The 2022 college baseball season isn’t but a couple of days past over but the former kings of the dirt diamond are making headlines. The LSU Tigers, with six national championships but none since 2009, have decided enough is enough with several other SEC West schools having all the fun. In a total power play, LSU only let SEC West rival Ole Miss have a day on their national championship before rocking the baseball world with the announcement of hiring Wes Johnson as their new pitching coach. Nice job Rebels, but the Tigers are reminding everyone who the traditional boss is in these parts.
The news had a ripple effect not only in college but also the major leagues as Johnson, who previously coached at Mississippi State and Arkansas, was the pitching coach for the American League Central leading Minnesota Twins until the Tigers came calling. Odd timing from an MLB standpoint but now is when schools are gobbling up transfers and seeing future prospects in person and LSU can’t afford to wait. The Twins promoted their bullpen coach to fill Johnson’s role until the end of the season.
Johnson made huge headlines after the Razorbacks 2018 national runner up campaign when he was believed to be the first college pitching coach to jump to MLB when the Twins hired him. Now, Johnson flips the script and leaves the first place Twins to go back and coach college pitchers. He was making approximately $350,000 with the Twins according to reports but now will make $380,000 at LSU. For reference, Arkansas’s Matt Hobbs makes $300,000 after receiving a 60,000 raise last year.
That slight salary jump tells me this move wasn’t so much about the money as it was a desire to get back to coaching college pitchers.
LSU Baseball Reign
LSU’s dominance in college baseball under the legendary Skip Bertman catapulted the Tiger brand to the top of the game. The Tigers owned the 1990s with national championships in 1991, 1993, 1996, 1997 and 1998, and then slipped in another in 2000. Bertman went to the College World Series 11 times and won seven SEC titles in 18 seasons.
Paul Manieri came on board in 2007 and won his first and only national championship in 2009 with five trips to Omaha in his fifteen full seasons at the helm. His retirement after the 2021 season led to the hiring of Jay Johnson, who had led Arizona to the CWS in 2016 and 2021 and was the reigning PAC12 coach of the year when he jumped over to the Tigers.
LSU was good in 2022 but not “LSU good” as the bar is set very high in Baton Rouge. The Tigers finished 40-22 and third in the SEC West while qualifying as a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Tigers lost 8-7 to Southern Miss in the Hattiesburg regional final to conclude their season. LSU had loads of talent on the offensive side but struggled on the mound as they have the past few seasons. Depth was a concern as the Tigers admittedly “ran out of bullets” at the regional in Hattiesburg as starting pitching was very inconsistent which taxed the bullpen heavily.
Jay Johnson’s inaugural pitching coach at LSU, Jason Kelly, recently took the head coaching position at the University of Washington where he had previously spent seven years as the Huskies’ pitching coach. That vacancy led to Wes Johnson’s opportunity to return to big time college baseball.
LSU has also made a couple of big splashes in the transfer portal with the signing of NC State’s big banger Tommy White and Vanderbilt’s RHP Christian Little. White batted .362 with 27 home runs and 74 RBI, with a slugging percentage of .757 in his first collegiate season. Little appeared in 18 games as a sophomore for the Commodores with a 3.72 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 38.2 innings pitched. Word is Arkansas had at least a conversation with Little about transferring to Fayetteville, but it sounds like the opportunity to pitch under Wes Johnson lured him to Baton Rouge. (Little’s announcement happened a little before Johnson’s, but he almost certainly still would have known.)
Expect this to be the first of many pitcher recruiting battles (both involving the transfer portal and high school ranks) between the LSU and Arkansas baseball programs in the LSU Wes Johnson era.
Little and Tommy White complement infielder Jack Pineda (Baylor) and RHP Dylan Tebrake (Creighton) who had already committed to LSU before Wes Johnson’s hiring. Tebrake has a very good shot at being drafted high enough to spurn LSU but time will tell. LSU currently has 9 players in the portal and a few others that will be high draft picks including hard hitting Jacob Berry who followed Jay Johnson from Arizona to LSU so there is plenty of room for more. LSU’s 2022 recruiting class is ranked #1 by Perfect Game before the July MLB draft. How many of those guys actually make it to campus will have to play out as eleven of their signees are ranked in the top 100 high school players. For reference, Arkansas’s No. 5-ranked class has three.
The Wes Report
While Jay Johnson teams are known for their high powered offensive prowess, Wes Johnson now brings a proven commodity to the pitching side of things. At his previous stops at Mississippi State and then Arkansas, Wes Johnson’s staffs were revered for power pitching and depth. In Wes’s last year in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks finished runner up at the College World Series led by Blaine Knight and Matthew Cronin. But that staff also had a very dependable Kasey Murphy, a rising ace in Isaiah Campbell and stalwarts in the bullpen via Barrett Loseke and Jake Reindl. He also had future Golden Spikes winner Kevin Kopps as a freshman and current big leaguers Trevor Stephan (Guardians) and Evan Lee (Nationals/DL with injury).
Wes Johnson has long been considered an innovator which makes a lot of sense because he wasn’t a pitcher in his playing days. A middle infielder turned pitching guru came from being a visionary in terms of understanding pitcher biomechanics before anyone else really thought that way.
