The Angels last year tied with four teams for the fifth-worst walk rate in the major leagues, their 9.2% figure only slightly better than the 105-loss Miami Marlins’ 9.8%. The Dodgers, meanwhile, were the stingiest in baseball. They only issued walks 6.6% of the time.
Callaway, a former pitcher who played parts of the 2002 and 2003 seasons with the Angels, has had success emphasizing strikes over everything else. Before a failed tenure managing the New York Mets in 2018 and 2019, Callaway led a Cleveland Indians staff that owned the best ERA in the American League from 2013 to 2017. Their 3.65 ERA ranked fourth overall, slightly behind the Dodgers’ MLB-leading mark of 3.44 during that span. Cleveland’s pitching staff also posted the best strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate (9.02) and registered the most strikeouts (7,248) during Callaway’s tenure.
The Indians had not always been so polished. Corey Kluber struggled to make an impact in Cleveland before Callaway’s arrival. He had finished only one of his five full professional seasons with a combined ERA better than 3.50.
By 2014, Kluber was on his way to recording 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings and winning the first of two Cy Young Awards.
Callaway’s approach was the same then as now. Angels manager Joe Maddon, who knew Callaway during his time playing with the Angels, has been pleased by his methods.
“He really presents well,” Maddon said. “He’s well thought out. He knows what he believes in. If you are a pitcher working with him, you feel a lot of confidence from his method and his directness. He has really good ideas. Some things I haven’t heard yet, honestly. Really good ideas. I’m eager to see how this plays out.”
Callaway’s challenge is steep. With two-way player Shohei Ohtani unable to pitch as he recovered from Tommy John surgery and several prospects being called up to the major leagues ahead of schedule, the Angels put together one of the worst pitching campaigns in franchise history in 2019. They posted a 5.12 ERA — the third-highest posted by any Angels team — and surrendered the third-most home runs (267) in baseball. Former pitching coach Doug White was fired after one season, partly because some pitchers struggled to conform to his analytically inclined approach.
Callaway was eager to take the job though. He believes there is untapped potential in the group he has been charged to lead.
“There’s great stuff on this staff,” he said. “If I had to break them down: great stuff, there’s strikeout stuff. We have to throw strikes. And 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. Our offense, obviously, is going to be very good. So we have to give them a chance to win.”
Callaway gave reporters a rundown of how he approaches his role as pitching coach. What follows is a partial transcript of Friday’s conversation.
How do you use advanced analytics like spin rate, axis, etc.?
I use all of that. But you have to use it wisely. And you have to understand who can handle it, who can’t. And we use it to try and make a little nudge here and a little nudge there. And when you do that with a player, it’s usually just something small. They’re in the big leagues already. So we don’t want to change them overall, we just need to make a little nudge to put them over the top.
Usually, it’s not just [one thing that] works for everybody. You take small little things from the analytical department and work in correlation with them to come up with something that is impactful. The last thing you want to do is get a guy, ‘Hey, let’s try this. Let’s try this. Let’s try this.’ We want to make sure — and we use our analytics department to make sure — that whatever it is that we’re going to make an adjustment on, it’s going to be impactful, and it’s going to be the right one or we’re not even going to take it to him.
How will you manage the pitchers who are brought up before they’re ready?
Being a young player breaking into the big leagues, especially before you’re ready, [is tough]. There should be certain goals that you have for each level. There’s a lot of goals that you need to accomplish before you get to the big leagues, so you’re prepared to have success. So we’re going to continue to work on those things that they might not have accomplished at triple A. They had to come up. They were in a situation where they were still kind of in a playoff race. So they had to bring some guys up, because that’s who they had.
We’ll continue to identify those things, work on those things throughout spring training. You can develop at the major league level. So we’ll continue to work on those things. But in the meantime, we have to make them feel comfortable and not have anxiety that they’re not ready. And we’re going to do that by focusing on throwing the ball over the plate.
