Cleveland Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway steps into the dugout at Progressive Field, then heads down a tunnel. He’s been observing batting practice on a brilliant spring day, the type of weather that turns the baseball diamond into a gleaming paradise of grass and dirt, a much needed respite from the cold and rain that had engulfed much of April.
“You guys finally got some good weather to play baseball in!” someone yells as Callaway strolls by.
The face of the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Callaway remains unchanged. “Yeah,” he says dismissively. “We need to start playing good baseball.”
You’ll have to forgive Callaway’s mood. The 2015 Indians, after being picked by many publications to win the World Series, are in the process of digging themselves a hole the size of Godzilla’s footprint. The team played miserably throughout April, and at the time of this writing, they sit eight games behind the AL Central Division-leading Kansas City Royals. The Indians aren’t hitting, they lost starting catcher Yan Gomes for three months, and their Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Corey Kluber has yet to win a game.
Callaway sits down in a chair, pulls up his cap, runs his hand through his thinning hair and sighs. He knows what the outside perception of the Indians is. He also knows they are in almost the exact same position as last season, when they finished 85-77.
“I think if you looked at Corey Kluber, who seems like he’s been struggling a little bit, he actually has pitched better up to this point than he did last year when he won a Cy Young,” Callaway says. “Carlos Carrasco has definitely pitched better than this time last year, before he got sent to the bullpen, Our record (11-19) is probably about the same it was last year at this point [editor’s note: the Indians were 13-17 after 30 games in 2014], so right now I feel like we’re kind of ahead, especially from a pitching standpoint.”
Callaway’s ability to maintain optimism in the face of adversity comes from a professional pitching career that literally took him around the world. Selected in the seventh round of the 1996 amateur baseball draft by the Tampa Bay Rays, Callaway muddled through a pedestrian 10-year career in which he pitched sparingly for three Major League teams before ending up pitching in Korea and China. His career MLB statline looks like this: a 4-11 record with a 6.27 ERA. Not exactly the sparkling résumé you might expect from a man whose job is to turn a stable of pitchers into one of the best units in the majors.
But Callaway believes his struggles have given him the ability to look at baseball, and more specifically pitchers, in an intimate light. The Indians agreed and brought him on as a pitching coach for their Single-A affiliate Lake County Captains in 2010. Terry Francona then made him the Indians pitching coach in 2013 when Francona was hired as manager.
“I’ve kind of been through everything,” Callaway said. “I’ve been on a World Series team. I’ve been on a terrible baseball team. All those experiences help me be able to identify with whatever a player might be going through, and have compassion for that situation. Which is sometimes hard to do when you haven’t been through it yourself.”
His experiences have taught Callaway to shape a pitcher’s mind more than his mechanics. He estimates that 80 percent of his work mimics that of a sports psychologist.
“Very little are the mechanics being taught,” Callaway says of his work with pitchers. “Obviously we’ll make adjustments that need to be made, but they all have good mechanics. They all have electric arms, or they wouldn’t be here. They all have talent, or they wouldn’t be here. The one thing that is the separator is that ability to let go, block out external factors and focus on the next thing.”
Callaway just so happens to work with a handful of pitchers in Cleveland who have needed to overcome some type of mental hurdle. Whether it was forgetting the past or learning how to throw over the plate again, Callaway was there to guide them.
Cleveland Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway counsels starting pitcher Ubaldo Jiménez during a game in 2013
In an attempt to make a serious push at the post-season, one high-profile move the Indians made came at the 2011 trade deadline, when they acquired Colorado Rockies pitcher Ubaldo Jiménez, a struggling former Cy Young winner. After Jiménez’s dismal 2012 campaign, Callaway transformed the right-hander. He went 13-9 the following season and was virtually un-hittable during the second half of the year, posting a 1.82 ERA. When he left for Baltimore the following season, Jiménez’s ERA jumped back up to 4.81 and he finished 6-9.
“When you have a pitching coach that is only telling you what to do and isn’t listening, it’s hard,” Jiménez told cleveland.com in 2013. “Mickey has a lot of knowledge, but he also listens. He’s always trying to find out what you think and how you feel you need to improve.”
Then there was Scott Kazmir, another formerly brilliant pitcher and former All-Star. He wound up in the minors in 2012 after mysteriously flaming out in Anaheim. He won 10 games during his only season with the Tribe in 2013.
“He learns you first,” Kazmir told 92.3 The Fan, a sports radio station in Cleveland. “He sees what clicks for you, what kind of language you understand to be able to fix things here and there. He’s been a great tool for us to have.”
There are others, like Carlos Carrasco, who allowed his temper to overtake his talent, landing him in the bullpen in 2014. He’s now a front-end starter in the Tribe’s 2015 rotation. And Trevor Bauer, an eccentric, experimental pitcher whom Arizona gave up on, despite being one of their top prospects. Through five starts this season, Bauer is 2-0 with a 3.38 ERA. It’s no coincidence his rebirth came in 2013, when he was acquired by the Tribe in a trade, the same year Callaway started.
“You talk about the pressure of each situation,” Callaway says. “The biggest challenge is to get the guy to focus on the next pitch. To be present on the mound and not worry about external things. Be focused on what’s currently going on. Let go of what just happened and focus on the next pitch. We do a lot of talking about that.”
If you’ve seen Callaway strolling up the mound, it can look as if he’s about to tear into his pupil. His face is devoid of emotion, and his hands are almost always tucked inside his sweatshirt pouch. He affects a blank stare, one that could break even the most hardened poker face. But when he arrives at that pile of raised dirt in the middle of the diamond, he isn’t there to yell. He asks questions.
“I usually ask them what they want to do, instead of telling them,” Callaway says. “I want them to say something back to me that they have conviction in. Whether it’s right or wrong, if they have conviction in what they just told me, I say ‘That’s a great plan, let’s go do it.’ If I hear something that’s a little iffy or they don’t have great conviction, I jump in and give them suggestions on what I feel they should do. Every now and then I’ll tell a joke, lighten the situation if need be. We try to relax the situation and then focus on the task at hand.”
Mechanics does come into play every now and then. The Indians preach getting ahead of batters by throwing the ball over the plate. It allows a pitcher to control the count and stay on the offensive, similar to what Callaway is looking for when he approaches the mound for a chat.
“I think going into every season, we have the goal of getting ahead and controlling the count,” Callaway says. “It keeps [our pitchers] aggressive and keeps them throwing the ball over the plate and not giving the hitters too much credit. Hitting is one of the hardest things to do in the world. You don’t want to go out there and put yourself in a hole that makes it easier on the batter.”
But for all of Callaway’s teachings and lessons, there’s only so much he can do. He can’t be on the mound for the duration of the game, whispering advice and asking for a plan of attack. He says, “Right now we need to be a little more focused on not letting what’s going on affect the way we pitch. Pitch like we’re fielding great and we’re hitting great at all times.”
Back in the clubhouse, Callaway turns to a TV showing the Baltimore Orioles-Chicago White Sox game. It’s 8-2 Orioles in the 8th inning, and the starting pitcher for the O’s just so happens to be Callaway’s former pupil, Ubaldo Jiménez.
“How’d he pitch?” another member of the Indians coaching staff asks.
“Great,” Callaway says with a smile. “He threw the ball over the plate.”