Earlier this week, news broke that Wes Johnson, the well-regarded pitching coach for the Minnesota Twins, was leaving the Twins to become the new pitching coach for LSU.
The news was unexpected and, really, pretty strange. Major league coaches — particularly a hitting or pitching coach — generally aren’t going to jump ship mid-season. That’s especially true when its a coach for a playoff contender, where the team is happy with the coach and isn’t giving any indications that they are going to make a change.
But to go from the major leagues — the pinnacle of the sport — to college baseball? Yes, LSU is one of the top programs in the nation, and plays in one of the top conferences, but still, it is, prestige-wise, something of a step down. And that makes Johnson’s move rather remarkable.
Eno Sarris and Zach Buchanan have a story at The Athletic about the move, and what it possibly means for other coaches and other teams going forward. The story is worth checking out, for a number of reasons, but what struck me in reading about it is what it reveals about the compensation for coaches, and what it says about how they are valued.
When news broke about Johnson’s departure, it was reported that he was getting a substantial raise to leave Minnesota for Baton Rouge, with Johnson getting around $750,000 per year to coach for the Tigers. There’s also a quality-of-life issue, as coaches with big time college programs do much less travel, particularly during the season, than MLB coaches do, and thus get to spend many more nights at home with their families. But the huge jump in salary would seem to be, if not the definitive factor, at least the major one.
The Sarris/Buchanan article expands on the compensation issue, noting that Johnson was making $400,000 per year for the Twins. It also explains how colleges provide additional revenue streams aside from the base salary (which Sarris and Buchanan say is $388,000 for LSU) to make the overall package richer than what is publicly reported by the schools.
How does Johnson’s $400K compare to the rest of the league? From Sarris/Buchanan:
No source contacted for this article knew of any pitching coaches who made [$750,000] in the big leagues. One current big-league coach guessed that average compensation for big-league hitting coaches was around $285,000 while pitching coaches earned an average of $325,000, which would put Johnson’s salary from the Twins on the high end of the big-league scale[.]
What strikes me about this is what it says about how MLB organizations value coaches. As you know if you followed the CBA negoations this offseason, minimum salaries for major league players was a big source of contention in striking a new deal. The minimum salary for an MLB player was $570,500 in 2021, while under the new CBA, the minimum salary is now $700,000.
The fact that major league coaches make a fraction of what even the lowest-paid major league player makes speaks volumes — to me at least — about how major league organizations value coaches. Teams are willing to spend significant sums in order to gain an advantage. The value of a marginal win on the free agent market for players has been discussed for years now, and while marginal win value isn’t linear for an individual player (a 0 win to 1 win delta for a player has less value than a 3 win to 4 win delta, for example) and depends on each individual team’s situation, we can comfortably say that a marginal win is going to be valued at somewhere from $5 to $10 million.
And unlike players, teams don’t get six years of control with coaches. Coaches generally work off of one or two year deals. They have the ability to change positions much more often than players do. A coach who is seen as particularly effective, who could make a major impact on a pitching staff or on a lineup, who could drive significant improvement, would be someone teams would spend aggressively on.
Instead, teams are paying coaches the equivalent of slot value for a sixth round draft pick. Which would seem to indicate that, well, coaches aren’t seen as that important, are seen as largely interchangeable. They are compensated well, at least at the major league level — minor league coaches make a fraction of what major league coaches do — but their salaries are a drop in the bucket compared to what the players make.
The Sarris/Buchanan article linked above goes into this in more depth — and, again, I’m going to encourage you to read it, if you haven’t already — but it is just striking to me how little difference MLB organizations appear to perceive there to be among coaches. One pitching coach or hitting coach, teams appear to believe, is largely no different than any other pitching or hitting coach in the overall available pool of coaches.