FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas baseball coach figures he contacted Wes Johnson for the first time Monday night, two days after Mississippi State, where Johnson was pitching coach, was eliminated in the Super Regionals. The hiring of Johnson for the same role at Arkansas was announced Wednesday night and the new pitching coach was introduced Thursday morning.
Johnson was always on Van Horn’s shortlist.
"I’ve known about Wes for five, six years. Kind of followed his career. Started out I was really impressed with what was going on at (Dallas Baptist) a few years back. His name was getting out there. …. I knew that I would need to hire a pitching coach down the road, that coach Jorn was going to retire shortly and his name kept coming up."
Johnson arrived to Arkansas with a shorter resume than most. He spent a couple years as an assistant at Central Arkansas, four as pitching coach at Dallas Baptist and the last one doing the job at Mississippi State. High-school and Division II stops came before that.
But DBU is where he became a hot commodity. Johnson was the pitching coach for a patriots team that won a school-record 46 games in 2015. He had three All-Americans there and has coached 30 pro pitchers in less than 10 years at the Division I level. His first - and only, so far - year in the SEC yielded a positive trend, too, considering Mississippi State just won the SEC regular-season crown, Bulldogs ace Dakota Hudson was a first-round pick and the team finished in thee top five in the league in earned-run average.
His preferred method is likely to appeal to the masses. And more importantly to his new employer, to the players.
"Philosophy on pitching is real simple. I like power. I want power fastballs. Power breaking balls," Johnson said.
He is Arkansas through-and-through. A native of Sherwood, Arkansas, and a graduate of Sylvan Hills, Johnson played college baseball at Arkansas-Monticello. He had three coaching stops at Arkansas high schools. He is a shorter man, standing only about 5-foot-7, and carries a rather thick Natural State accent.
All those qualities are appealing to players within the state borders, especially. And while the Diamond Hogs cannot live and die with players solely products of the state’s preps system, 10 of the Razorbacks’ players last year were in-state products. Another handful of the 2016 recruiting class are the same.
All that is just bonus, Van Horn said. The draw were results at the highest level. The Arkansas thing helped, but Van Horn say first-hand - a couple times - of what pitchers from Johnson’s staffs are capable. He was drawn to him as a potential Jorn replacement as recently as two years ago.
"I have to admit when he left DBU in the fall (of 2015), went to Mississippi State, I was kind of bummed out because I thought that may have been one of the guys I might really been interested in. Now he’s been through he SEC. I think he got to see the league as good as its been and he gained some experience there"
Johnson will have experienced arms with which to work. Keaton McKinney, a junior, was a freshman All-American. Blaine Knight and Isaiah Campbell, sophomores, had positive first years in 2016. Dominic Taccolini, a starter the last two years, is expected to turn down his 19th-round draft spot and return to Arkansas, too. And while Arkansas saw three of its Class of 2016 pitchers drafted, Van Horn is hopeful to get two of them to campus - Brenden Heiss and Blake Lillis. Tyler Benninghoff, the first-taken of the three, is expected to turn professional.
An increase in staff velocity would be helpful for an Arkansas staff that finished last in the SEC overall and last in the SEC in earned-run average. McKinney had thrown low 90s for most of his freshman year then rarely hit 90 his sophomore year after recovering from hip surgery. Zach Jackson, who reached 96 or 97 several times his junior year, sat mostly at 91 and 92 last year. Taccolini was a high 80s guy. Through a bullpen role and Johnson’s tutelage, Van Horn is hopeful his would-be senior can consistently sit in the mid 90s.
"I’m real big on individualizing the process," Johnson said. "We could sit two guys right here and they could both be throwing a ball 90 miles an hour but their bodies are completely different. The other thing I beat into guys is you have to re-prioritize every day. Once you master something, you’ve got to keep going to the next. This league is unforgiving."
Even only slight improvement from the Razorbacks pitching staff would lead to a large win total increase in 2017. The lineup is expected to be more formidable with the return of Carson Shaddy and Luke Bonfield, both of whom would have taken in the middle of the draft last weekend, Van Horn said, had they not set their monetary demands so high. Dominic Fletcher, the most highly-regarded freshman in the incoming class, is the same.
The key lies in the arms. And that’s why Johnson is arrived.
"You want to start developing that relationship immediately with the guys currently on the team, with the recruits that have already committed. We have to find more. It’s going to be pretty hectic, but it’s fun. That’s why you do this."