My Cleveland Sportsman of 2013: Mickey Callaway

Mickey Callaway, miracle worker (Associated Press)

Mickey Callaway: Not a miracle worker, but pretty darn close
(Associated Press)

Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year is an annual must-read. Given that the national recognition rarely has anything to do with the teams or individuals whom we cover. In turn, WFNY will soon announce its choice for 2013′s Cleveland Sportsman of the Year. Here’s one of the nominations for that honor by an WFNY writer.

I acknowledge that it’s a little silly to name someone most Clevelanders have never heard of as “Cleveland Sportsman of the Year.” On the other hand, it’s really not my fault that most people don’t know who Mickey Callaway is. But let’s just start from the beginning.

The Indians’ starting rotation in 2012 was not just bad; it was a catastrophe.  Here is where that roation ranked among their 14 American League brethren:


Let’s interpret that simply, because that’s all there is to do: by nearly every measure, the 2012 Indians were among the worst rotations in the League.  They walked too many, struck out too few, didn’t strand enough runners, and (consequently) let up far too many runs.  Perhaps no measure of futility is more apt than this: in 2012, the Indians allowed their opponents 845 runs.  No team in the League allowed more.

That, in essence, is the stinking diaper of Mexican food inherited by new pitching coach Mickey Callaway as he came to Spring Training in February of 2013.  There were a few roster changes—Scott Kazmir and Brett Myers in, and David Huff and Josh Tomlin out—but for the most part, Callaway was left to manage largely the same group of guys who had posted historically bad numbers just the year before.

Perhaps I’ll start by just letting the numbers do some talking; here’s that chart again, this time with the 2013 rotation added in (remember, in 2013 there were 15 teams in the AL):


That’s a dramatic increase in performance.  The rotation went from last or second-to-last in nearly every measurable criterion to above league average in all but two.

WFNY’s Sportsman of the Year

MITCH: Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer
RICK: Browns cornerback Joe Haden
JON: Tribe pitching coach, Mickey Callaway
ANDREW: Coming Soon
SCOTT: Coming Soon
CRAIG: Coming Soon
TD: Coming Soon
KIRK: Coming Soon
JACOB: Coming Soon

They did this without any major free agent additions to the rotation (Brett Myers was an abject failure and Scott Kazmir was a Spring Training invitee).  They managed to turn Ubaldo Jimenez into the best 2nd half pitcher in the league.  They managed to resurrect the career of Scott Kazmir.  They managed to make the playoffs for the first time in six years.  With a rotation that was arguably less talented than the one they had the year prior.

How did they do this?  I would suggest that at least part of that credit might go to the pitching coach, Mickey Callaway.

The problem with apportioning credit to coaches and managers, of course, is where to draw the lines?  How much of Scott Kazmir’s resurrection, for instance, is due to Terry Francona’s calming influence?  How much was Mickey Callaway’s tutelage?  How much was just Scott Kazmir working his tail off to regain what he lost? Let’s not forget the Indians invited Daisuke Matsuzaka to camp too, and he toiled away in the minors for most of the year with an ERA close to 4.00.  If Callaway had a magic wand, why didn’t it work on Daisuke or Trevor Bauer or Vinnie Pestano?  And can we at least mention the stinking dumpster fire that was Brett Myers’ 2013 oeuvre? Where was the Mick on that one?

The truth is that coaches are not miracle workers, and the best we can do is attempt to judge them based on the progress their players make collectively.  It’s a flawed model and far from precise, but as with any measurement, the more inputs and outputs we have—the closer we get to a critical mass—the better we can judge.

Here is the list of Indians pitchers who performed better (by FIP) in 2013 than in 2012: Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Albers, Corey Kluber, Bryan Shaw, Justin Masterson, Cody Allen, Joe Smith, Scott Kazmir*, Zach McAllister and Carlos Carrasco*. This is to say nothing of the seamless transition Danny Salazar made to a Big League rotation.

*For these two, I used their last active FIP season. For Carrasco that’s 2011; for Kazmir I used 2010.

For the record, here is the list who pitched worse in 2013 than in 2012: Rich Hill, Vinnie Pestano, Chris Perez and Brett Myers. Translated: an enigmatic LOOGY, an injured setup man, a pot-addled head case, and Brett Myers.  Throw Trevor Bauer in there too, if you’re looking for demerits.

Regardless of how and whom you count, the successes wildly overshadow the setbacks.  Combined, that first list threw more than 1,070 innings last season. The second group threw fewer than 200.  In other words, 85% of the time, our 2013 pitchers were better than our 2012 pitchers. That’s not a fluke.  That’s a product of hard work and new tricks and perseverance and, yes, some good coaching.

Because we are Cleveland, we are not likely to reap the long-term benefits of Mickey Callaway’s tutelage.  Scott Kazmir has already parlayed his 2013 season into a two-year deal with the Oakland A’s worth more than $22 million.  Before the dust settles, the biggest free agent contract given to a pitcher this off-season will likely go to Ubaldo Jimenez—if you know anything about the phrase “biggest free agent contract” you already have a feeling that it’s not likely to end in a Tribe uniform come February. And before too much longer, Justin Masterson will become a free agent.  We know how these stories usually end.  Mickey Callaway may be able to turn water into wine, but keeping a homegrown ace? That’s probably beyond even his purview.

