Sep 4, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway (32) runs to the dugout after a visit to the mound in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Baseball fans love a good narrative. Narratives offer an explanation. They explain things that we may not have expected. They give reason to the unreasonable; even if the reasons only offer a small portion of the story. By all accounts, the Cleveland Indians have one of the best pitching coaches in the game today. Since being hired prior to the 2013 season, all Mickey Callaway has done is lead on of the greatest pitching staff revivals in recent years, taking a staff that was second-to-last in the league in strikeouts rate in 2012 (17.3%) and coaching them all the way up to second in the league (22.4%, a feat even more impressive considering Indians pitchers don’t get the benefit of facing opposing pitchers). His fine work has only continued in 2014, with the Indians again second in the league in strikeout rate (22.8%) and tied for eighth with Boston for pitching staff fWAR (16.1). Callaway has received a great deal of recognition for his work with Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir in 2013 as well as his work in 2014 with the Tribe’s young starters. By the end of the 2013 season, there was a plethora of articles from Indians writers extolling Callaway as the driving force behind the pitching staff’s resurgence. The praise reached fever pitch when Waiting For Next Year’s Jon Steiner nominated Callaway as his Cleveland Sportsman of the Year. Think about how drastic a pitching staff must improve across the board for a pitching coach to be named Sportsman of the Year for an entire city. The Callaway love hasn’t been as overt throughout the Indians blogosphere this season, but there’s little doubt Tribe fans still view Callaway as that same driving force behind the pitching staff’s success. So why now bring up a Cleveland Sportsman of the Year column from 2013? About a week ago, August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs wrote an article offering reasons to believe in Danny Salazar moving forward. The article delves into some of the mechanical reasons behind Danny Salazar’s success, such as a lower release point and more leg drive through his delivery. The article also utilizes various quotes from Callaway explaining the mechanical adjustments Salazar’s had to make. The timing of this piece is worth noting. On September 8, the same day the article went up on FanGraphs, Salazar started the Tribe’s makeup game against the Angels. The start was a poor one, with Salazar allowing six earned runs, including two home runs, over 4.2 innings. Salazar following start against the Tigers was a little better; he gave up three earned runs, including another home run, over 5.2 innings. But if you watched that start you surely noticed the Tigers were making plenty of hard contact and that Salazar was likely saved from more damage by the frigid weather and expansive dimensions at Comerica Park.
Sep 3, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Danny Salazar (31) throws the ball in the second inning against the Detroit Tigers at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
I don’t have access to the video or screengrabs from those two outings, but I’d bet that Salazar’s delivery in those two outings was more reminiscent of his early season form than the improved mechanics he’d been showing since being recalled. I’d also bet this fact is not lost on Mickey Callaway. This isn’t exactly a strange phenomenon. If players were able to consistently maintain their mechanics, be it on the mound, at the plate, or in the field, then nobody would ever struggle or slump. In fact, the players wouldn’t even be human at that point. The ability to achieve and maintain good mechanics is a skill, a skill that separates the good from the bad, the everyday players from the minor league shuttle riders. It should also be noted that rarely do we see the same kind of plaudits go to hitting coaches when their players make major improvements. When a hitter improves, it’s usually chalked up either to luck or to something the player is doing differently. There’s nary an article about Michael Brantley or J.D. Martinez that mentions Ty Van Burkleo or Wally Joyner. For whatever reason, hitters are thought to be almost entirely responsible for their improvements whereas pitchers are typically reliant on a pitching coach to make similar improvements. In his column, Jon mentions some of the questions that go into evaluating the impact of a pitching coach, and the point is a valid one. For one thing, it’s not as if Chris Antonetti and Co. are randomly drawing names out of a hat to determine which prospects they trade for and which NRI guys they bring to camp; they obviously have some reason to believe these guys can make marked improvement under Callaway. Tito Fancona’s ability to manage a clubhouse also plays a role in each player’s success. And of course Mickey Callaway’s tutelage is undoubtedly a huge part of the pitching staff’s success the past two seasons. But ultimately it falls on the players to make it happen. A player has to exhibit 1) the willingness to make adjustments and 2) the ability to make and consistently repeat those adjustments in order to take the kind of meaningful strides we’ve seen from Tribe pitchers over the past two seasons. Mickey Callaway is a fantastic pitching coach; one of the best in the game today. But all his excellent instruction would be for naught if the players could not implement it on the field.