Wes Johnson did not run from the labels.
Weirdo. Iconoclast. Voodoo coach.
Johnson heard some variation of them all over the past decade, when he first set up shop as the pitching coach of Dallas Baptist University armed with mysterious tracking technology, funny balls and a commitment to maximum velocity.
These days, Johnson’s still hard to miss: He’s clad in a Minnesota Twins uniform, as he completes a rare leap from collegiate assistant to major league pitching coach.
And somewhere along the way, from those early days at Dallas Baptist through eye-opening stints at Mississippi State and Arkansas, Johnson ceased being the oddball.
“I was for a while,” he says, “but not anymore.”
Baseball’s ever-tighter embrace of data and technology is now reflected in its uniformed dugout personnel. No longer are the manager’s aide-de-camps only getting hired after extensive coaching apprenticeships in the minor leagues, or driven largely by cronyism.
Instead, they are emerging from industrial parks and hitting caves, and collegiate programs that scouts once needed an atlas to find.
The union of progressive coach and major league staff is overdue, say many in the game who have long utilized alternate sources of instruction and development.
“Before, when you had coaches here but also guys you worked with out of the organization, that was just (expletive) awkward,” says Los Angeles Dodgers All-Star third baseman Justin Turner. “You feel like you’re maybe going around someone or hurting feelings or stepping on toes.”
That’s no longer a concern. Turner, who remade his career under the tutelage of Los Angeles-based instructor Doug Latta, now counts a similar guru as his real, live major league hitting coach. The Dodgers hired Robert Van Scoyoc – whose Southern California facility is located about 20 miles from Latta’s – from the Arizona Diamondbacks, who’d employed him as a hitting strategist.
Van Scoyoc is best known as the man who – along with cohort Craig Wallenbrock – reconstructed J.D. Martinez’s swing and turned him from fringe major leaguer to All-Star and MVP candidate.
Two years ago, Van Scoyoc – whose own playing career didn’t last past junior college – was consulting hitters in an industrial strip warehouse. This year, he’ll don Steve Garvey’s old No. 6 in Dodger blue.
“Now, to have a guy like Rob with the organization at the major league level,” says Turner, “to have the same philosophies and principles and conversations, it’s nice to be able to have that direct access.
“I’ve always had the thought that it doesn’t matter who’s helping a guy feel good or hit good. As long as they feel good, it shouldn’t matter where they come from.”
If Van Scoyoc and Co. were talking launch angle before it was cool, then call Johnson the Trackman Hipster.
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Twins general manager Derek Falvey was the man who hired Johnson away from the University of Arkansas, but they first crossed paths a decade ago. That was when Falvey was in the Indians’ player development department and Johnson was the pitching coach at Dallas Baptist, utilizing weighted baseballs and installing a portable version of Trackman –a tracking system initially designed for golfers – in the team’s bullpen.
Now, Trackman is oxygen for the industry. Installed in all 30 ballparks, it’s the lifeblood of baseball’s StatCast system – tracking 27 pitching and hitting data points per play – and a crucial developmental tool.
You won’t find a major league camp without Trackman and its younger cousin, Rapsodo, a camera system that most notably measures a pitch’s break, spin rate and axis, velocity, location and other metrics crucial to pitch shaping.
Trackman looked far more alien back in 2007, when Johnson and head coach Dan Heefner began shaping baseball’s future at what was then a college baseball backwater in Dallas.
“Back then, people were always looking at us like, ‘These Dallas Baptist guys are crazy,’” Johnson remembers. “What are they doing? This is like magic, or voodoo that they’re doing with all these numbers.
“But we were always just, ‘Nah, that’s just who we are.”
They soon were a powerhouse: Dallas Baptist has seven 40-win seasons since 2011 and developed 40 major league draft picks since 2012. Seven Patriots were drafted in 2018, the sixth-highest total among 297 Division I schools.
The heavy balls, the data, the emphasis on weightlifting, not running, required a leap of faith.
“I was like, ‘I hope this stuff works,’” says Yankees pitcher Chance Adams, who was undrafted out of high school, but a fifth-round pick out of Dallas Baptist in 2015. “But when I got there, my (velocity) was in the low 90s. When I left there, I was in the mid- to touching high-90s.
“For me, it definitely opened up some potential that was there, that I found the door to. I wasn’t expecting that good of results.”
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Around the time Adams was embracing Johnson’s methods, another path was paved.
Derek Johnson – no relation to Wes – recruited and coached nine eventual first-round picks as Vanderbilt’s pitching coach. By October 2012, the Chicago Cubs quietly snagged him to serve as their minor league pitching coordinator.
It was hardly a revolutionary hire, but in making the leap from the Southeastern Conference to work for Theo Epstein’s Cubs, Johnson could sense a disruption in baseball’s meritocracy.
“I was going into a new situation, seeing how I fit and what I needed to do and that was a struggle at the beginning,” he says. “Being the new guy and not being the pro guy, per se, certainly they’re going to make sure I know what I’m talking about and check every move. And I get that.”
Three years later, he was in a major league dugout, when the Milwaukee Brewers hired him as their pitching coach. After the Brewers’ startling run fell one game shy of the 2018 World Series, Johnson, 48, got a nice bump and a move closer to his Nashville home by leaping to the Cincinnati Reds.
The author of The Complete Guide To Pitching (foreword by David Price) has been an instant hit in Reds camp.
“I’m a huge fan of D.J. so far,” says Reds starter Alex Wood, acquired from the Dodgers in December. “He’s a great mixture of knowledge, mechanically, as well as implementing the mental side of things and using the technology.”
At 28, Wood did not grow up on a diet of spin rate or tilt data. He’s also grateful that, with free agency looming after this season, Johnson will help him use information efficiently – and continue to evolve.
“Adapt or die, man,” says Wood, an All-Star in 2017 when he produced a 2.52 ERA. “If you’re not constantly learning and trying to get better every single year, no matter if it’s the technology or your workouts or nutrition, you’re probably not going to hang around that long.
“And that’s the goal – longevity. If you’re not adapting to the changes that are inevitable or at the forefront of our game right now, you’re not doing it right.”
While traditional scouts were, in some organizations, pushed to the margins by emerging technology, the leaders of the new school say veteran pitching coaches don’t have to meet the same fate.
Wood’s pitching coach in L.A., Rick Honeycutt, turns 65 in June, yet has adapted and thrived under the data-heavy regime of club president Andrew Friedman.
The formula isn’t much different: Be relatable. Be smart. Know your mechanics. But perhaps more than ever, maintain an open mind.
“The first step is to not be afraid of it,” says Derek Johnson, “and secondly, to use their sensibilities, their experiences to help them, and to understand that it might cut their work in half, if the information helps them get there faster.”
Johnson has spoken with his Twins cohort who shares both a last name and an SEC lineage. He’s urging Wes Johnson to “go slow” and build relationships gradually with his new pitchers. “It will get there in time.”
Easier said than done: Falvey says Johnson was so fired up to get started over the winter, his research and development staffers noticed he was “killing our video system, because he’s watching nonstop at home in Arkansas.”
He has found willing pupils. Johnson says so many pitchers now work on their craft at progressive performance centers in the off-season – be it the Texas Baseball Ranch or Seattle’s Driveline Baseball – that a preponderance of them now expect similar service, from a similar voice, during the season.
Apprenticeship be damned.
“Time is too precious,” says Wood. “If you’re one of the best at what you do, what sense does it make to send you to Single-A, and then the next year Double-A, and Triple-A, if what you’re bringing to the table can help the big league club win, right now?”
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