October 16, 2022

What does a good pitching coach mean to a baseball team? The world, apparently

In “Facing Nolan,” a relatively new documentary about the Hall of Fame pitcher, Ryan, wild but effective in the early days of his career with the New York Mets, eventually was traded to the California Angels. When Ryan first learned that he was going to California, he thought he was on his way to the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team he admired because of Sandy Koufax, a boyhood idol. Instead, he got sent to the Halos, a team he wasn’t enthused to be joining.

But it was in Anaheim that Ryan met pitching coach Tom Morgan, and it was Morgan who figured out how to harness Ryan’s wildness and turn him into a strikeout machine. And so he did, Ryan becoming the single-season strikeout king with 383 in one season, one better than his hero Koufax.

All of this has me thinking about the Twins and their just-completed, disappointing 2022 season. Much of what went wrong can largely be attributed to the 30-some player injuries that plagued the team. But there was another problem as well: the mid-season departure of Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson, who joined the team in 2019 after serving as pitching coach at the University of Arkansas.

Johnson, a much respected pitching coach in the college ranks, was part of two postseason berths with the Twins in 2019 and 2020. The 2021 season was a down year and then the Twins found themselves in contention for most of this season until Johnson left for Louisiana State University. He was replaced by Pete Maki, an internal hire, but something clearly had changed because the Twins’ team ERA ballooned to 4.25 after Johnson’s exit, according to MLB.com.

His absence was certainly felt by Twins starter Sonny Gray.

“I was mad at him a lot today,” Gray was quoted as saying after he learned Johnson was moving on. “I was happy for him a lot today. I used every emotion and everything that I kind of was going through and kind of used it to pour into the game. But overall, I’m happy for him if this is what he wants, and this is something that is going to be best for him and his family moving forward … I’m going to miss him a lot.”

Former Twins pitcher Jim Kaat experienced the same under former pitching coach Johnny Sain in the mid-1960s, according to “The Pride of Minnesota: The Twins in the turbulent 1960s,” a 2021 book by Thom Henninger.

Kaat arguably had the two best seasons of his career in 1965 and 1996, tallying 43 wins, according to the book.

“The durable lefty believed he maximized his talent working with Sain, a sentiment shared by (Mudcat) Grant, the ace of the 1965 Twins staff,” Henninger writes.

But Sain wanted complete control over the pitching staff. That, plus his motivational style and use of self-help books, finally irked Twins manager Sam Mele and coach Billy Martin so Sain was released after the ’66 Season, according to the book.

Kaat was so shocked by the news on the radio that it forced him to pull over while driving. He later wrote an open letter to fans about his disappointment.

“This is the worst thing that could happen to our club at this time,” he said. “We had the finest pitching coach money can buy, and now, suddenly, he is gone. I think the fans should know what a huge void we have to fill.”


Hi, I’m Rolf Boone, Twins fan.

I became a fan of the Minnesota Twins after a friendly wager in the early 1980s. I survived Ron Davis, the meltdown in Cleveland, Phil Bradley at the Kingdome and then marveled at a rising generation of stars and two World Series wins in 1987 and 1991. Brad Radke made the 1990s bearable, while Kirby Puckett’s eye injury, exit from the game and eventual death made it almost too much to bear. The new century ushered in more talent — Joe Mauer, Johan Santana, Joe Nathan, Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau — and consecutive seasons of playoff baseball, followed by consecutive seasons of losing baseball. A winning season returned in 2015. So here we are. Go Twins.