The Cleveland Indians’ rise to the top of the American League has been driven by their pitching, both the starting rotation and the bullpen. Cobbled together through drafts, trades, and signings, at the staff’s core since 2013 has been pitching coach Mickey Callaway. Like most of the team Callaway has been sort of a product of the Cleveland farm system, having coached both the Kinston Indians and Lake County Captains before Terry Francona tapped him to handle the arms on the big club. The pitchers have been great since he came, and he’s gotten a lot of credit for turning these no-names into front line throwers. What is it about Mickey Callaway that allows him to work such magic?
The obvious and easy answer is, not much at all. No coach or manager in baseball is worth much of anything without talent around them. Leo Mazzone was the ever-rocking coach in Atlanta when Glavine, Maddux, and Smoltz were at the top of their game, and he was the toast of the town. Fast forward to 2007 when he’d jumped over to the Baltimore Orioles, and his charges were 13th in the AL in ERA, 13th in runs allowed and helped the O’s to a 69-93 record. Talent will out, as they say. Perhaps Callaway has just been lucky to get a good host of players who were able to figure it out for themselves, and he reaps the benefits on the way to a likely eventual manager’s job of his own one day.
It can’t be that easy, or obvious, though. After all, he did make Ubaldo Jimenez into a viable starter for about three months, and he turned Carlos Carrasco from suspended headcase to dark horse Cy Young candidate. This question, what he does to make it all work so well, has been broached by several different outlets in the past. He’s told them all, from MLB.com to the Plain-Dealer to the sports and lifestyle magazine Stack, that he just lets the player dictate what’s going on, that he makes sure his guys are just committed to what they're throwing. According to Callaway, that's all that's talked about when he visits the mound, their commitment to the next pitch. Which sounds like bullcrap coachspeak.
But maybe there’s something to that. Driveline Baseball, a pitching academy out of Texas, has written a lot about how intent is vital in increasing a player’s velocity. Which makes sense, if you want to increase your velocity, you need to put the effort into every pitch. Over time it becomes normal to put that kind of effort in, and it grows from there. This sounds kind of like what Callaway tries to get out of his pitchers. Get them to focus, laser-like, on each pitch until it becomes second nature.
In the course of "fixing" Carlos Carrasco, the coaching staff had him sent to the bullpen to kind of figure things out. It’s a move with good historical precedent, and for Carrasco it was vital. He got too much in his own head, thinking too much, second-guessing too much on the mound. As stated before, he had no intent on the hill, no direction or conviction on what to throw and how to get that batter out. Becoming a bullpen guy let him focus and simplify and get used to pressure situations, so it becomes second nature to just dominate.
Callaway pushes that in his pitchers, to get them to believe in what they’re doing and focus on just the next pitch, putting it all into that one throw. Maybe pitchers are just very flighty, sensitive types that need this sort of encouragement. Then again, aren't we all wanting of assurance and positive reinforcement? Callaway's drive to understand and know each of his pitchers is almost fatherly. He's there to support, not to direct.
In rooting around with all this I had hoped to find something tangible. Whether it’s a certain pitch that he has guys highlight, or whether he has people simplify their repertoire or something else like that. In many instances, though, I’ve found the opposite to be true.
In the second half of 2013, Jimenez actually threw a wider variety of pitches. All the current starters' repertoires have expanded, for the most part. Perhaps sinker usage, something that went up slightly with Jimenez, Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer over the last few years. But Corey Kluber actually went away from the sinker after winning the Cy Young in 2014, dropping usage by 18 percentage points. He expanded his pitch selection, really mixing in the four-seam fastball in 2015 and ‘16. Bauer did cut down on his pitches this past year, but mostly silly things like the screwball. He, like Carrasco, started mixing sinkers at a similar rate to the four-seam. This is a smart pitching philosophy since they’re both fastball derivatives that behave differently.
That may be the other part of Callaway’s coaching, to have many fastball varients. It’s not novel or unique, but it’s useful for the guys he has. Whether it’s Shaw throwing a cutter and a slider that move on similar planes, one faster and with more break than the other, bigger breaker, or Kluber throwing three different fastballs that all behave differently, this is a way to beat hitters. Deception through the fastball. It’s been done time and again, and combined with whatever mental trickery he works on his pitchers, it makes Callaway a pitching Midas.
The other thing that should be discussed through, is the number of curveballs that several of the Indians pitchers throw. From Kluber’s swooping slurve to the 12-6ish curve from Josh Tomlin and Bauer. We saw a ton of them in the playoffs, for good reason. Both the Blue Jays and Cubs struggled with that pitch. It’s rare you see such an obvious tactic show itself against an opponent, especially in the regular season.
It speaks to Callaway wanting his pitchers to simplify and trust themselves, something touched on earlier. Is this a good thing? It was a hanging curve that Kris Bryant put into the Progressive Field bleachers, but that was as much a function of short rest for Tomlin as Bryant getting all MVP-y. Callaway, or rather the coaching staff, saw this weakness and pounded that, and I like that aggressiveness from a pitching coach. He doesn’t preach nibbling like Dave Duncan did on the Cardinals, or the entire Twins organization did with it’s "pound the outside corner" philosophy of the last decade-plus. Having the pitcher be the aggressor is a good thing. When they have the stuff, of course.
That’s what it all comes down to, too. Like I said before, no pitching coach can squeeze that much blood from a stone. But Callaway is maximizing what his pitchers can do. That’s literally all you can ask from the guy. Being a pitching coach means being a psychologist as much as anything, and the Indians have a Freud working for them. Hopefully nobody else in baseball notices, for Cleveland's sake.