Q&A: Mickey Callaway, Indians Pitching Coach

Mickey Callaway might be the MVP of the 2013 Cleveland Indians. The “P” in the acronym doesn’t stand for player — Callaway is the team’s pitching coach — but you get the point.

The Indians came into the campaign with a pitching staff full of question marks. The majority of prognosticators panned the clubs’ chances of competing in the American League Central for that very reason; their lineup was solid, but could they possibly prevent enough runs to keep up with the Tigers?

With Callaway’s help, they’re finding a way. Cleveland pitchers are currently fifth-best in the American League in runs allowed, ERA and FIP. They are also young. Of the 19 who have toed the rubber, only three have celebrated a 30th birthday. Callaway is no grizzled veteran himself. Just 38 years old, he is in his first season on a big-league coaching staff.

Callaway discussed aspects of the Indians’ organizational pitching philosophy — and several of his charges — when Cleveland visited Fenway Park in late May.

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Callaway on his priorities: “If I have a pitching philosophy, it is you should be durable, prepared and aggressive. The aggressive part is attacking hitters and I feel almost everybody could do a little better job of that. Put the pressure on hitters at all times. We’ve been stressing getting ahead, whether it’s 0-0 strikes or 1-1 strikes. Make the other team beat you.

“The durability part is how we’re preparing every day — what we’re doing in the weight room and nutritionally; what we’re doing to take care of our arms; how we’re throwing bullpens and how many bullpens. There some days we do some light catch and others when we really get out there and long-toss. We’re seeing some of our guys doing more longer long-toss — maybe more than they‘ve ever done before. They seem to be responding well to that.”

On the organization‘s long-toss program: “Last year, I was the pitching coordinator, and the front office is obviously involved the decision-making process. We’re always looking for ways to get better and one of the ways we thought we could be a better organization when it comes to developing pitchers is by implementing a long-toss program. A few of us put our heads together, did a lot of studying, and came up with a quality long-toss program for our minor league guys.

“We don’t mandate anything up here in the big leagues. We kind of let the guys be comfortable with it, but it’s definitely something we’ve been stressing a little more — get out there, long toss, build some strength and endurance with your arm. What we’re trying to do is develop guys who have good routines that include a quality long-toss program to maintain arm strength.

“The specific routine — even in the minor leagues — depends on the individual and how his arm feels that day. Not everybody is going to be throwing the same distance. You’re going to throw to your max distance, and it might be 90 feet and it might be 280 feet. In the past, we had a 120-foot limit on our long-toss and we‘ve kind of taken that away. We’re encouraging guys to really get out there.

“How we determine the distance is, once you start breaking down mechanically to where you can’t maintain quality mechanics, you stop at that distance. You want to make sure you can make good throws.

“The mechanics are very different than they are off the mound. To really open up your shoulder, and condition your arm, you have to do some different things mechanically. Then, when you come back in, we make sure everything is back in line. We’ve gone out and opened up the shoulder — we’ve built some endurance — and now we get ourselves back where we want to be as far as command, and release point, to be effective on the mound.”

On Trevor Bauer: “He does all the things I was talking about. That’s one of the reasons we were very interested in obtaining him in a trade. He does some really good things. He’s obviously stayed healthy so far, and I’ve learned a lot from his routine, as far as implementation for younger guys and how to stress certain things.

“He’s put a lot of time and effort into his mechanics, and when it comes down to it, he gets himself into positions where he’s going to be healthy. When his foot touches the ground, his back elbow is below his back shoulder and his front side is really strong. Those are things that keep you healthy.

“As far as the walks go, one thing people need to realize is that Trevor is still a 22-year-old kid. When I was his age, I was walking a lot of guys too. The good thing is that he’s pitching at higher levels than most 22-year-olds are. They’re doing it in A ball, so nobody really hears about it.”

On bullpen sessions
: “In the minor leagues, we really try to stress certain routines. Maybe throwing out of the stretch a little more, pitch usage, stuff like that. Once these guys get to the major leagues they kind of do their own, but we still stress routines. I’m here to monitor, not develop. Maybe I’ll help someone develop a routine, just to allow them to accomplish it on a daily basis.

“I hold them accountable. If they struggle one day, I don’t want them to come out and not do anything. That said, you can skip a bullpen. Ubaldo [Jimenez] at one point was throwing two bullpens between starts, and he’s gone the last two without throwing a bullpen. It depends on what guys need, and where they’re at mechanically and mentally. There’s no mandatory anything. We just make sure they keep their confidence level and their mechanics in order.”

On Ubaldo Jimenez: “A lot of determining what Ubaldo needs comes from discussions between the two of us. It’s me asking him how he feels and him expressing how he feels. We’ll come up with a plan as to how we’ll maybe adjust his routine — that five-day routine — or maybe add something into that five-day routine to keep him sharp.

“Right now, Ubaldo is pretty sound mechanically. It’s more a matter of keeping his confidence up. I think he’s done a great job of getting some confidence and we need to maintain that. We’ve been focusing on keeping a quick tempo in his delivery. Mechanics haven’t been a big issue.

“His mechanics aren’t exactly the same [as they were in Colorado]. I’d say most pitchers, four or five years later, are doing something a little different mechanically. We saw Ryan Dempster last night, and he doesn’t look the same as he did four or five years ago. There’s an evolution for pitchers.

“I will say that some of the mechanical things that were hurting Ubaldo last year… he’s kind of righted that ship. All we’re really stressing now is for him to quicken his tempo and to land more directly toward home plate. That has kind of fixed the things that were going bad mechanically.”

