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.
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.