If you have options, you’re probably going to get to sent down. Very few guys [don’t] get sent down when they have options. So they’re going to understand that, hey, I want [them] to relax. Don’t worry about getting sent down the next day. That’s the hardest thing for that level of player to overcome because they’re out there pitching [thinking], “Oh my gosh, if I give up a homer here, I’m going to be packing my bags and my wife and I have to go back down to triple A tomorrow.” That’s a bad feeling. So we’re going to have to let them relax, allow them to relax. And they have to understand that “I’m probably going to get sent down. So I’m not worried about where I’m at. I’m worried about improving my game.”
How do you feel about letting your starters have a longer leash? (The Angels under Brad Ausmus last year rarely pitched deep into games because advanced statistics suggested pitchers became less effective facing a lineup for the third time.)
We want our starters to pitch as many innings as they possibly can. I think the guys with the Mets last year, we threw the most amount of innings in the league. The starters were pretty good.
We want our guys to pitch as many innings as they possibly can and we’re going to prepare them to do that. We want our pitchers to be prepared, durable and aggressive. If they can do those things, they’re going to maximize the amount of innings that they can pitch.
Is that the strike-throwing part of pitch efficiency?
We want that out in the first three pitches so you are not racking up 85 pitches through five innings. You see it all the time: Once you get more aggressive in the zone, guys start swinging earlier, the pitch counts go down, you become more effective and they’re always on the defensive. That’s what we have to do to succeed.
So just attitude?
There’s no doubt about it. It’s something that you have to preach every day. 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 like, “I’ve got to shape this pitch this way when I’m on the mound.” No, you have to throw a strike with the ball that’s in your hand. That’s my only goal. In between [games], we’ll work on shaping your pitches and getting where they need to be because you can’t control anything but how you internalize things and let the ball go.
I can’t worry about shape because I don’t know what this ball is going to do. It could slip out of my fingers, and I have no control over that.
So we’re going to worry about what we can control. We’re going to talk a lot about the mental side of the game way more than they’ve ever heard it in between pitch routines. How do we combat things that are going bad and how do we focus on the next pitch? That is what’s going to be a separator. I remember when we were in the playoffs in Cleveland, instead of an advance meeting, I walked into the room — we had played this team quite a bit, and very recently — and said, I want you to deal with adversity better than anybody on the other staff and we’ll win.
That was our advance meeting. We didn’t go over hitters. That’s how I view the mental side of the game.
You watch Corey Kluber, the best guys, like Max Scherzer. 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 other opponent’s confidence by doing that and kind of staying even keeled. That’s what it takes. We’re going to talk a lot about that.
Is that the same philosophy you had when you first arrived in Cleveland?
It is. When I got there it was a very similar group. They had very good stuff, pretty good strikeout numbers, the walks were really high, not willing to throw the ball over the plate. And we talked about 0-0 and 1-1 strikes constantly. We just beat it into them every single day — “you gotta pound the zone, pound the zone.”
And very quickly, we became one of the better pitching staffs in the league. We had the highest pitching staff in WAR one year that’s ever been. … But the funny story is the first month of the season that year, we were terrible. A month in we had like a 5.50 ERA as a team. Two weeks, I’m researching, what can I do? What can I say? What’s going wrong? Why are we doing this? Nothing stood out to me. And I finally looked at it, we were getting killed in 0-0 and 1-1 counts.
So for [my first] three or four years, we’d been pounding them. And the guys were kind of grooving them too much over time. So what we did was we made the adjustment. We’re like, “Hey, guys, we’re being killed in 0-0 and 1-1 counts. I still want you to throw a strike, but we’re going to do it in a little bit better area.” And then we had one of the best seasons ever. But it took that long, three or four years, for teams to figure it out. Throwing strikes is where it’s at, man. You’re going to get outs if you stay ahead.
Left-handed pitching prospect Patrick Sandoval returned to the Angels clubhouse after battling flu-like symptoms earlier this week. He did not fall too far behind schedule, so he’ll continue to be considered for an opening day roster spot this spring. … Maddon said catcher Max Stassi does not look like someone who had hip surgery four months ago. Stassi has been fully participating in workouts. He is expected to back up new catcher Jason Castro this season, though Anthony Bemboom is in camp and on the 40-man roster.