The New LSU, Part 1: Wes Johnson Goes Back to School

Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s a clear no. 1 biggest college baseball program in the country, I’m not going to offer my opinion on what it is. Not because I don’t have an opinion on the subject, but because sharing it — no matter what answer you give — tends to invite dozens of message board posters to find out where you live and hide spiders in your car.

Regardless of who’s no. 1, LSU — in terms of tradition, program success, resources, developmental track record, and fan support — has to be up there.

In 2022, former Arizona and Nevada head coach Jay Johnson took over for the recently retired Paul Manieri, who’d made five College World Series in his 15 seasons in Baton Rouge, and won the 2009 national championship. Results in Johnson’s first year were in the neighborhood of what Manieri accomplished in his final few seasons: The Tigers went 40-22 (17-13 in SEC play) before falling to Southern Mississippi in a regional final. Whether that’s viewed as a failure, a minor disappointment, or a step in the right direction, one thing is for absolute certain: It’s not where LSU wants to be.

Since LSU’s last title in 2009, five other SEC programs have won a total of seven national championships. In 2022, the eight-team College World Series field included four SEC West teams (Arkansas, Auburn, Texas A&M, and eventual winner Ole Miss) and two others (Texas and Oklahoma) that will join the conference in 2025. LSU is in the minority of SEC West programs that aren’t coming off a trip to Omaha; one of the two others, Mississippi State, won the whole thing in 2021.

It’s hard out there, man. And standing still or running it back wasn’t an option.

If a big-time MLB team were in LSU’s position, it could sign free agents or make a big trade. For a long time, college teams had no parallel options. High school recruits had to be courted for years in advance, and frequently required significant development once on campus. Transfers from other four-year schools had to redshirt. Junior college transfers could play immediately, but impact players at that level were few, and there certainly weren’t enough for a team like LSU to remake itself as a juggernaut in a matter of months.

But in 2021, the NCAA loosened its transfer restrictions, offering all athletes a one-time transfer without sitting out a year. This allowed free movement of players among top programs for the first time. LSU certainly isn’t the first or only team to take advantage of the new rules. But no other team had treated the transfer portal like NBA free agency before.

To a team that already included presumptive no. 1 overall draft pick Dylan Crews, LSU added the country’s top transfer class: from Air Force, two-way player Paul Skenes, a potential top-10 pick in his own right. From N.C. State, third baseman Tommy White, who last season won the Golden Spikes Award, set the NCAA freshman home run record, and emerged as one of the biggest stars in the college game. On top of those two absolutely titanic additions, LSU brought in three more transfers who would constitute a remarkable class on their own: former UCLA pitcher Thatcher Hurd, former Vanderbilt pitcher Christian Little, and former VCU second baseman Ben Nippolt.

The result, the runaway preseason no. 1 team in the country. On Opening Day, LSU started Crews, three other returning juniors, three freshmen, and three transfers: Skenes, White, and Nippolt. Even after a minor shoulder injury to White, the Tigers swept Western Michigan with ease.

This is the first installment in a two-part series on LSU’s rebuild. (On Tuesday, look for an article based on a preseason interview with Skenes.) But as good as these players are, one could argue that the most impactful — and most shocking — addition Jay Johnson made to the program this past offseason wasn’t a transfer, but a coach.

In June of last year, Wes Johnson made national headlines (which takes some doing for a pitching coach) when he left his post with the Minnesota Twins in the middle of the season, with the intention of taking the same job at LSU. Prior to his three-and-a-half-year tenure in Minnesota, Johnson had been one of the premier pitching coaches at the college level, with notable stops over the previous decade at Dallas Baptist, Mississippi State, and Arkansas.

Johnson’s appointment to Rocco Baldelli’s staff in 2019 was itself newsworthy; while other college pitching coaches had gone on to work in the pros, none had made the jump directly from Division I to MLB before. (A year later, Chris Fetter followed suit, moving slightly east from the University of Michigan to the Detroit Tigers.) Johnson’s tenure with the Twins had been largely successful; Minnesota won back-to-back division titles his first two seasons in the majors, and Kenta Maeda finished second in Cy Young voting in 2020. It confounded the baseball world that Johnson would give that up in order to head back to the college game. But he doesn’t regret the decision.

“I’m at the right place,” he says. “LSU has got — I can’t say unlimited resources — but a phenomenal resource base for us to really get back into true development with some guys. And it’s been great.”

When Johnson hit the highest levels of college baseball a decade ago, the college game was still shaking off a reputation for grumpy, old-school coaches. But in the 2010s, a new generation of forward-thinking coaches brought pitching pedagogy up to — and in some cases beyond — the level that could be found in many MLB facilities. Since then, information and coaches have crossed freely between the amateur and professional game, with Johnson as one of the most prominent examples.

And even now, top college programs can compete with MLB teams in terms of tools and technology, Johnson says.

“At the collegiate level, I think we can actually get more stuff and more resources than some of the big league teams can, at least from a developmental standpoint. Going out and purchasing Hawkeye and putting it in every stadium — that’s a different story,” he says. “But as far as like, force plate mounds, motion capture, and labs, getting everything set up, and being able to manipulate that — at least where I’m at — I’ll challenge the lab I’ve got with anybody’s.”

Johnson has a smaller support staff at LSU than in Minnesota, but he has fewer pitchers to keep track of, a shorter season, and more off days to work with. Last season, the Twins played 162 competitive games and used 38 pitchers, playing six days a week. LSU played 62 competitive games and used 18 pitchers, playing four or five days a week during the regular season.

