After watching a pitching recruit throw in Phoenix on Monday morning, Jay Johnson zipped down I-10 to attend a press event for the Vamos a Tucson Mexican Baseball Fiesta in Tucson.
It was the first opportunity for the Arizona Wildcats coach to discuss his biggest acquisition of the offseason.
Last week Arizona hired Nate Yeskie as its associate head coach and pitching coach. Yeskie comes to the UA from Oregon State, where he coached multiple All-Americans and future pros and helped the Beavers win the 2018 College World Series.
Yeskie replaces infield coach Sergio Brown, who left Arizona to return to Cal State Fullerton, his alma mater, earlier this summer. In a corresponding move, Johnson shifted former pitching coach Dave Lawn to a new role as defensive coordinator. He will coach the catchers and first basemen and help position the infielders during games.
The first such opportunity will come in an Oct. 3 exhibition game against Naranjeros de Hermosillo at Kino Stadium. While discussing his team’s return to the Vamos a Tucson Mexican Baseball Fiesta, Johnson chatted with reporters about the addition of Yeskie and the changes to the staff. Portions of the conversation have been lightly edited for context and clarity.
You made a significant move with your coaching staff. How did that deal come together?
A: “When Coach Brown left … that was a tough loss. We’d built a good rapport working together. He recruited a lot of good players. So it was really just, how can we make the biggest positive impact on our program? So I reached out to Nate, and he had some interest. And I did everything I could, once I knew that he had some interest, to follow up.
“The credit goes to a couple things. This is a great program here. We have great fan support, we have really good young players. The energy that is behind it is really positive. Those things were attractive to him.
“And then (Athletic Director) Dave Heeke doing what we needed to do to make this happen. He gave his full support to it. That’s something I’m very grateful for.
“You could make an argument that (Yeskie is) one of the best pitching coaches, if not the best pitching coach, in the country.”
What makes Yeskie such an effective coach?
A: “The thing that has stood out to me in the past couple weeks talking through this process is the communication piece. As coaches, our job is to be teachers. His ability to communicate and translate what he wants to the player at a high level – and then doing it in a way where the player can not only understand it but learn it and apply it — is something I’m really looking forward to seeing. And on top of that, being very cutting edge with the latest pitching-development-type stuff.
“He does a good job calling pitches in the game. They were always an opponent that we had a lot of respect for. You didn’t necessarily always know what’s coming or how to plan accordingly.”
When you were looking to replace Sergio, did you set out to find a new pitching coach? Or was it just find the best assistant and put all the pieces together?
A: “It just kind of evolved, honestly. But I wanted high impact. There’s a lot of good and capable coaches that were interested in this job. But I wanted to see, how can we make this the best that we can?
“If you looked at any area of our team that we want to improve on, it was the pitching staff. (Arizona had a 6.21 team ERA last season.) So my thought was to go out and see if we could get one of the best pitching coaches in the country (who) also is a very good recruiter. His reputation, I think, will help us attract players, and that’s important. Frankly, I wanted somebody that just their presence will continue to allow us to push Arizona as a place that the top players in the West want to come play.”
What was the conversation like with Dave Lawn as this was unfolding?
A: “It was great. Coach Lawn, his experience is unmatched. His perspective is unmatched. You’re talking about a coach who has been to Omaha with three different programs in the Pac-12 and knows the ins and outs of our program, from my leadership style to our current players to what we need to improve on to (the) recruiting landscape. That’s not something you can really quantify.
“At no time was there any thought of making a move there. But to be able to upgrade the area we needed to upgrade the most, bring in Coach Yeskie and be able to keep Coach Lawn, it was the best possible scenario.”