When Derek Falvey, chief baseball officer of the Minnesota Twins, was in the Cleveland Indians’ front office in the early 2010s, he started attending college coaching clinics. He visited events like Pitch-A-Palooza and the coaching boot camp at the Texas Baseball Ranch. He would sit in the back of conference rooms and listen.
“On the pro side, we keep everything tight to the vest. We don’t want to share with the other pro teams — they are competition,” Falvey told FiveThirtyEight. “What was really interesting for me to see is a lot of coaches sharing ideas. … There were guys from very small programs that had to find a way, with very limited budgets, to compete with other D-1 programs.”
Falvey saw amateur coaches using weighted-ball training, high-speed cameras and biomechanics labs in player development before professional clubs ever did. He looked around and thought, “Why couldn’t any of these coaches be in professional or even Major League Baseball?”
“I’m probably a little naive,” Falvey said. “But if you’re coaching [basketball] at Kentucky and you go to the Chicago Bulls, no one blinks. … That’s pretty normal. In baseball, it hasn’t been.”
There are some exceptions. Derek Johnson — who made an impression on Falvey when he was at Vanderbilt — has advanced through the pro ranks and has helped Cincinnati to the third-lowest staff ERA in baseball in his first year as the Reds pitching coach. And Falvey hired former University of Washington assistant coach Tanner Swanson to be the Twins catching coordinator after the 2017 season. The Astros have increasingly turned to college coaches to fill minor league coaching roles. But no one had made a direct jump from the amateur ranks to a major league dugout in nearly 40 years before this season. That drought ended in November when Falvey hired Arkansas pitching coach Wes Johnson to the same role for the Twins.
Johnson — who served as the pitching coach at Mississippi State, Dallas Baptist and Central Arkansas before joining the Razorbacks staff — had been one of the innovators presenting at those events that Falvey attended. And now Johnson is translating his techniques from outside the professional game to the Minnesota Twins, who have been one of the best teams in the majors this season, exceeding expectations along the way.
These Twins were always supposed to hit. Eddie Rosario was becoming a quality bat before this season, and Max Kepler has also broken out. Hopes were high for Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, elite prospects who struggled in 2018. The Twins added veteran free agent sluggers Nelson Cruz and C.J. Cron, too. And those efforts have paid off: The group leads the major leagues in homers.
What the Twins were thought to lack this season was pitching. Last year, their starting pitchers ranked 22nd in ERA. While Jose Berrios had emerged as a top arm, the rest of the staff was littered with question marks.
What the Twins set out to do this past offseason was to try to make their own pitchers better. And that started with Johnson, who had the Twins’ starting pitchers ranked third in ERA entering play Monday.
One of the most conspicuous characteristics of Johnson is his height: He stands at a modest 5-foot-7. Because many pitching coaches are former MLB pitchers themselves, they’re typically tall. But when Johnson visits the mound, every Twins pitcher towers over him. This partially explains his willingness to adopt unorthodox practices.
“Look at me, man,” Johnson said to FiveThirtyEight. “I’m not a very big guy. I only played college baseball. For me as a player, I always had to look for things that could make me better.”
As a coach, he first tried weighted balls back in 2003. This is the practice of throwing heavier and lighter balls that can increase throwing velocity by adding shoulder strength and arm speed. He became known as “the czar of velocity.” Dallas Baptist paid for him to study biomechanics in 2012. He brought high-speed cameras to Arkansas. So far, integrating approaches and tools — including streamlining mechanics to add velocity and training cameras on pitchers’ releases to help develop pitches — have made a smooth transition to the top level of baseball.
The Twins have improved not only their staff ERA but also their underlying metrics. The differential between their strikeout and walk rates has improved along with their fielding-independent pitching, a mark that attempts to isolate what pitchers can control for in preventing runs while removing factors like the quality of the defense behind them. The Twins have also added 0.6 mph in fastball velocity this season.
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When Twins starting pitcher Kyle Gibson learned that the club was going to hire Johnson, he called Tony Vitello — a former assistant at Gibson’s alma mater of Missouri and the current head coach at Tennessee — to gather some intel. Vitello, who coached with Johnson at Arkansas in 2016-17, noted the shoulder-maintenance program and some unusual drills used by Gibson. Well, Vitello said, Johnson helped invent them.
Johnson “had already had a pretty significant impact on my career, and I didn’t even know it,” Gibson said.
Johnson flew to visit with as many Twins pitchers as he could in the offseason. When he made his way to Florida to present plans to starter Jake Odorizzi, he learned that Odorizzi, who was coming off his second-straight season with an ERA above 4.00, felt that his slider and cutter had morphed into essentially the same pitch last year. Odorizzi worked over the winter with Randy Sullivan, a former coaching partner of Johnson’s, training a high-speed camera and Rapsodo pitch-tracking device on his throws. So Odorizzi was not at all surprised to see Edgertronic cameras and optical pitch-tracking devices in the sunny bullpens of Fort Myers, Florida, this spring.
But even Odorizzi, who had played five seasons for the progressive Tampa Bay Rays, had never thrown bullpen sessions quite like the ones he saw this spring.
Instead of setting a specific number of fastballs to throw and then moving on to the next pitch type, Johnson had the Twins pitchers pair different pitch types together in sequences — like high fastball, high curveball — that would share the same path for much of their journey toward the plate. Johnson made videos to show pitchers how well — or not well — the appearance of the pitches was masked.
Fast-forward a few months, and hitters are batting .182 against his slider and .200 against his cutter, improvement from his .271 and .286 marks a year earlier, respectively.
Odorizzi’s ERA entering play Monday was a sparkling 2.24. His FIP has improved from 4.20 last year to 2.99 this season. He’s enjoyed one of the greatest year-to-year improvements in baseball. And he’s not alone on the Twins’ staff.
Martin Perez had the third-worst ERA in the majors last year among pitchers with at least 85 innings. The Twins signed him to a one-year deal this winter, and Johnson’s first task with the former top Rangers prospect was to try to improve his throwing motion, which Johnson said the club did by creating more “efficient rotation” with his hips.
Perez’s fastball last season averaged 93.2 mph. This season it’s 94.9, ranking 18th among qualified starters. And he added a pitch: a cutter. While his agent had suggested a cutter for years, Perez hadn’t been exposed to the power of modern pitch design — or had the help of new teammate Odorizzi.
“As a coach, you have to realize you don’t have all the answers,” Johnson said. “So I encourage our guys to talk to each other as well. … I can’t always speak the language that gets them to learn the fastest. When [Perez] first started with the cutter, I said, ‘Hey, you gotta go talk to Jake.’ 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.”
Odorizzi showed Perez a new grip but also reframed the way Perez should think of the pitch. “I think a lot of guys think it’s a movement pitch so they think, ‘I have to create movement,’ when all you are looking for is [slight movement]. … It’s the mindset of throwing a fastball.”
Odorizzi said that in just one day, with the help of high-speed video showing Perez how he released the ball, Perez’s cutter was born. On March 19 in a simulated game, the pitcher threw five perfect innings and struck out 14.
“It was exactly what he was looking for,” Odorizzi said. “He throws it 25, 30 percent of the time now for a pitch he didn’t have coming into the year.” It has become the second-best cutter in baseball, and it seemed to be developed overnight.
The Twins have combined their much-improved pitching with a resurgent offense to post a 47-24 record and a 10-game lead in the AL Central. They’ve used new ideas, new practices and new coaches — and so far, it seems to be working.
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