FORT MYERS, Fla. — Kyle Gibson is six-and-a-half feet tall, and a recent bout with E. coli left the Twins righty tipping the scale at less than 200 pounds. He was skinny before, and he reported to spring training this year a little light, even by his standards.
His new pitching coach, Wes Johnson, didn’t waste any time.
“He’s skinny so I call him Big Beef Mountain,” Johnson joked. “And he calls me Death Valley.”
Johnson, who stands 5-foot-7 if you’re feeling generous, is well aware of where you’ll find the lowest-elevation point in North America. He’s here to make you laugh. He’s also here to educate.
The former Arkansas Razorbacks pitching coach is making the jump to the Major Leagues this season, which just might be the first such jump of its kind. He said he thinks there will be eyes on him as he rises from the college ranks to the big leagues, and he said that won’t distract him from the goal. The Twins are counting on that. And they’re counting on Johnson, along with the rest of the coaching staff and support staff throughout the Majors and minor leagues, to help elevate a pitching staff that could use a boost.
It’s plain to see what Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey — with his evidence-based approach to decisions – liked about Johnson.
“When a guy comes to you and says he read something on social media and asks, ‘Will that work for me?’ You’d better be able to answer,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to be telling these guys — if we’re making a change — why we’re doing that.”
Armed with knowledge and eager to explain the ‘Why.’ Music to Falvey’s ears.
Related listening: Catch our interview with Wes Johnson, new Twins pitching coach
In 2012 while working at Dallas Baptist University, one of the school’s executive vice presidents offered Johnson a chance to learn biomechanics, “almost like taking the class,” Johnson explained. Two years later and with a working knowledge of the subject matter, the pitching coach was excited by the data gathered by TrackMan, and began using it to help make his pitchers better.
“We started putting our guys through biomechanics, and you just started learning,” Johnson said. “I tell people all the time that you find out how different each individual really is. So for me to teach Stephen Gonsalves and Martin Perez to pitch the same way is silly in my mind. … It was about 2012 we really started individualizing pitching plans. And not only plans but philosophies. For example, not everybody needs to throw down in the zone. Or not everybody needs to have a curveball. Or not everybody needs to have just the classic straight change.”
Johnson said that the understanding of biomechanics led the staff to a couple discoveries. One was how to approach each pitcher with a tailored plan to make him better. One other important finding, he said, was to unearth the capability and limitations of what each pitcher could do with a baseball.
“It was also telling us what they could and couldn’t do from a stuff perspective. I still say that’s one of the biggest things in my development that I’ve had as a coach,” Johnson said.
With an understanding of the science of how the body moves, Johnson sought out data to help complete the picture. “We had been really investigating Trackman in the fall of 2014. Because I knew that the biomechanics that we were getting led us to a story about what to use for a guy,” Johnson said. “So once we got Trackman data in the fall of 2014 and into the fall of 2015, everything started to line up. We knew a lot of what you’re seeing in baseball today: This guy has a fastball that rides, so he needs to throw up in the zone; And then he has sink, so we need to make sure he’s always down in the zone, just to use basic examples. That’s where you get your 1 percent [advantage].”
Johnson said he wouldn’t make the jump from college to the big leagues for just any club. He wanted to be sure, he said, that it wasn’t just the Twins’ front office talking a big game about player development and leaning progressive. After conversation with Falvey and GM Thad Levine, Johnson said he liked what he was hearing from Minnesota.
“Then I started talking with Rocco [Baldelli] to make sure that we weren’t just doing it in the front office, we were doing it on the field. It just became real clear that Rocco was wanting to move in that direction. And boy, that made it pretty easy,” Johnson said. “Once those factors line up, then you’re like, ‘OK, I’ll make this jump.'”
One early example of Johnson’s impact is Martin Perez hitting 97 mph on the Hammond Stadium radar gun earlier this spring. Another would be what Stephen Gonsalves is calling the “Road to 95.”
After resting in the upper-80s with his fastball last summer, Gonsalves peaked at a radar gun earlier this spring and saw a few 93s. That made him smile. Johnson had visited the soft-spoken lefty this winter in California. “He said he had a couple ideas to increase the velo and get a little tilt in my hips and drive harder down the hill,” Gonsalves said after a recent spring start. “Saw a couple 93s up there that I was very happy with, and an 89 mile-an-hour slider. So as long as there’s no more 86 and 87 [mph] fastballs, I’ll be happy.”
“The first step was working on arm speed — move it as quick as you possibly can,” the young lefty explained. “Once we started there we moved down to the hips and we’ll get a little bit more torque. He’s all biomechanics and all that stuff, so he’s introducing that stuff to me. It’s coming along great.”
Johnson said that it’s part body movement and “unlocking” previous athletic movement patterns within the pitcher. He’s also getting help from people like Twins strength coach Ian Kadish and head athletic trainer Tony Leo, he said, to help Gonsalves reach his velocity goals.
The Road to 95 “is very skinny and windy and straight up hill for [Gonsalves],” Johnson said. “To unlock those movement patterns and get them back is hard. … You’re going to experience a peak and you’re going to experience a valley. … It’s hard but of course he’s taking to it extremely well.”
*Biomechanics and their impact on a pitching coach *Don’t call him Mr. Data or Mr. Velocity. *Wes Johnson wants to have fun and educate Twins pitchers *“For me to leave college it really had to be a progressive organization – that I really thought was progressive — not just in the front office but on the field.”
That project, The Road to 95, is just one example among the numerous personalized plans that Johnson and the staff have in place. And if there’s one misconception that the former college pitching coach would like to clear up?
“I don’t think I’m all data-driven. There has to be a piece of subjectivity in us all. How’s a guy’s stuff that day? And I think you get labeled, right? Velocity or data or whatever.
“But I think at the end of the day I do have fun and I get to know our guys really well on a personal level. … and so I think there’s the subjectivity you’ve got to have. When they come to you that day and they’re like, ‘Hey man, I don’t have my breaking ball today.’ And I say, ‘That’s fine, we’re going to be able to compete with just our fastball and changeup, for example. And we’re going to find that breaking ball it just may be later in the game and in certain situations.’
“So there’s still a piece of me that still has quite a bit of subjectivity to it,” he said.