Starting in 2014 when he was the pitching coach at Dallas Baptist, “Johnson has openly embraced the use of TrackMan — a tool that catalogs a number of advanced stat data points — as part of his work with young pitchers,” The Athletic’s Dan Hayes wrote in 2018. “Instead of focusing on repeatable deliveries, Johnson told Whole Hog Sports that he’s more concerned with a consistent release point height and works with pitchers to disguise their pitches.”
“Velocity is one thing it gets and spin on the baseball, but more importantly to me is release point, tilt on their hands, spin axis of the baseball, extension,” Johnson said in January 2017.
His trajectory from head coach tiny Abundant Life High School in Sherwood, to UCA, to Dallas Baptist to Mississippi State to Arkansas then the big leagues and now to one, if not, the most storied program in college baseball is truly remarkable.
I actually know Wes well as we coached some American Legion baseball together in North Little Rock in the early 2000s and I worked with his wife at the old Worthen Bank (now Bank of America). We stayed in touch, especially when he took the Arkansas job, as he recruited some of the pitchers I had while a volunteer pitching coach at Catholic High School in Little Rock.
Wes now can apply MLB level knowledge and experience to recruit, mentor and coach top end college talent as LSU is surely to be very attractive to rising recruits and of course, the transfer market. But he is very demanding of his pitchers. There’s hard work – then there’s Wes’s version of hard work. His program won’t be for every kid as many think they want to work that hard until it becomes a minimum requirement. But those type pitchers do exist and Wes will find them. And he now has the LSU brand and history as ammo on the recruiting trail.
SEC ON ALERT
There is a saying “never kick a sleeping bear” and by the virtue of Ole Miss winning the national title and Mississippi State winning last year coupled with Texas A&M, Arkansas and Auburn all making the CWS in 2022, LSU has found itself exhausted at the fact it is not the premier program in the SEC West any longer. Throw in Tennessee’s rise along with Texas and Oklahoma’s soon-to-be presences in the SEC and a place where “it just means more” is more than a catchy tagline.
The addition of White to hit in front of or behind Dylan Crews will be as potent a 1-2 punch as there can be in college baseball. Crews may be the top position player MLB prospect in the league next year. He along with first basemen Tre Morgan are vying for spots on Team USA’s summer roster along with Razorbacks Hagen Smith and Brady Tygart. Razorbacks Jaxon Wiggins and Robert Moore played on the team last summer.
Wes Johnson’s impact on the pitching staff should be immediate as there are some talented arms on the roster that were inconsistent. Little should jump up a notch too as he wasn’t given much opportunity to start at Vandy but could be a future ace at LSU with Johnson working his magic. Tebrake and others from the transfer portal should bolster their pitching staff as well.
The literal arms race in SEC baseball is on, especially with Texas and Oklahoma looming. The teams that make it out of that gauntlet in upcoming seasons should be poised to make serious runs to Omaha. The trick is who will it be. Nobody is going to separate that much to make a run every year so it may be a revolving door. And some very, very good baseball teams will likely finish under .500 in league play but capable of winning the whole thing. That is how tough that league is going to be.
Arkansas Baseball Must Raise Bar Even More
Wes Johnson’s hiring will force everyone else in the West to raise their level. Not that they don’t do that already as each year adds top end talent, assistant coaches and occasionally a head coach to the league. Those at the bottom of the league will have a hard time gaining traction at this point. Especially without investment in facilities and coach’s salaries. The reasoning behind “pay to play” has never been more true.
One thing is for sure: the days of kicking LSU around are over. The SEC is exponentially better top to bottom that it was when LSU was making those annual runs to Omaha and winning national championships routinely. But between Wes Johnson’s hire, Jay Johnson’s ability to run a rock ‘em, sock ‘em offense and the talent those guys will assemble, LSU’s rise back to the top of the heap in college baseball should be meteoric.
I’m just not so sure Ole Miss, Arkansas and the rest of the SEC West are ready to hand them the trophy. Fans are going to be treated to some remarkably good baseball in the coming years. High end coaches, high end talent, high end facilities.
This is bad news for the Pac-12, Big 12 and the ACC. Those leagues can generate a special team or two, but nowhere near the depth. Coaches and facilities attract players. Players win ball games.
And that secures the SEC’s Omaha dominance won’t be ending any time soon.
More on What Separates Wes Johnson
“(Johnson is) someone who is incessantly curious and is willing to dive in and learn as much as possible,” the Twins’ chief baseball officer told The Athletic. “(He was) using some of that technology well before we were really deep into it at the pro side in terms of development. He’s got an old-school personality the way he approaches pitching, which is: “Go at guys, be confident, build that type of approach.” That’s important for a pitching coach.”
“But what he can layer on top of that is a wealth of experience in actually demonstrating there are some things that a guy can do with his stuff that he might be utilizing a little differently or maybe changes in grips and how to better effect movement.”
When it comes to interpreting data, the Dallas Baptist head baseball coach Dan Heefner said Wes Johnson is “just elite with it. It’s one thing to like that stuff. It’s another to use it. But it’s another whole thing to be able to use it (correctly) and he had a very unique ability to be able to look at the numbers and distinguish which ones are important, what makes a guy different. I think his real gift is he really understands the numbers, but he can communicate it to a player in a way that simplifies it.”
“He used analytics to make players more confident,” he told The Athletic. “He is really, really good at building guys’ confidence up and almost just to say, ‘Hey, here’s what it says. The way you throw your fastball in this location, they can’t touch it because nobody else throws it the way you do.’”