PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — For a first-time manager, Mickey Callaway was mighty bold about his own expectations with the New York Mets.
“When you can use players’ strengths to the max, you’re going to win more games,” Callaway said. “And I think that’s why it makes sense to me. I compare it to thinking about when to use (utility infielder) Wilmer Flores, and what days he’s going to be playing. I’m not going to go, ‘you know what? I’ll play Wilmer Flores on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday’ if I don’t know who’s pitching those days. I’m going to use Flores when he gives us the best at-bat possible against the starter who’s pitching that way. So for me to designate someone to pitch the ninth when I don’t know what hitters are coming up seems kind of silly.”
“The front office has gotten us the players. The coaching staff is the best coaching staff in the big leagues,” he said Tuesday. “If we don’t do something special with the group we have in place, it’s going to be on the leadership. That’s going to be on me.”
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With the Mets set to hold their first formal spring-training workout for pitchers and catchers Wednesday, an enthusiastic Callaway laid out his vision for a championship contender in that hint of a Tennessee drawl.
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Seated behind a table during his 35-minute news conference, wearing a Mets cap and jersey, Callaway touched on an array of topics, from the team’s new sports-science plan for keeping players healthy to his beliefs in throwing more breaking balls and building a flexible bullpen with no defined closer.
“For me to designate somebody to pitch the ninth and I don’t know what hitters are coming up, seems kind of silly to me,” said Callaway, who replaced 68-year-old Terry Collins, the longest-tenured manager in Mets history. “We’re going to have to be more prepared. We’re going to have to do our homework on every possible bit of information.”
Though deGrom, Syndergaard, Harvey, Matz and Wheeler — the long-heralded fivesome that has still never pitched a single turn, in succession, as the Mets’ starting rotation — appear the favorites to land roles on the starting staff, Callaway said that as many as 10 pitchers in camp will compete for starting jobs and hinted that he could turn to a six-man rotation at times in the season. And the club’s bullpen, too, will see a change in strategy.
As workers stocked the team store on Willie Mays Drive with spring training shirts that read “Winning Starts Now,” one thing was quickly becoming clear about Callaway’s arrival: The Mets are in for big changes after a 70-92 season.
And not just Jacob deGrom, who already got a haircut and sheared his shaggy locks.
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“I can tell that they have expectations for us and everything is going to be a little bit more organized,” right-hander Zack Wheeler said. “They’re going to hold us more accountable, which is fine. We’re grown men, and it’s nice to be held accountable.
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“I think it’s time for a change. You know, what’s the definition for insanity — is keep doing the same thing over and over? So I mean, it’s nice for a change and maybe some newer technology and newer ways of thinking and new ways of going about stuff will maybe help us.”
Driven by analytics and modern baseball philosophy, many of Callaway’s unconventional ideas came with him from Cleveland, where last season he completed a fantastic five-year run as pitching coach for the progressive Indians.
Callaway helped Corey Kluber win two Cy Young Awards and, along with manager Terry Franconca, presided over a talented rotation and malleable relief corps that formed the backbone of consecutive AL Central title teams.
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Led by All-Star lefty Andrew Miller and fellow relievers Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw, the Indians reached Game 7 of the 2016 World Series and followed with a 102-win season. Callaway said he already sees similarities in a hard-throwing Mets staff that’s been riddled with injuries since carrying the club to an NL pennant in 2015.
“I have been around some pretty good arms and this is the best group of arms and stuff that I’ve ever seen, from top to bottom. It’s really amazing,” he gushed. “I think Cleveland was a spot or a place that had the same-type guys that we do, pitchers that have no egos and just want to win games.”
There’s no question Callaway and new pitching coach Dave Eiland, a mentor to Callaway since they were minor league teammates two decades ago, were hired to repair a frayed and fragile staff that plummeted to 28th in the majors with a 5.01 ERA last season.
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Callaway’s first scheduled meeting with the pitchers Wednesday will take place in the weight room.
