A Conversation with Cleveland Pitching Coach Carl Willis

The Indians have one of the top pitching staffs in baseball. Carl Willis can’t claim all of the credit — his 2015-17 seasons were spent in Boston — but he’s certainly played a meaningful role. The veteran pitching coach has done an exemplary job since coming to Cleveland one year ago this month.

An understanding and appreciation of analytics is a big reason why. At the age of 57, Willis possesses an admirable blend of old-school acumen and the new-school applications that augment the ABCs of the craft. His resume includes a stint as a special assistant to baseball operations, as well as 15 seasons as a big-league pitching coach. Four different hurlers have captured a Cy Young Award under his tutelage.


Carl Willis on notable changes in the game: “There have been two major changes. The first one is that swings have changed. Because they’ve changed, how you pitch — how you attack those swings — has changed. Certainly, when I played, and when I first became a coach, it was always, ‘You’ve got to command the bottom of the strike zone. You have to pitch down. It’s money.’

“Nowadays, with the evolution of launch angle, we’re seeing the top of the strike zone, and above, becoming much more of a weapon. That’s how we’re attacking those swings. Of course, there are still pitchers who pitch at the bottom of the zone. It depends on your repertoire and, obviously, the action you get.

“Because of how hitters are being attacked now, velocity has probably become more important. But velocity doesn’t matter if you can’t command it. Nowadays hitters see velocity every day. It used to be Nolan Ryan, Doc Gooden, J.R. Richard. Those guys separated themselves with their velocity. They had other pitches as well, but they had that superior velocity. Now, every time the bullpen door opens, it’s 97-98. Hitters are acclimated to it.

“The other major change is analytics. For me, it’s really more the science and understanding of what the baseball is doing. And it’s not only how we’re able to evaluate pitchers in that regard. It’s how we can help them create some of those actions, some of that spin. And I think it’s [spin] axis more so than [spin] rate. There’s a better understanding of what a pitcher is going to be and what he’s going to have to do to succeed with what he brings to the table.”

On why spin axis and spin rate: “It’s more difficult to increase spin rate. For most guys, especially with their fastballs, it probably is what it is. There’s obviously going to be a difference if he throws a four-seamer or a two-seamer. With a two-seamer there’s going to be less.

“For me, the axis is more important, because it’s going to tell me the shape of the pitch. We can look at the axis and be able to determine if this pitch is going to have this particular shape, and how we can sequence pitches to offset different movements. It’s one of the things we track on a daily basis. We track the release point, we track the extension, and we track the rate and the axis.

“One reason we look a lot at the axis is that you’ll generally find that, as pitchers tire, or maybe they’re having an unusually hard outing… it allows us to make adjustments. Maybe the release point is a little low. Maybe the spin axis is a little more lateral. You can try to make those adjustments in-game.”

On tracking data in real time, and communicating the information: “Basically every stadium has TrackMan. We’ve also developed our own app where we can track and get the data back. To be quite frank, I actually presented it to the Indians because of Brian Bannister, when I worked [with the Red Sox]. We didn’t have the app, per se, but he had it on his phone. There were times where I would go up to him in a game and ask, ‘What are you seeing?’ I thought, ‘There has to be a way we can do this better, where we can have a system,.’ We’ve done that, and it’s been quite useful.

“I generally go up every two or three innings and check where things are. And someone is monitoring it, so they can get word to me if something is really off kilter.

“I won’t necessarily go to the mound tell the pitcher, ‘The spin axis on your slider today is more lateral, so it’s flatter.’ It’s most likely going to be something like, ‘Hey, let’s use this pitch here.’ Then I might have the conversation with him in the dugout between innings. I’ll tell him, ‘Your slot is a little lower,’ or ‘You’re getting your hand a little too far away from your head today.’ Or maybe it’s, ‘You’re sinking into your back leg a little bit more today, which is bringing everything down and causing the ball to be a little flatter.’

“Video is still a part of it. Particularly when you look at vertical release. It’s not always that the arm is lower. Sometimes it’s your body. Sometimes you’re getting too deep in your lower half and bringing everything down. You have to use both methods to see where the root is, the root cause of the issue.”

On mound visits and conviction: “We were in Cincinnati this year, and Brad Hand came in to close the game. There was a bases-loaded situation. There were two outs and he’d walked the previous hitter. Curt Casali came in to pinch-hit. I looked at my notes, and Hand had never faced him. My gut tells me that I need to go out to talk to Brad about how we need to attack Curt Casali in that situation. My baseball instincts told me that this guy is an elite pitcher.

“I wanted him to make each pitch with 100% conviction. If I go out and say, ‘Hey, your slider needs to be back-door; pitch him down and away,’ at some point in the at-bat, that may impact his level of conviction with what he wants to throw. Closers, in particular, are guys you have to really trust. You have to trust what they do to handle those situations. I chose to not make the trip, and Casali flew out.