On Zach McAllister, Justin Masterson, and the off-arm: “Everybody’s fastball is different. For instance, Zach McAllister was at 89 to 92 most of last night, but hitters think it’s 96. There’s definitely something to be said about how the ball comes out and you can definitely tell, sitting in that dugout, if someone has his good stuff or not. With most of the pitchers, I can tell right when it leaves their hand if it’s going to be a good pitch or not. A lot of that is from whether they went through a solid delivery,

“Right now, [the most consistent delivery] is probably Justin Masterson. He’s been pretty solid the whole year. He went through maybe a two-game span where he wasn’t quite as good mechanically, but he was still good enough to not even mention anything. He just kept it going and got right back into the zone.

“I think the shoulder surgery Justin had in the off-season, coming into last year, played a huge part in what happened to him last season. The one thing I look at in Justin‘s mechanics is his front arm. That is kind of his key to getting where he needs to go. It is a really nice and strong elbow with a loose wrist. When he’s not doing that, he’s off, and I don‘t think he was able to do that consistently because of the [left] shoulder surgery.”

“The off-arm is one of the most important parts of a delivery. Any time you do something with one arm, you want to mimic it with the other. What I’m doing out here with this arm is going effect what I’m doing back there with that arm — this one is coming first and the other will follow. If I have a low lead arm, I might take the ball down and get a little deep. If I have a nice high front arm, then I’m going to get my arm up and get it where it needs to be, on time. That helps keep you healthy.”

On arm angles: “Most arm angles are natural. When you’re a kid and you grab something and throw it, that’s going to be how you throw most of your life. That’s definitely one of the more difficult things to change — if you want to change it — but people do it. I mean, a lot of guys have dropped down. More guys go from high to low slots than from low to high. But it’s definitely a challenge to change someone’s arm slot, just like it is to change the way you swing a bat.

“There can be a lot of factors involved when arm angles drop [unintentionally]. Anything you do different mechanically can cause your slot to drop a little bit. I would say if you’re not using your legs… that’s one of the things you’ll see late in games. A guy is getting deep into his pitch count and his legs get tired and kind of go away from him. Then his arm starts to drop.”

On Scott Kazmir;
“He had probably gotten away from using his legs and creating some tilt. Now he looks very similar to what he did in 2008. He looks really solid. He has one of the very best deliveries on the team as far as how he uses his body, and his frame. He’s a smaller guy, and he maximizes his body, for sure.

“I do [look at old video of pitchers]. It matters. Not that we’re trying to get them back to what they were — I still believe in that evolution of a pitcher; that he’s going to change — but I do like to know what he did well when things were going well, and even what he did bad when things were going well. I like to get an overall sense of what their bodies are capable of doing when we’re trying to make a change.”

On leg kicks:
“The main thing you want to do with your leg kick is create some momentum into your delivery so you can get your hips firing toward home as fast as possible. A lot of velocity and power comes from the speed of your hips off the rubber towards home. There’s a big correlation there.

“I don’t really work with anyone on raising or lowering their leg kick, but rather where they lift it. Instead of lifting it straight up and down, I like to see them lift it up to their back throwing-arm shoulder a little bit. That gets them to where they can lead with their hip — to where they can get some really good speed with their hips leaving the rubber.”

On Chris Perez: “He’s good, so I pretty much just leave him alone. I talk to him to make sure I know his mechanics in case he starts to struggle. He’s a great competitor and a guy I like having out there in the ninth inning.

“He has a great feel for the game. He’s probably our best student of the game out there in the bullpen. He pays attention to every pitch, so he’s prepared going into the game. He’s always got the right mindset. You’re going to get beat out there from time to time, but he gives himself the best opportunity to succeed. He also has a great feel for his mechanics.”




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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.


9 Responses to “Q&A: Mickey Callaway, Indians Pitching Coach”

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  1. Boomer says:

    Good interview, sounds like Callaway is taking the nicey nice approach with his pitchers and it certainly seems to have worked when you look at there performance from this year.

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  2. tz says:

    Damn I love these interviews. Between the interviews and the cool GIFs, I don’t have any time left to check out the other fangraphs stuff (I hear you have all kinds of stats and stuff here)

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    • JKB says:

      the statistics are vast, but they don’t have a “statistics” menu option that I am aware of. I always click on the “leaders” menu option which takes me right to the statistics pages…

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  3. Nick says:

    How did you talk about everything but the team’s most interesting pitcher right now, Corey Kluber?

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    • Nick: Kluber is indeed interesting, but at the time he had given up 14 earned runs over his last 17 innings. I could have asked why he was struggling, but opted to just stick with the others.

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  4. Candy LaChance says:

    Not to take anything away from Callaway, but I don’t think this is/was close to right:

    “Cleveland pitchers are currently fifth-best in the American League in runs allowed, ERA and FIP”

    Was this supposed to describe a specific time period within the current season?

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    • CL is correct that I have that wrong. The leader-board data I referenced — and misread — has the teams in inverse order [i.e. worst to first]. I apologize for the error.

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      • Candy LaChance says:

        No worries. And even though the aggregate staff performance hasn’t been great to date, there’s been great progress: With Kazmir healthy and Kluber pitching in place of Brett Myers, Tribe starters were third in the league in FIP in May. Maybe not sustainable, but probably not the disaster many foresaw.

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  5. Alexander Nevermind says:

    As always, that was a fantastic interview. When reading the Q&A’s on routines/programs, I couldn’t help but think about Ryu’s adherence to not throwing at all between starts. I’m curious if his success with this utterly unorthodox regimen (or lack thereof) will lead to adopters.

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