park

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