“Now, if he were in that situation because his delivery was out of whack — he was too quick or something else was going on — sure, you’re going to make the trip. You’re going to try to correct that. But if that’s not the case, you don’t want to get in the way of what he does. You don’t want to cloud his conviction.”

On Trevor Bauer and building pitches: “Trevor does most stuff on his own. And to be quite honest with you, he would be the guy to really talk to when it comes to those types of analytics. He’s as well versed in that as anyone. He talks to some of our other pitchers about it, because he knows it so well. He’s helped me understand it better.

“We all learn from each other. What you have to recognize is that every pitcher is different; every pitcher’s mind works differently. And that’s how Trevor’s mind works. That’s what makes him — along with tremendous ability — who he is. It’s how he’s able to do what he does. He understands the spin, the axis, and how to make it happen, probably more than anyone I’ve ever been around.

“Trevor came to spring training this year with the idea that he was going to build a true slider, as opposed to the cutter. There was some question as to whether it was going to have a negative effect on his curveball. Was he really going to be able to do it? Well, it became one of his most dominating pitches.

“I think it’s difficult for most guys to do that, to ‘build’ a pitch, without seeing an adverse effect on some of your other pitches. Particularly with two different breaking balls.”

On Mike Clevinger: “I don’t think there is anyone here close to Trevor’s level, but a couple of guys have gotten close to Trevor and are trying to understand it, and use it to make themselves better. Mike Clevinger and Neil Ramirez are two. We don’t have any problem with that at all, as long as, again, we don’t see it getting in the way of… look, we don’t want to have a negative effect on what you already do well. We can’t lose that. If we add something, that’s great. But we don’t want to add something and have what might be your best pitch, or your second-best pitch, go backwards. That’s something we keep an eye on.

“[Clevinger] throws a fastball, a curveball, a slider, and a changeup. One thing Clev has been able to do this year… this is my first experience with him, although I saw him pitch against us when I was in Boston. As the season has progressed, his slider and curveball have become more distinct, whereas they used to blend. There would be times where I couldn’t tell from the dugout if it was a slider or a curveball. Now I can see the difference. He’s come a long way in that regard.

“Part of how he’s been able to do that is by learning the axis he wants to get — the difference of the slider spin axis as opposed to the curveball spin axis. It’s basically a matter of where his hand position is gong to be.”

On Corey Kluber: “Kluber likes to do things on his own. He’s very in tune with his delivery. We have looked at a lot of data during the course of this season, just to maintain his optimal delivery and find the keys to that delivery. I always felt, watching him from the other side… everybody always talks about how devastating his breaking ball is. The one thing I saw when he pitched against [the Red Sox] was his ability to command the fastball. You do those things by repeating your delivery.

“While he does a lot of things on his own, he’s very open to feedback. He’s looked at some stuff with me recently, concerning his delivery and how it’s affecting the shape and command of his pitches.”

On game-planning and the value of unpredictability: “A game plan is built upon the presumption that your starter is going to bring his normal game to the table. Some days that doesn’t happen. Some days there is a pitch that’s a little off, so an in-game adjustment needs to be made. It might be, ‘You can’t do X today, and we’re in that count.’ OK, how are we are going to compensate? Maybe we need to go with a changeup instead. There’s a plan, but there are often going to be in-game adjustments to that plan.

“You don’t want to be predictable with location. There are hitters you don’t want to come inside on — you don’t want to go inside to try to steal a strike. Maybe the attack plan is that the outs are going to come in the down-and-away quadrant, but you can’t live there. You have to understand that, at some point in time, you need to elevate to move his eyes. And you may need to go in deep, and probably more than once, to make that down-and-away area feel farther away.

“I had the honor of being Felix Hernandez’s pitching coach several years ago, at a time where he was definitely elite. On top of having tremendous stuff, Felix was unpredictable. He had supreme confidence in any pitch, in any count, in any location. He could do so many things with the ball. I’ve always felt that unpredictability goes a long way. Even the best hitters… it just makes it more difficult. Obviously, some hitters are special. They’re going to get their hits, but don’t let it be a damaging hit.”

“When fans see a guy throwing 99 mph, it’s easy for them to think, ‘No one can hit 99 mph.’ The fact of the matter is, major-league hitters can, and do. So while hitting is probably the hardest thing to do in professional sports, it’s still not easy for pitchers to get good hitters off balance. Pitching is an art. It’s something that needs to be finely tuned. It doesn’t happen by happenstance. nor by having one elite pitch. You have to learn how to pitch. In today’s game, we have more tools to make that happen.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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great piece!