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OC Register: Angels’ Mickey Callaway brings a simple emphasis to improving pitching: throw strikes


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TEMPE, Ariz. — Mickey Callaway’s strategy for fixing the Angels’ pitching staff is a simple one, the most basic idea that every coach tells his pitchers from Little League to the major leagues.

“We have to throw strikes,” the Angels’ new pitching coach said. “That’s going to be our mission. We’re going to try to throw more strikes than anybody else in the league. If we can do that, we’re going to be where we need to be.”

The Angels were dead last in the majors in 2019, throwing just 62.3 percent of their pitches for strikes. No surprise, then, that they were 25th with a 5.12 ERA.

Callaway, however, has been here before.

After a nondescript pitching career that included a stop with the Angels and would eventually lead Callaway to pitch in Asia, he started a coaching career in the Cleveland Indians organization. He spent three years in the minors before being promoted to big league pitching coach, inheriting a team in 2012 had ranked 27th in the majors in strike percentage.

The Indians had also posted team ERA’s over 4.00 for the previous six years in a row.

In 2013, the first season under Callaway, the Indians jumped to 18th in strike percentage, and then fifth, third, seventh and second. Their cumulative ERA over those five seasons was 3.76, the best in the American League.

Indians manager Terry Francona, who hired Callaway when he took over the club, was instantly impressed.

“He’s an extremely confident person,” Francona said this week. “That’s what amazed me. His first year as a major league pitching coach and you look at him in the first week of the season and it was like he’d been there for 10 years. And I mean that as a compliment. Not that he’s arrogant. He’s just good.”

Callaway’s prized pupil, of course, was Corey Kluber. In 2012, Kluber had posted a 5.14 ERA in 63 innings. The next season, under Callaway, he cut that to 3.85 in 147-1/3 innings. The year after that, he won the first of his two Cy Young Awards. Kluber improved his strike rate in each of his first three seasons under Callaway.

“He may simplify it, but there’s a method to what he’s doing,” Francona said. “If not, everybody could do it. He tries to identify what you’re able to throw for strikes, and go from there.”

It’s not as simple as telling pitchers to throw strikes, but it’s also not that complicated, Callaway said. Much of it is, in fact, an aggressive mentality, and constant reminders.

“It’s something we have to preach every day,” Callaway said. “Are we going to worry about their spin rate and the shape of their pitches? Absolutely. We can help that. But the last thing I want them worried about is ‘I gotta shape this pitch this way when I’m on the mound.’ No, you have to throw a strike, with that ball that’s in your hand.”

A few Angels pitchers have said that Callaway so far has done a good job of keeping things simple.

“In this world of pitching where everybody is worried about movement and velocity and shape and all kinds of stuff, sometimes you do miss out on simple things,” Andrew Heaney said. “That’s not to say you can throw the ball down the middle and hope it goes well, but there is a mentality where even if you try to throw the ball down the middle and miss, you’re going to miss on the corners. If you start being too fine with stuff and start nibbling, that’s when you get in trouble.”

Dylan Bundy, who has already had four pitching coaches in the big leagues, said so far he gets a “vibe” from Callaway that he won’t be bogging them down with analytics. He preaches sticking to what pitchers do best.

“If you throw to your strengths, you’ll be consistently good,” Bundy said.

Callaway recalled one year with the Indians when he went into a playoff advance scouting meeting and essentially ditched the scouting reports.

“I walked in the room and I said, ‘I want you to deal with adversity better than anyone on the other staff,’” Callaway said. “That was our advance meeting. I didn’t go over the hitters. That’s how I view the mental side of the game. You watch Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer, the best guys. They don’t let anything bother them. You can’t tell if they’re pitching good or bad. And that goes a long way. You can control the opponent’s confidence by doing that sort of thing. We’re going to talk a lot about that.”

All of which is not to say that Callaway doesn’t have a foothold in analytics. No pitching coach could get a job in this era without it. He said his normal strategy is to work with the front office’s analytics team to determine what information can help the pitcher the most, and only take that small fraction of the data to him.

“When we go to the player, it’s one small nudge in the right direction that’s going to be impactful,” Callaway said.

Callaway, 44, talks excitedly in his folksy Tennessee drawl about all things pitching. His passion for the job is evident after he spent two years away from it, as the manager of the New York Mets. Callaway joked that he has “PTSD” when thinking back to the tumultuous couple seasons in the fishbowl of New York. Aside from the team not playing up to expectations, he had a public confrontation with a reporter, one that was explained away later as a misunderstanding.

It wasn’t long after the Mets fired Callaway in October that he heard from Joe Maddon, who had just been hired to manage the Angels. Maddon was the bench coach when Callaway pitched for the Angels.

“Joe called me and I was like ‘Heck yes,’” Callaway said. “Absolutely. I am just elated to be back here.”

Although Callaway is admittedly more comfortable back in the pitching coach role than he was as a manager, he said he took lessons from the manager’s chair that he can now apply to make him a better pitching coach.

“There’s a lot of things that a manager has to think about that a pitching coach doesn’t think about, so what it’s going to do is allow me to help Joe out a little more,” Callaway said. “I probably wasn’t helping (Francona) in a lot of areas that didn’t really occur to me at the time.”

For example, Callaway said as a pitching coach he didn’t appreciate the value of controlling the running game as much as he did as a manager.

Maddon, who had managed against Callaway in the National League, also sees that he’s grown from the experience.

“A mind once stretched has a difficult time going back to its original form,” Maddon said.

Maddon and Callaway have both spoken about their pitchers being aggressive in the strike zone, and hopefully getting an out within the first three pitches. That will help toward another priority, which is getting starters deeper into games.

Callaway will be attempting that without the marquee names he had in Cleveland or New York, but with inconsistent veterans like Heaney and Bundy, and inexperienced young pitchers like Griffin Canning, Patrick Sandoval and José Suarez.

“When I got (to Cleveland) it was very similar,” Callaway said. “Very good stuff. Pretty good strikeout numbers. The walks were too high. They weren’t willing to throw the ball over the plate. We talked constantly about throwing strikes. We just beat it into them, every single day.”

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51 minutes ago, failos said:

Was the last pitching coach emphasizing to throw balls or something?

I could be wrong about this, but the emphasis seemed to be to call a particular pitch to a particular spot regardless the likelihood the guy on the mound could actually make that pitch to that spot consistently.  It seemed like there was very little margin for error.  That can erode a pitcher's confidence and cause a lack of commitment to the pitch which usually means you miss your spot.  

I feel like they were constantly asking guys to be too fine.  

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I'm very encouraged by what Callaway is saying here. I was very hopeful of Doug White at the time we signed him, but when I saw how it was playing out from a practical standpoint, it just didn't work.  Plus, I don't feel like White had the experience to help guys from game to game, inning to inning and pitch to pitch. He was more of an approach coach and I wasn't confident in his ability to help adjust a minor mechanical flaw here and there.  

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