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Fire Everyone! - Carl Willis

This is the third installment in a 12-part series.

The case is simple:  Our pitching stinks, fire the pitching coach.

While we've seen consistently good-to-great lineups for the past four years or so, our rotation has gone from a wonderfully deep collection of quality pitchers to an utter wasteland.  As for our bullpens, the words "historically bad" have been used — without hyperbole — to describe four of the last six.

In fairness to Willis, a recap is in order of some truly great pitching Indians fans have seen under his watch:

  • CC Sabathia (2003), Jake Westbrook (2004) and Cliff Lee (2005) all emerged as young quality starters in Willis' first three seasons with the club.
  • Veterans Brian Anderson (2003) and Scott Elarton (2004) had solid bounce-back seasons.
  • Injury-plagued Kevin Millwood (2005) won the AL ERA title in his only season with Willis, and Carl Pavano (2009) returned from a four-year hiatus to become an above-average starter.
  • Rafael Betancourt emerged as one of the few consistently good middle relievers in the game.
  • The 2005 staff led the league in ERA and allowed just 3.96 runs per game.  The club essentially made it through the season using only five starters, and it was essentially just as steady and stable in 2006.
  • The 2005 bullpen in particular led the league in ERA and WHIP by significant margins and might have been the best in club history.
  • Sabathia emerged as a true ace late in the 2005 season, producing Cy Young-caliber seasons in 2007 and 2008.
  • Fausto Carmona (2007) produced a Cy Young-caliber season while barely more than a rookie.
  • Cliff Lee (2008) produced a dominant, historic season, including a unanimous Cy Young award, and one of the most remarkable comeback stories the game has ever seen.

It is an impressive list of accomplishments — which just makes it all the more amazing that there's a good case for firing the guy.    On a macro level, the bullpen has been the runaway leading culprit in the trademark early-season collapses of the Wedge era.  If it weren't for those four horrendous bullpens, in fact, there likely would never have been any talk whatsoever about Wedge's teams starting slow.

Despite many seemingly fine internal candidates, he has never been able to cultivate a closer.  Jason Davis and Fernando Cabrera withered away to nothing, and Jensen Lewis seems to be following not far behind them.  A long list of pitchers have arrived in Cleveland ready to compete and even dominate — Carmona, Davis, Cabrera, Sowers, Perez, Lewis — and then, at some point before they hit the two-year mark, they just lose it.  Too many of the Indians' best young pitchers seem to forget how to pitch completely, or they lose the ability to do what made them successful.  And when they forget, Willis seems utterly unable to remind them.

Time after time, we see pitchers shipped down to the minors to reconstruct their games.  This is in part a practical necessity, but at some point the question must be asked:  Isn't the pitching coach supposed to help the pitchers, you know, pitch better?

You may not be surprised to learn that, at least from an outside perspective, Willis' minor league résumé is almost vanishingly thin.  Looking at the rosters for 1997 Watertown, 1998 Burlington and 1999 Columbus (Ga.), there is an amazing lack of major league talent.  Sabathia made eight starts for those clubs as he breezed through the minors, and Tim Drew and Ryan Drese each made a few starts for them.  But as for the pitchers who spent significant time with Willis in the low minors, however, not a single one ever had a significant big-league career.  The 2000 Aeros allow Willis to claim some credit for Danys Baez's development, and he did coach Zach Day for eight starts.  Think about that:  eight starts with Zach Day is Willis' second most impressive work product for those four seasons in the minors.

Willis moved up to Buffalo with Wedge for the 2001 and 2002 seasons, and he moved up to Cleveland with Wedge in 2003.  Naturally, Willis couldn't help but work with future major leaguers once he was working in Triple-A, but even so, the list is pretty thin.  He had 12 starts with then-prospect Westbrook and another eight with Lee.  Other than that, Willis' minor league highlights are led by names like Tim Drew, Mike Bacsik and Sean DePaula.

In fairness, it was this exact, astonishing dearth of talent that led the Indians to blow up the team in 2002, and in no way am I suggesting that it's Willis' fault that there was so little talent there to work with.  Still, after six years in the minors, you would hope that there would be more tangible things to point to — some pitcher, anyone, who developed into a good major leaguer, largely under Willis' tutelage — but that pitcher doesn't seem to exist.  It seems that Willis owes his presence in the majors largely if not entirely to the judgment of Eric Wedge, and one shudders to consider what qualities Willis had that Wedge felt made him the best guy to be the Indians pitching coach.  Is Carl Willis a grinder?  Was Wedge hoping that Willis would "run into one?"  Is he, in fact, the Ryan Garko of pitching coaches?