Then again, I couldn’t be more excited to see what Callaway does with the young duo of Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer.  I can’t wait to see if he can turn Shaun Marcum into the next Scott Kazmir or John Axford into the next Fernando Rodney. What if he fixes Vinnie?  What if Corey Kluber keeps getting better? What if it all goes right again, and we find ourselves cheering for October baseball?

It’s a longshot, of course. Lots of things can happen to derail a baseball season, and just because the Indians have Mickey Calloaay doesn’t make them immune.  An injury here or a losing streak there can quickly metastasize and before you know it you’re looking at another 90-loss season.  Losing is so easy.  We should know.

Which makes what Callaway did in 2013 all the more impressive.  His guys were used to losing—some of them had been doing it professionally for half a decade. Not only did he have to make them better; he had to make them believe they were better.  Somewhere along the line, he made me a believer too.  And for that, I’m happy to call him the Cleveland Sportsman of the Year.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Undeniable the job Callaway did so much so that he’d be in a virtual tie with Terry Francona if I had to choose the Indians best signing/move this past season. If Ubaldo returns, heck if he doesn’t, he should gift Callaway something nice for helping him salvage his career.

  • mgbode

    Not only did he have to make them better; he had to make them believe they were better. Somewhere along the line, he made me a believer too.

    Another great choice and the line above is the biggest factor in why it is. How many coaches or FO people in Cleveland do you just have a good amount of faith that they will be able to get the job done even in dire circumstances? Mickey has the most from me.

    Another chart to put up there might be the 1st half v. 2nd half SP numbers as we continued to improve.

  • Steve

    2nd half SP numbers may be a bit skewed by that easier schedule, especially in September.

  • Steve

    And not to de-rail the primary discussion, but I’m a bit miffed that WFNY did absolutely nothing regarding the baseball HoF selection. Only a couple former Tribe members, but it’s still a story.

  • Scott @ WFNY

    I’m admittedly out of the loop on this. Perhaps TD, Jacob or Jon can chime in at some point. Please don’t hesitate to email the tips address with these types of items. Definitely much better than being “miffed.”

  • Steve

    Miffed might be the wrong word. I think it’s a good and interesting discussion. I had hoped it would appeal to the WFNY crowd. Maybe it just doesn’t.

  • WFNYJon

    I used to write at length about the HOF; I did some pretty detailed work on Omar’s candidacy that I still mostly believe in. I also think I wrote something about the travesty that is Kenny Lofton’s lack of support.

    But for whatever reason I’m finding the arguments to be so rote and close-minded these days that I’ve made a conscious decision to stay away. The HOF deserves whatever it gets until it chimes in with better voting instructions. Sorry Steve.

  • Steve

    “The HOF deserves whatever it gets until it chimes in with better voting instructions”

    Absolutely agree with this much. They only have themselves to blame for the disasters that have occurred and petty fights. Enough writers have proven they can’t be bothered to defend their vote while clamoring how difficult the process is that the Hall needs to step up and draw some clear lines. That they won’t is a shameful passing of the buck. It’s sad that a great institution is going to let itself be ruined by the likes of Murray Chass.

  • mgbode

    I think everyone is just tired of that discussion. There is no good outcome to be had at this point unless they do a complete reboot of the past several years.

  • Steve

    Fair enough, though I think bringing to light the flaws in logic used to defend bad decisions and prolong petty attitudes is a good outcome. Being tired of the discussion means that Chass and Gurnick and the Golfers West get to keep throwing wrenches into the system.I don’t think that helps.

  • Steve

    Fair enough, though I think bringing to light the flaws in logic used to defend bad decisions and prolong petty attitudes is a good outcome. Being tired of the discussion means that Chass and Gurnick and the Golfers West get to keep throwing wrenches into the system.I don’t think that helps.

  • mgbode

    But, the main wrench in the system right now is “Do the PED guys or the suspected PED guys belong?”

    I don’t see away around it without something being stated officially on the matter (see Stark who has 19 guys he would vote in) and the writers who are voting are too split on the matter, which then affects the percentages. It’s a stalemate.

  • Steve

    Sure, an official statement on what PED’s mean in regards to the Hall will apparently need to be declared. We’ll see how that affects the PED guys already in the Hall too. But we should still be bringing to like things like Gurnick’s inability to realize that Morris played in a steroid era as much as Maddux, that Chass’ accusations of PED use are woefully unsupported, and that certain members of the voting pool have no reason to still maintain a vote while the people who could provide a reasonable voice are getting stamped down.

  • nj0

    I guess I’d just echo what everyone here has said. HOF debates have gotten old, nasty, illogical, etc. The Baseball Writers and the Hall are the ones who look bad in this.

    I will add- while the crux of the issue is clearly PEDs, it’s hard to ignore the generational factor here. Old Boomer sportswriters telling me that the two+ decades of baseball that I grew up with are worthless and not worthy of celebration is infuriating. It’s insulting.

    And on top of that, it turns people away from the sport.

    NFL has supplanted MLB for a variety of reasons. While there are a lot of more important, tangible reasons – I think diminishing the present by romanticizing past is a crucial influence. All the hokieness and Costasizing of the sport rubs a lot of younger people the wrong way. And the Hall vote has become consistently emblematic of the problem.