Callaway key in turning around Tribe's rotation
First-year pitching coach gained trust, respect of his pitchers early on this season
Mickey Callaway got off the phone and looked for some paper. Indians executive vice president and general manager Chris Antonetti had just informed him that the team was going to bring him in to interview for the vacant pitching-coach job on manager Terry Francona's staff, and Callaway wanted to be as prepared as possible.
This was the chance Callaway hoped would come.
"I just started writing everything I knew about pitching," Callaway said. "I was just trying to get everything I knew down."
Here now in September, with Cleveland sitting within striking distance of its first postseason appearance since falling one win short of reaching the World Series in 2007, those initial notes penned by Callaway have paid off in a big way. Not only did he impress the Indians to the point of securing his first Major League pitching-coach job, he has shown his value with the changes implemented to a rotation that looked lost a year ago.
Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson -- a disastrous duo last season -- have emerged as the powerful one-two punch the Tribe envisioned. Lefty Scott Kazmir, who was out of affiliated baseball last year, has turned in a campaign worthy of American League Comeback Player of the Year Award consideration. Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister and Danny Salazar -- all short on experience -- have developed into reliable Major League weapons.
Plenty of credit falls on the arms logging the innings, but the Indians also know there is something to be said for the voice leading the group. First and foremost, Callaway gained the trust of a pitching staff that cycled through three pitching coaches in the previous two seasons.
"That's exceptionally important," Antonetti said. "You can have the best information or the best coaching thoughts in the world, but if you can't establish a connection with players and build that trust, you won't make an impact. Mickey has done a very good job of doing that."
For Francona, the pitching coach decision came down to Callaway and Kirk Champion, who the Indians manager knows from his days coaching in the White Sox's farm system. As Cleveland moved deeper into the selection process, though, the discussions with Callaway began to feel less like an interview.
It was at that moment that Francona knew Callaway was his man.
"At the end, when we pushed them, Mickey really went in-depth on how he would attack things," Francona said. "As you got to know him, it wasn't just an interview; it was how he feels about being a pitching coach. It's been good. He doesn't act like a first-year pitching coach."
During the interview process for Cleveland's pitching-coach role, the Indians had a critical question in mind:
"How would you fix Jimenez?"
The 38-year-old Callaway, who served as the Indians' Minor League pitching coordinator last season, was familiar with Jimenez from afar, and understood that there was not a magic elixir. What Callaway saw was a pitcher focused too much on being the type of overpowering ace he was years ago for the Rockies, but lacking the same kind of arsenal.
Jimenez needed to accept that he was a different pitcher now, and it was critical for the right-hander to look back on his Colorado days strictly for a mechanical starting point. From there, Callaway wanted to focus on the pitcher's brief periods of success over the past two seasons with Cleveland and strive to find a middle ground.
"I just thought we needed to do some kind of a hybrid between what he used to do and what he's doing now," Callaway said, "and not necessarily try to get him back to what he used to do, because people change. He's been doing what he's currently doing for a couple years, and that would've been a really tough change while still going out there and competing. That would've taken a long time."
The Indians did not have that kind of time.
Antonetti overhauled the roster over the offseason with the idea of quickly turning the page on Cleveland's 94-loss showing in 2012, when Jimenez went 9-17 with a 5.40 ERA. The Tribe's main on-field changes involved the offense, making a turnaround for the rotation imperative for team-wide success. That meant identifying something -- anything -- that could help Jimenez turn things around.
After being hired, Callaway made the first of two trips to the Dominican Republic to meet with Jimenez, who half expected his new pitching coach to show up with an assortment of ideas. It was not like that at all. Callaway just wanted to get to know the pitcher. They talked about their families. They discussed their experiences. At no point did Callaway bring up any changes he had in mind.
"The first thing he told me was, 'I don't want to change anything,'" Jimenez said. "I felt really good about it. My first impression was like, 'Man, he looks so young. He still looks like he can pitch.' But he has a lot of knowledge."
And Callaway understands how to establish an instant rapport.
"You can't just run in with a million ideas," Francona said. "That was the basis for the first trip: gain [Jimenez's] trust. I think he did a great job of that. Then, he kind of went one step at a time, and Mickey did a lot of listening."
That, in a sense, is a quick way to sum up Callaway's style.
"God gave us two ears and one mouth," Masterson said. "It's more listening, and then working from there."
Callaway always had a hunch he would be a coach. As a player, he could always see what needed to be corrected, even if he could not implement the change himself.
"I just didn't have enough talent at the time," Callaway said with a laugh.
Callaway found himself trying to help younger players and pocketing away bits of advice and approach from his own pitching coaches, men like Buddy Black or Chuck Hernandez. Callaway earned a World Series ring as a pitcher for the Angels in 2002, he was traded and released in his career, he pitched overseas, dealt with arm injuries, spent a decade in the Minors and five years in the Majors.
Anything Callaway's players are going through, he has probably gone through as well.
"He understands how the game goes," Masterson said. "He had quite a bit of struggles within his career. He played a little bit everywhere. He had elbow trouble, shoulder trouble, a little bit of everything. I think he gets the idea that this game is hard, and that's a good starting point."
All the listening, the conversations, bullpen workouts, mound visits, video sessions -- it has all culminated in an impressive comeback for Cleveland's rotation.
Masterson has been sidelined of late with a left oblique injury, but he made his first All-Star team and already has career bests in wins (14) and strikeouts (188). Jimenez -- baseball's leader in losses a year ago -- has a dozen wins on the season and a tidy 1.83 ERA in the second half. Kazmir has a 3.60 ERA over his past 16 outings, and he has logged 145 innings on the year after pitching in independent ball last year.
Kluber (3.62 ERA) and McAllister (3.96 ERA) have each overcome injuries this season, and Salazar (2.66 ERA) has navigated around a pitch limit, to form a young trio that provides hope for the future of the staff.
Since the All-Star break, the Tribe's rotation ranks first in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.09), second in ERA (3.29) and third in walks-plus-hits per innings pitched (1.26) among AL clubs. Overall, the rotation had already set a club record with 1,255 strikeouts and owned a 4.01 ERA heading into Wednesday's action after posting a 5.25 ERA (13th in the AL) last season.
The rotation -- such an unknown going into this season -- has turned into the club's strength.
"I'm proud of all these guys," Callaway said. "Right now, it still probably hasn't set in."
From the first interview, the Indians were confident Callaway was up to this task.
"It didn't surprise us at all," Antonetti said. "I think he's had a huge impact on our staff and on our success."