Reusse: Former Twins pitching coach Johnson brings his velocity to Georgia

Wes Johnson was asked about the strength of the Southeastern Conference in baseball, knowing this would allow him to brag about the competition being faced in a first season as the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs.

"There is our league and there is everybody else," Johnson said by cellphone on Tuesday. "I would equate the SEC in college baseball to the glory days of the American League East, when every team was good."

If you followed Wes in 3½ seasons as the Twins pitching coach, from 2019 to the end of June 2022, you had to suspect this was not going to come without some evidence.

"One basic but telling statistic is that the average fastball in our league is a couple miles per hour higher than in the next best league," Johnson said. "Actually, it was 1.6 [mph] the last time I checked."

Likely, that was on Monday, after a weekend when the Bulldogs swept Vanderbilt for the first time since 2003, filling their compact Foley Field over the seating capacity of 3,200. This raised Georgia to 35-12 overall, 13-11 in the SEC and to No. 15 in the national rankings.

Velocity was the most-routine of the numbers that Johnson, 52, has used in his quest to get the most out of pitchers, which goes back to his first six years of coaching — as an assistant at Sylvan Hills High School in Arkansas.

Sixteen years later, after stops at two more Arkansas high schools and four colleges (including the rising Dallas Baptist program from 2012 to 2015), the Twins hired him on Nov. 15, 2018, to become new manager Rocco Baldelli's pitching coach.

He was the first-ever coach known to make that transition: from college directly to being the pitching coach for a big-league team.

That made you a baseball pioneer, Wes … right?

"I didn't think of myself that way," he said. "I just saw it as a great opportunity to work with very good people. Working for Rocco [Baldelli] … in my mind, I don't think there's a better manager. A lot of what I learned from him I'm trying to use as a head coach in college."

Pitching theories were evolving in the 2010s at about the same rate as artificial intelligence is right now. Pitching coach Garvin Alston was ousted along with manager Paul Molitor after the 2018 season. And in came Baldelli — and Johnson.

Twins baseball boss Derek Falvey heard Johnson speak at pitching coaches clinic in "2012 or 2013″ and repeated this Tuesday:

"The thing that stood out back then was how much he focused on development that was rooted in the newer data. Very few coaches were as curious about how to improve pitchers as Wes."

As surprising as it was in the fall of 2018 to hire a pitching coach from college, it was more so when Johnson told the Twins in late June 2022 that he had taken the pitching coach job at LSU — and wanted to leave quickly.

One reason offered for LSU needing him in midsummer was to assist with new, volatile world of the transfer portal. That reason sounded thin then, not so much now.

"I was able to recruit Paul Skenes and he committed to us in late July," Johnson said. "We also brought in another very good pitcher and were able to keep another who was going to transfer."

Result: Skenes, transferring from the Air Force Academy where he was a two-way player (including as a very tall catcher), was a superstar pitcher for LSU on its way to winning the 2023 College World Series.

He was the No. 1 overall draft choice and now all Pirates fans await his arrival as Skenes dominates in Class AAA. In fact, Skenes' girlfriend — Olivia Dunne, the LSU gymnast estimated to earn $3.9 million per year in NIL money — caused a stir recently by suggesting that was near.

Another of Johnson's avowed reasons for leaving the Twins was the desire to eventually become a college head coach. Georgia hired him last June 5, and then he stayed with LSU through the dramatics of the College World Series.

And get this: The Bulldogs probably will have the No. 1 overall selection in the MLB draft in 6-6 slugger Charlie Condon, with home runs estimated at … well, Johnson said:

"There have been a couple of 450-footers. We've been playing him at four, five places for position versatility. But Charlie's been very good at third base."

Bottom line:

As we approach the second anniversary of Wes' last game with the Twins, we have better answers as to why this 5-foot-7 gent with the big pitching brain chose to return to the college game.