“That’s how valuable I think their routines are going to be. And we’re going to walk `em through what we expect them to do when they arrive at the ballpark. And that’s the first thing they’re going to hear,” he said. “Holding guys accountable and going through the process and communicating with these guys every day is the thing I’m looking forward to the most being a manager.”
Of course, it’s not only the pitchers who are in his charge. The 42-year-old Callaway has an entire team to run in his first full-time manager job at any level.
And while he thinks his pitching background and years of experience preparing scouting reports on opposing lineups will be “invaluable” to Mets hitters, Callaway readily acknowledged a need to rely on his veteran coaches in game situations.
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“There’s going to be unforeseen things that I have never dealt with before along the way. And that’s why we hired the coaching staff that we hired. They’re going to have me prepared. I’m going to ask questions. I’m going to lean on them on a daily basis,” he said. “So having a support staff that is on point, prepared and know what they’re doing is going to be huge for me.”
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — It’s not that Mets’ manager Mickey Callaway has a disdain for the rules and traditions of baseball, it’s just that he thinks the old ways of winning may be a little outdated. It’s 2018, after all, and if we can send cars to outer space, we can also buck certain baseball trends.
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Like closers. And maybe setup men, too. Throw those out too, while you’re at it.
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General manager Sandy Alderson has described Callaway as a “contemporary thinker” and his philosophy on bullpen management may sound a bit bold at first, but when you think about it, it seems more progressive than anything.
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“I don’t know who’s going to come up in the ninth inning, so for me to designate somebody to pitch the ninth, and I don’t know what hitters are coming up, it seems kind of silly to me,” Callaway said Tuesday, at his first spring training press conference.
The philosophy of using a closer-by-committee approach to the bullpen is predicated heavily on analytical formulas like win/loss probability and advanced scouting. Callaway likens it to utilizing his bench players. If the opposing teams brings out a left-hander in the eighth, Callaway will counter with a hitter that hits lefties.
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“I kind of compare it to, when I’m going to be thinking about when to use Wilmer Flores and what days he’s going to be playing,” Callaway said. “I’m not going to go, ‘OK, well I think I’m going to play Wilmer Flores on Tuesday and Friday and Saturday,’ because I don’t know who’s pitching on those days. I’m going to use Wilmer Flores when he gives us the best at-bat possible against the pitcher that’s pitching that day.”
Callaway says he’s adopting a system that he learned from Terry Francona in Cleveland, but he may take it to another level. Cody Allen converted 122 saves for the Indians from 2013-2017, with Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw and a few other receiving save opportunities on occasion.
The Mets have two established closers in AJ Ramos and Jeurys Familia, who led baseball with 51 saves in 2016. They also have left-hander Jerry Blevins who has been used in a setup role in years past and Anthony Swarzak, their big winter addition. Callaway has confidence in all of them to pitch in high-leverage situations.
So far, all relievers are on board with the idea, but Callaway notes that it only works if pitchers drop their egos and get rid of the notion that they can only pitch in certain innings or situations.
“I’ve closed and I’ve pitched in between, so that shows that there’s no set roles for me,” Ramos said. “I’m just a pitcher, I pitch. I think that shows my versatility, so that could help me too…
“When my name is called, I’ll be ready to pitch. If I’m able to be successful in any inning, that’s all the better for me.”
Callaway concedes that there are challenges that come along with this idea. He can’t just sit back in the dugout and wait for the designated seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning pitchers to come up and get outs.
“We’re going to have to be more prepared to do our homework on every possible bit of information and what we think,” he said. “We can talk to players more to be able to get the best out of them. But in the end, we’re going to pitch guys and they’re going to face guys who they should be facing.”
The Mets’ bullpen owned the second-worst ERA in baseball last year. The team that had the best? Callaway’s Indians. Sometimes, in order to win you have to put your ego and roles aside to try something new.
Abbey Mastracco may be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @abbeymastracco. Find NJ.com on Facebook.