PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — For a first-time manager, Mickey Callaway was mighty bold about his own expectations with the New York Mets.
“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.”
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.
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 pitchers 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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
“I’m anxious. I’m ready. I’m prepared,” he said.
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.
“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.”
Scouts, opposing pitchers on why the Cubs can’t hit
“Mind-boggling.” “A mystery.” “It’s hard to figure.”
Those are some of the words scouts and opposing pitchers used when asked about a Chicago Cubs offense that sits dead last in the majors in many categories, including a .192 team batting average that’s among the all-time worst through 15 games.
What’s most confusing is that the most foundational part of being a major league hitter has the Cubs turned upside down: simply handling a fastball.
“It’s almost mind-boggling,” one AL Central scout said. “There’s too much talent on that whole damn Cubs team. No one can figure it out. I’ve talked to a bunch of guys [other scouts].”
There was a time when throwing the Cubs a fastball was a bad idea. From 2016 to 2018, the combination of Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant hit .307 with a .559 slugging percentage against fastballs. But the numbers have steadily dropped since then, culminating in a .235 batting average and just a .419 slugging percentage over their past 75 games (the shortened 2020 season and first 15 games of this year).
As a team the Cubs have an MLB-worst .230 batting average and are slugging just .414 off fastballs in that time frame. Against fastballs of 95 mph or more, they’re hitting a paltry .178 since the start of 2020 and just .105 this season.
“It’s not the lack of bat speed,” one NL East scout said. “These guys all have awesome bat speed. It’s mental.”
While theories differed among scouts, the consensus explanation is Cubs hitters have been caught “in between.” Perhaps they’re worried about chasing pitches with a lot of spin — a recent problem as well — so they aren’t reacting to fastballs like they used to.
“They should be able to catch up to fastballs, and for some reason they are not,” an NL East scout who saw them recently said. “Are they using analytic tendencies too much? So, in a game they expect one thing but the opposition is doing something else?”
Normally 15 games isn’t enough to glean much of anything in baseball, but the Cubs are no longer getting the benefit of the doubt — not from opposing pitchers, scouts or even many fans. Not after years of disappointment since former team executive Theo Epstein famously declared their offense “broken” back in 2018. For all of the movement elsewhere in the franchise, five of the eight primary position players still remain from the Cubs’ World Series victory now a half-decade ago.
“They’re trying to change their philosophy, but with this core group, they had one philosophy and all these guys bought into it,” one scout opined. “It’s turned into a one-dimensional offense. There’s something to be said about contact and putting the ball in play.”
Due to that one dangerous dimension — the ability to hit the ball out of the park — the opposition has consistently pitched the Cubs out of the strike zone. Since 2016, they’ve seen the lowest proportion of strikes, just 47.9%, of any team in the National League. For a while, they took advantage of it, ranking fourth best in chase percentage in 2016 while leading the majors in walks.
Perhaps those hitters became a little overconfident or the league simply figured them out, but they began to chase.
The Cubs went from fourth to 19th to 25th and then 23rd in chase percentage over the span of four seasons.
“The perfect example is Javy Baez,” one scout said. “I remember when he got to the big leagues and he had no clue what the strike zone was. Then he got better. Then I saw him last year and it was like the old Baez is back.”
Baez is an extreme example, but the sentiment held true for the offense as a group.
“Throw them up and in and then down and away,” one opposing pitcher said. “That’s what you do with any hitter, but especially the Cubs.”
And that’s where the Cubs are unique compared to other teams: The majority of their hitters can be pitched to in the same manner because their strengths and weaknesses are very much alike, according to those in the game.
“They’re down-ball hitters,” an opposing pitcher said. “All of them. Just don’t throw a mistake down there. Even David Bote who’s relatively new likes it there.”
This year alone Bote, Baez and Bryant have golfed balls into the stands for home runs. In last year’s postseason, the Miami Marlins shut the Cubs down by straying away from that hot zone.
“Don’t let them extend their arms,” another opposing pitcher said. “Everyone but Rizzo is the same. You can jam them. All the righties and even Jason Heyward from the left side.”
Perhaps the up-and-in approach is the reason the Cubs have been hit by more pitches than any other team. Most hit-by-pitches with the lowest team batting average is a tough way to go about an offense.
“Teams are throwing more up in the zone, from the games I saw,” said a scout who saw their first six games this season. “Guys are overswinging. Trying to do too much. Everyone is trying to get the whole team out of slump so they look like they’re pressing.”
With Jacob deGrom and Brandon Woodruff on the docket later this week, things aren’t going to get easier anytime soon. And that’s before the trade rumors that will come with Baez, Bryant, Rizzo, Joc Pederson and others all set to enter free agency at the end of the season have really started heating up.
“It’s got to be in the back of their minds, they’re going to break up the team,” one scout said. “Everyone knows it’s totally going to be different next year.”
Those in the game do agree on one thing about this season’s lineup: The parts are better than the sum. One opposing pitcher summed it up with a comparison of the Cubs of 2016, and the Cubs of now:
“They don’t grind you out the way they used to. It’s just an easier lineup to pitch to.”
Cleared to travel, Minnesota Twins prepare for Tuesday doubleheader with Oakland Athletics
OAKLAND, Calif. — The Minnesota Twins have been cleared to travel and are moving forward with plans for a doubleheader in Oakland on Tuesday after having their season interrupted by coronavirus concerns.
The Twins haven’t played since Friday to allow for virus testing and contact tracing as the club has had at least four positive coronavirus tests in the past week.
Kyle Garlick, another unnamed Twins player and a team staff member tested positive in the two days before the postponements against the Angels, manager Rocco Baldelli said this weekend. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons already hadn’t made the trip to Anaheim after testing positive early in the week.
Games between the Twins and the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim were postponed Saturday and Sunday, and Monday’s series opener in Oakland was also postponed. That game will be made up as part of Tuesday’s doubleheader.
There have been six MLB games postponed this year because of the virus, including a season-opening, three-game series between the Nationals and Mets after Washington’s coronavirus concerns.
There were 45 regular-season games postponed for virus-related reasons last year, but only two _ between St. Louis and Detroit _ were not made up.
Short-handed Philadelphia Phillies place three players on injured list amid MLB’s COVID-19 protocols
PHILADELPHIA — The Phillies placed three players on the injured list due to COVID-19 protocols and two more coaches weren’t with the team for a game Monday against the San Francisco Giants.
A source told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers that one player tested positive and the others were placed on the list due to contact tracing.
Left-handed reliever Jose Alvarado, lefty starter Matt Moore and infielder Ronald Torreyes went on the injured list. First-base coach Paco Figueroa and assistant Bobby Meacham also entered COVID-19 protocols, joining hitting coach Joe Dillon, third-base coach Dusty Wathan and bullpen coach Dave Lundquist.
The team did not say if any of the players or coaches had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Infielder Nick Maton and left-handed pitchers Damon Jones and Cristopher Sanchez were recalled from Philadelphia’s alternate site.
Infield coach Juan Castro served as first-base coach Monday night against San Francisco and Triple-A manager Gary Jones came up coach third base.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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