Pitching expertise led Georgia Bulldogs to LSU’s Wes Johnson

ATHENS — Chris Archer pitched for three different MLB teams over 12 seasons. He called Wes Johnson “the best pitching coach I’ve ever had.”

“Top to bottom, analytics, biomechanics, instilling confidence, game plan, every single facet you could think of, he’s been the best,” the Minnesota Twins’ right-hander told The Athletic in 2022.

Any questions about why the Georgia Bulldogs tabbed Johnson as their new skipper can be found in that statement. He is considered a certified pitching guru, and that’s why UGA Athletic Director Josh Brooks announced Johnson’s hire Monday night.

It will be a while before the Bulldogs will get a chance to meet their new man, though. Georgia has agreed to let Johnson stick with the Tigers through their NCAA Tournament run. That’s going to continue at least through this coming weekend. LSU (46-15), a No. 5 national seed, defeated Oregon State 13-7 on Monday night to clinch the Baton Rouge Regional championship. The Tigers will host Kentucky at Alex Box Stadium this weekend in the Super Regionals.

The Twins might tell you LSU stole Johnson away from them. That is what solicited Archer’s comments in the summer of 2022.

In one of the more unusual moves ever seen in baseball, the Tigers convinced Johnson to leave the big leagues to come back to college as an assistant. That was in June 2022 while Johnson was under contract still with Minnesota, and the Twins were in the middle of a pennant race. They were not happy.

Calling it “the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” Johnson told The Athletic he left the Twins because he wanted to be home more with his wife and three children. Earning a $400,000 salary with the Twins, LSU matched Johnson’s salary and gave him an incentive-laden, three-year contract.

Before that, Johnson became the first pitching coach in MLB history to go directly to the big leagues from the college ranks when he joined the Twins in 2019. Minnesota won its division in Johnson’s first two years. In 2020, his pitchers ranked fourth in the majors in ERA and WHIP and ninth in strikeouts per nine innings. Ace right-hander Kenta Maeda posted a 2.70 ERA and a 6-1 mark to earn a runner-up finish for the American League Cy Young Award.

The Twins hired Johnson from Arkansas, where he spent two seasons with the Razorbacks and helped them to a runner-up finish in the 2018 College World Series. In Fayetteville, Johnson was credited with developing right-hander Blaine Knight, who went 14-0 record and was selected in the third round of the 2018 MLB draft by the Baltimore Orioles. Before that, Johnson was at Mississippi State, where six of his pitchers were selected in the 2016 draft, including No. 34 pick Dakota Johnson. The Maroon Bulldogs were SEC regular-season champions that year.

At LSU this season, Johnson is credited with helping ace Paul Skenes reach new heights. A first-year transfer from the Air Force Academy, Skenes is 11-2 with 1.90 ERA and already has been named National Pitcher of the Year by several outlets. He projects as yet another MLB first-rounder who benefited from Johnson’s tutelage.

“Wes Johnson cleaned up his mechanics,” ESPN analyst and former LSU star pitcher Ben McDonald told Outkick.com this past weekend. “... So, the fastball has gone from averaging 93 mph a year ago to above 98 this year. (Johnson) said he wasn’t using his legs and his body. He wasn’t mechanically as smooth as what he should have been. (Johnson) revamped the breaking ball. He’s throwing that sweeping slider that all the big-league guys are throwing now. That comes from Wes Johnson having big-league experience with the Minnesota Twins. Paul credits Wes a lot to his success and his jump.”

If you get the idea Johnson is considered something of a pitching pandit, you’d be right. This is what LSU’s director of video and scouting said about him earlier this season: “I don’t even know where to start when it comes to what Wes has brought to the table,” Jamie Tutko told the Lafayette (Louisiana) Daily Advertiser in March. “I mean, he is the most forward-thinking coach that I have ever been a part of.”

Pitching definitely held back Georgia this past season. The Bulldogs (29-27) posted a 6.38 staff ERA, with 271 walks, and 81 hit-by-pitches, worst in the SEC. Not coincidentally, Georgia lost eight games in which it led or was tied going into the ninth inning. Coach Scott Stricklin was fired at the end of his 10th season. He went 299-236-1 with the Bulldogs with three NCAA tournament appearances.

Enter Johnson, who is considered to be at the forefront of utilizing Trackman pitching technology. Meanwhile, Georgia is preparing for a $45 million renovation of Foley Field that will begin this summer. Those plans include the installation of a state-of-the-art “pitching laboratory” within the complex. Johnson’s input will be considerable.

“Wes has a proven track record of developing student-athletes while helping teams achieve impressive results,” Brooks said in a statement. “We aim to compete for postseason success and championships, and Wes has done that throughout his coaching career at every level, from high school to college and up to the major leagues. We are confident he will make Georgia baseball one of the premier programs in the country.”

Johnson’s hire is a bit of a surprise to college baseball insiders. The Bulldogs also were targeting established college head coaches from successful mid-level programs. Campbell coach Justin Haire and East Carolina coach Cliff Godwin are known to have been approached about Georgia’s vacancy.

Johnson’s only head coaching experience was at Abundant Life High School in his hometown of Sherwood, Arkansas. However, he guided the Owls to a 102-25 record, one state title and two state championship game appearances. Johnson’s other college coaching stints at Central Arkansas, Southern Arkansas and Dallas Baptist were all as a pitching coach.

Obviously, the Bulldogs put a lot of stock in Johnson’s pitching expertise and his record of success within the SEC’s competitive landscape. Identifying knowledgeable assistants with strong recruiting ties in the state will be a key to his success at Georgia.

Johnson, 51, earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the University of Arkansas-Monticello in 1994. He and his wife, Angie, have three children: Ryan, Anna and Ava.