I asked Johnson if the smaller staff and shorter schedule gave him more of a chance to be hands-on with his pitchers. So he took me through a starting pitcher’s routine at both the big league and college level to illustrate the difference.

“Let’s take last year with the Twins. Say Joe Ryan throws and maybe we catch something in his mocap data,” he offers as a hypothetical example. “Joe’s got to throw in five days, and he’s gonna [throw a bullpen] one of those days, probably day three. And it’s not like the old school days where guys were throwing 80-pitch ‘pens. A good ‘pen now is 20, a heavy ‘pen now is 30, so you don’t have a ton of time there. You’ve got a lot of guys now that take a day off from throwing; they’re doing a lot of recovery in the weight room. Day one he might not throw at all, other than maybe some plyo balls. Maybe throw a football. But actual delivery work? You’re not there. Then he’s gonna go into some longer throwing day two, then he’s got a ‘pen. The day before [the start] you’re not going to blow the guy out, throwing-wise. So you really only have one day to work on any adjustments that need to be made.”

Compare that to a typical week for an LSU pitcher.

“Here, because guys are throwing typically every second day when they start,” he says, “you can get a minimum of two and in most weeks three days where you’re able to really put guys through some drill work or whatever it is that they need. Just from the movement or mechanical standpoint, you have more time.”

I used the term “pedagogy” in relation to pitching a few paragraphs ago, and I want to go back to that idea for a minute here. Johnson tends to give long, detailed answers to seemingly routine questions. In previous jobs, I’d occasionally write stories that involved getting the perspective of an expert in the physical or social sciences: an academic, who splits their time between research and teaching. Scientists often answer interview questions the same way Johnson does — the way most pitching coaches do, in my experience: Lots of background information, context, occasional check-in comments to make sure you’re still following along. It’s a way of speaking particular to someone whose livelihood depends not only on knowing as much as possible, but in communicating that knowledge to non-experts.

And as much as Johnson’s made his mark as a data-driven coach, he knew that when he got to LSU, the first thing he needed to do was to establish communication and credibility with his new players.

“You first have to get to know the player. You gotta learn his personality,” he said. “I don’t care what people think or how smart they think they are — a majority of people in this world don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care about them. We have all kinds of different personalities in today’s game. There’s nothing wrong with that — as a matter of fact, I encourage players not only to be their personality, but to pitch to their personality.”

A more open-minded approach, rather than a hierarchical, one-size-fits-all outlook, would seem to suit today’s college game. After all, players can transfer without penalty if they think a coach or a program isn’t the best place for them. But Johnson says it’s not just about that; establishing trust early makes it easier to get players to learn.

“I’ve been this way for a long time,” Johnson says. “As I tell every player, ‘I’m not going to come to you and subjectively ask you to make a change. We’re going to sit down and I’m going to give you true, objective data. I’m going to tell you why I think you need to change and it’s going to backed up 100% by objective data. And from there, you and I have to sit down and figure out the how.’ There are some things in this game you better adapt to or you die. I don’t think that’s one that will ever change. People are still human. People still have feelings. People still have emotions. We have to learn what those are for each player.”

So what does Johnson need to be successful? Why did he leave a major league team in the middle of the season and go back to the SEC?

As flush as LSU’s athletics department seems to be at the moment, it’s not the money, at least not primarily the money. When he was introduced as the new pitching coach last June, The Daily Advertiser of Lafayette, Louisiana, reported that his base salary was $380,000, down from a reported $400,000 in Minnesota. And whenever I asked about the difference in coaching pros versus college students, he tended to either downplay the difference between the two or make clear that he also enjoyed the specific challenges of coaching in the majors.

But the lifestyle of a college coach made more sense for Johnson, who has two children in their 20s and one (“our little surprise,” as he said) who’s just 13. At LSU, he’s still working long hours and traveling quite a bit — even during the offseason, when recruiting and summer ball take up more of a coach’s attention. Johnson says if he were still with the Twins, he’d be in Florida right now for spring training for the better part of two months. Now that he’s still in Baton Rouge, it’s easier to find time to see his family.

“If you’re going to be good and competitive in anything in life, you’ve got to work. You’re not getting around that,” he says. “I think it’s more about how you’re able to manage that time… I’m still putting in a 12-hour day, there are just windows where I can break free for an hour or two and go watch a basketball game or volleyball match, then come back and finish work.”

And there’s plenty of work to do, even with all of LSU’s resources and talent. As high as expectations always are in Baton Rouge, the arrival of Johnson, Skenes, and White — and the preseason no. 1 ranking — has brought those expectations to a new high.

“I don’t look at pressure. That just means you’re where you’re supposed to be,” he says. “That should be something that energizes you, not causes panic or worry or whatever. We’re gonna wake up every day, I’m gonna go down to [the field] here in a few minutes and I’m gonna get some guys better. And we’re going to come into every game, I like to think, as prepared as anybody… And we’re going to go and try to execute a game plan. If we do those things right, wins and losses take care of themselves.”

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic,, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

I wasn’t aware Texas and Oklahoma are joining the SEC. It’s fitting in that the rich getting much richer is like the theme of the 21st century globally and within this land of freedom and bravery. Relentlessly and unopposed too, amazing…What’s new to watch on Netflix this week?

1 year ago
Reply to  SenorGato

It’s a tale far older than the 21st century, its a tale as old as time. This already played out once when the SWC was broken up to form the Big 12.