Even Willis' accomplishments fade under closer inspection.  Sabathia is a unique and protean talent who arrived as a reasonably effective starting pitcher in the majors at the age of 20.  You would expect an exceptional young talent like him to progress somewhat in his first few years, to have occasional setbacks, and eventually to emerge as one of the game's top pitchers.  Willis deserves credit for helping Sabathia fulfill his potential, but it did take six years for it to happen, and when they started their fourth season together in 2006, it still hadn't happened.  Durability aside, it would be a stretch to say that Sabathia exceeded expectations once Willis arrived.

Lee presents a similar mixed bag, as a prospect whose ceiling was always seen as a number-one starter.  Again, the natural tendency is to credit Willis for some portion of Lee's miraculous rise from the gutter in 2008.  The problem comes when you ask, who was Lee's pitching coach when his career careened off into that gutter in the first place?  Who was his coach when his very fine 2005 season turned into a thoroughly mediocre 2006, followed by 2007, when Lee fell entirely off the depth chart?  Did the Indians, on balance, get as much out of Lee as was expected, from 2005 through 2008?  Even if the answer is "yes," Willis' work with Lee doesn't seem to be an overwhelming positive on the balance sheet.

And then there's the Boys of 2007: Carmona, Jensen Lewis and Rafael Perez.  Carmona's odd odyssey in 2006 is well documented, but he seemed to arrive in 2007 as an Instant Ace.  I'd like to give Willis some credit for this, but when a veteran slugger says Carmona's power sinker is like a bad hangover, it's not clear how much credit can be given to coaching.  Lewis and Perez each arrived mid-season in 2007, propelled by months of dominance in the high minors, and they kept right on going, dominating AL hitters all the way down the stretch.  Lewis has struggled to pitch consistently in 2008 and 2009.  Perez was a solid reliever in 2008 and has been arguably the worst reliever in the major leagues this season.  Both relievers collapsed despite not having any notable injury problems.  As for Carmona, he may well be the single most brutally disappointing player Indians fans have followed this decade.

Among the three pitchers, these three facts seem consistent:

  1. They arrived and performed at the very high level portended by their track records.
  2. Willis played no significant role in their development as prospects.
  3. They have all totally collapsed since their first full seasons in the majors.

Without breakout performances from Perez and Lewis in 2007, we'd be talking about four historically awful bullpens in four consecutive seasons, rather than in just three seasons out of the last four.  Following the 2006 debacle, the Indians spent relatively heavily on bullpen options, bringing in Hernandez, Fultz, and Borowski for 2007.  Masa Kobayashi was brought in to fortify what was viewed as promising core in 2008, which turned into another debacle.  Topping prior efforts, the Indians acquired Kerry Wood and Joe Smith for 2009 — once again hoping to bolster a solid core of Betancourt, Perez and Lewis — and the Triple-A club was stocked with solid minor league free agents and a few dominating prospects, led by Tony Sipp.  Yet once again, the bullpen crumbled completely and tanked the season early.

Reliever performances are maddeningly hard to project — functionally impossible in fact — but it should be clear at this point that small samples alone cannot explain the wild swings in performance for pitchers like Lewis and Perez.  No scout would claim they are the same pitchers they were in 2007, or that Carmona is.  At one point, they knew how to pitch successfully, and now, they don't.  One wonders if within the next few years, their careers will become just as insubstantial as those who came before them, like Davis and Cabrera.

If the bullpen is any significant part of Willis' responsibilities, then his performance must be considered a failure at this point.  The best we can say for the man's tenure with the Indians is that for the most elite pitching talent, in their prime, he has helped them to achieve their potential, and he has helped a few rehabbed retreads put together some nice make-good seasons.  Both of these types of contributions have been very useful to the club.  For pitchers who were not already established, however, and not elite talents coming out of the minors, the overall pitching productivity under Willis has been simply abysmal.

One more factor worth considering is the availability of Leo Mazzone, the well-known pitching coach for the 1990s Atlanta Braves.  In addition to coaching three pitchers to six Cy Young awards, Mazzone is also the subject of a comparative statistical study that showed that pitchers coached by him tended to lower their ERA by an average of half a run.  Neither of these facts are conclusive as to Mazzone's true ability, but then, nothing ever is when it comes to coaches.  We can't know for sure how much good or harm Willis has done, or how much of the Braves' immense pitching success was owed to Mazzone.  Clubs have to make decisions in the absence of real certainty, with coaches just as much as players.

It may seem callous (and even "un-Shapiro") to kick Willis to the curb just because someone better is available.  Maybe it is callous.  It's also the kind of thing that organizations do when they're serious about competing.  We could badly use a coach with a knack for turning fringy pitchers into decent major league starters and relievers — and by "we" I mean "Jeremy Sowers and David Huff."  Mazzone has shown that knack, and Willis hasn't.  Under the current leadership, if the Indians have the worst bullpen in the majors next season, not one person will be able to claim surprise.  Maybe Willis has done nothing to cause those disasters, but he certainly hasn't prevented them.  Whatever his accomplishments here, it's time to fire the pitching coach.