For coaches and managers, sometimes it’s hard to separate their results from what they did to achieve those results. Take Art Howe for instance. In 2001 and 2002, Howe’s teams won 102 and 103 games, respectively. The next year he managed the Mets and that 2003 Mets squad won just 66 games. It doesn’t seem like a huge stretch to say that those A’s teams simply had more talent than those Mets teams and perhaps Howe didn’t have a whole lot to do with the results his teams achieved in either Oakland or New York.
This isn’t meant to pick on Howe. This is how it is for a great majority of managers and coaches. It’s why we celebrate the managers who go into different locations and win. They’re the ones we can conclude made a difference in the bottom line. With this thought in mind, let’s re-examine Mickey Callaway and his tenure in Queens.
Callaway joined the Mets after serving as the Indians’ pitching coach, having no managerial experience at the MLB level. Callaway first served as a pitching coach in 2013. The 2012 Indians went 68-94 and had just two pitchers make at least 25 starts. In 2013, Cleveland won 92 games, had three pitchers exceed 25 starts and two others make 24.
In 2014, the Indians fell to 85 wins and had just two hurlers make 25 starts. The following year, Cleveland slipped to just 81 wins but it wasn’t because of the pitching. The Indians finished second in the AL with a 3.67 ERA and had four starters make at least 30 starts. In 2016, all five Cleveland starters made at least 25 starts, the club won 94 games and made it to the World Series. The Indians led the majors in both ERA and strikeouts.
Callaway has been a difference-maker, a confident communicator whose understanding of how to strategize and harmonize has routinely allowed the Indians to make the most of whatever arms are on hand. And here in October, as the Indians have advanced to within three wins of their first World Series title since 1948, Callaway’s work with a short-handed staff behind the scenes has been doubly instrumental in the outcomes.
“Mickey has been beyond his years or beyond his experience,” Francona said before the Tribe’s workout at Wrigley Field on Thursday. “He’s so good. I mean, the game doesn’t go too fast for him. You look over at him in the dugout, and he’s got a great demeanor. I think if Mickey wants to manage, I think it’s just whenever.”
In his last season with Cleveland, the club won 102 games, again led the league in ERA and had four pitchers combine for at least 25 starts, with two others combining for 40 starts. Only seven pitchers made starts for the 2017 Indians.
The Mets hired Callaway to be their manager for the 2018 season. The 2017 Mets won 70 games and had just one pitcher make at least 25 starts. In the first year under Callaway, the Mets improved to 77 wins and had four pitchers make at least 25 starts and two others combined for 32 starts. In his final year leading the Mets, the club improved to 86 wins and had four pitchers make at least 30 starts and two others combined for 29.
Since the 2020 season was only 60 games long, we have to take our 162-game numbers and divide them by 2.7 to come out with equivalent numbers for this shortened season we just experienced. So, the 2020 equivalent of 30 starts is 11, while 25 starts is whittled to nine. The 2020 Mets had three starters reach nine starts, which is a dropoff from what they received while Callaway was around.
Meanwhile, Callaway landed as the pitching coach for the Angels in 2020 and his team had four starters make at least nine starts. In 2019, not a single pitcher for the Angels made even 20 starts, much less 25 or 30.
That’s three different organizations where the pitchers have improved when Callaway was around. In eight seasons with Callaway as either pitching coach or manager, his starters have remained healthy in seven of them. That seems to me to be a pretty good track record. It was one thing to say that he was in the right place at the right time with the Indians. But there was an improvement over what came before and after with the Mets and there was an improvement over what came before with the Angels.
In their first season without Callaway, the Mets were on pace for 70 wins in a 162-game season, the same total they had in 2017, the year before Callaway was hired to be the manager. You hear people say that it’s unfair to judge Luis Rojas’ results this year because two of his starters got hurt and didn’t pitch a single game.
For those scoring at home, you run the guy out of town who kept his starters healthy and saw his teams improve by seven and nine games but you make excuses for the guy who didn’t do either of those things.
And how come no one was cutting Callaway any slack for the absolutely dismal results from the two players acquired by the GM in the blockbuster deal? If it’s not Rojas’ fault that two pitchers were injured, why should it be Callaway’s fault that Edwin Diaz had a 5.59 ERA and Robinson Cano had a .736 OPS? And despite the GMs big move being a flop, Callaway wins 86 games and is shown the door.
We’re living in bizarro world where it’s more important to be a good communicator to the press than it is to make good moves in the dugout and win games. Call me crazy but my preference would be to have a manager blow up at a reporter and finish 10 games over .500 than have reporters fawn over a manager that leads his team to a sub-.500 record.
Maybe it all turns around in 2021 where the Mets get better starting pitcher results and Rojas again aces the PR aspect of the job. But if nothing else, 2020 should give us a better appreciation for the job that Callaway did when he was leading the Mets. Few shed a tear when Brodie Van Wagenen cut ties with Callaway following the 2019 season. But maybe Callaway’s fate is to be remembered more fondly in hindsight than he was during his actual tenure.
Perhaps the ideal role for Callaway is as a pitching coach rather than as a manager. If so, there’s no shame in that. If you follow the NFL, you’ll have no trouble listing guys who excelled as coordinators but who didn’t do so hot when elevated to the top job. Still, if Callaway wants to manage in the future, here’s hoping he gets that shot. Because there’s no shortage of MLB managers who struggled in their initial tenure only to find success later on. Francona went 285-363 in four years in his first managerial gig with the Phillies. But he went on to lead two different teams to the World Series.
Callaway finished his Mets tenure with a 163-161 record, one of only five managers in club history to finish above .500 in their career with the club and the first since Willie Randolph. Howe finished with a 137-186 mark, good for a .424 winning percentage. Rojas sits with a .433 mark.