Mickey Callaway’s first season as a manager hasn’t gone as planned. The Mets team he was hired to lead was expected to contend in the National League East, and that didn’t happen. Things looked rosy after a 11-1 start, but five months later, the Metropolitans are limping to the finish line, currently at 11 games under .500. All in all, Citi Field hasn’t been a happy place this season.
Callaway came to Queens from Cleveland, where he served as a pitching coach for a club whose culture has helped cultivate multiple playoff appearances in recent seasons. Led by a strong front office and manager Terry Francona, the Indians have been, in many ways, a model franchise. Conversely, the Mets had devolved into what could reasonably be called a dysfunctional one.
The 43-year-old Callaway wasn’t about to change that on his own, certainly not overnight. But he is expected to help move the Mets in the right direction, and he feels that’s begun to happen. Despite the disappointing season, he believes that progress is being made.
The same can be said for his growth as a manager. Callaway acknowledges that there has been a steep learning curve. Moreover — and this is to his credit — he also admits there are a few things he should have done differently over the course of the summer. His job is by no means an easy one. Not only is he the rookie manager of a team in transition, he’s at the helm of a team that plays in The Big Apple.
Mickey Callaway: “As a first-year manager, you come into the job with an idea of who you want to be and what you value. As you get into it, that quickly becomes, ‘OK, those were the things I thought about; now I have to implement them.’ The challenge is to continue to believe in all of those things. You have to make sure you stay in a good spot with the way you communicate, and the way you react to situations, both good and bad.
“All of these things you learn or get educated about from other managers… information is just information until you have to utilize it in your own experiences. Sticking true to certain things can be difficult. I’ve tried to do the best I can at being myself and believing in, and implementing, the things I’ve learned.
“I’ve tried to [bring aspects of Cleveland Indians culture], and not just because of Tito and the Indians. It’s because it’s what I believe is right. I’ve learned in different cultures. I’ve taken things from Buck Showalter, from Mike Scioscia, from Buddy Black, from Joe Maddon. Obviously Tito. All of those guys. They were always prepared and very thoughtful in everything they did. It makes sense to bring some of that over here.
“You learn pretty quickly that New York is a different animal. For a lot of reasons. You have to adapt some of the thinking you had when you were with a smaller-market team. You have to make sure you understand that this is a different situation, and you might have to implement things differently. The ideals can stay the same, but the implementation of things you want to do probably has to be a little different.
“You need to be more mindful of the fact that there are more eyes around you. Things here, no matter how trivial they might be, can be in the spotlight. You have to be cognizant of that. People are human beings. People read social media. They read the articles that are being written. You have to be able to stay on top of that and try to make sure everybody is in a good spot mentally when they come to the park each day.
“We brought a speaker in, about halfway through the season. He wrote the book Legacy, which is about the All Blacks rugby team. The All Blacks had a rule where they couldn’t read any of the press clippings until three days later. That was to let everything settle in and not allow close-to-the-moment emotions to get in the way. Not that we demand those things, but we do give advice. We try to stay on top of guy’s feelings so that they can go out there and play a good game of baseball.
“I have to read things — I have to keep up with what’s being written — but I don’t let it affect me. I’m always going to have a positive outlook and prepare the best I can every day. As long as I do that, I feel I can live with what other people’s opinions are.
“With the media attention we have here, you have to be very thoughtful in anything you say. I kind of prefaced that at the beginning of the season with all the writers. I basically said, ‘Hey, I want to tell you guys the truth. I want to tell you everything that I can, but one thing I’m always going try to is keep in mind is that I have to take care of the players and the organization.’ I think they understand that. Sometimes if you give too much it can negatively impact your players. It can impact their performance. You want to keep a good atmosphere in the clubhouse.
“I’ve had a couple of instances where I’ve said something, and because of the way I worded it, it was taken in a different context. That’s caused some issues. One time Michael Conforto missed a cut-off man and I said, ‘Hey, we need to hit the cut-off man in that spot.’ A big deal was made out of me calling out Michael Conforto, even though I didn’t use his name. What I was saying was that we need to make that play. It wasn’t about Michael Conforto. It was about how, as a team, we need to make plays.
“Communicating with the players in this role… for me, the biggest difference is that, when it comes to pitchers, I try to be as hands-off as possible. If one of our pitchers asks me for information, I’ll give it to him and then make sure to go straight to [pitching coach] Dave Eiland. I’ll tell him, ‘I mentioned this, this, and this.’ Dave and I try to stay on the same page with what guys are working on, in case a player does come to me. That way I can reiterate what Dave has already been emphasizing.
“I had all the confidence in the world in Dave coming in, but having been a pitching coach, it was still tough [being hands-off] in the beginning. But as we got into it, and the more and more I saw how Dave goes about it… I’ve barely needed to think about the pitching. He has it under control.
“When I was a pitching coach, I was preparing a game plan. As a manager, it’s more about ‘What is the other manager going to do? What are his tendencies?’ Because we have so much information, it’s pretty easy for me to catch up on what the other team can do. I’ll know this guy can do this. I’ll know this guy can run, this catcher can throw, this pitcher throws strikes so we can hit-and-run. That stuff is a little easier. When you’re game-planning as a hitting coach or a pitching coach, you’re going a lot more in depth. As manager — at least for me — it’s more about [running a game], and that’s a lot different in the National League than it is in the American League.
“[Bench coach] Gary DiSarcina and I were just joking about that — how we’re going to have three days off here in Boston, because compared to the National League, we’ll be sitting back and watching the game. There are fewer decisions to make, and fewer thoughts going through your head, in an American League game. There are about a thousand more thoughts going through your head in the National League game.
“I never would have guessed it would be this different. It’s unbelievable how different it is. We have a ton of information, and what I’m trying to do with it is be sure I’m on top of the moves and thinking the right way. Along with looking at a lot before games, I look at it after the fact. I look at data, post-decision-making. Our analytics department has been vital in that regard.
“We developed a system where we can plug in our moves from a game to see if they made the most sense. For instance, would we have been better off hitting Wilmer Flores here, instead of this guy? We can plug that in and look at the probabilities. Not that it would necessarily have worked out, but what was our best probability in that situation? We look at that every week or so to see how we’ve been doing with our decision-making.
“We get data on a daily basis, and if we want more, we have an analytics department that can give it to us. We try to be creative, and all of our coaches are good about reaching out and getting different things — sets of data to help us make adjustments with players, adjustments with our thinking, our game moves. At the same time, we have to understand that any decision we make can affect a player emotionally. It may have an impact on his performance. It may impact his numbers going forward. It’s a delicate balance.
“You try to stay consistent, but how you’re managing can change week to week, based on what your guys are doing. For instance, how your hitters are hitting. I’m not a huge hot-and-cold guy, but when it comes to plugging a guy in, or pinch-hitting a guy, the numbers are something to lean on. At the same time, there are things you need to take into consideration. Say it makes sense on paper to double-switch Jay Bruce out of the game in the seventh inning, but he hit a home run in his last at-bat and his spot is coming up. I’m going to be more inclined to leave him in that day. Game to game, week to week, things like that will influence what you do.
“I haven’t platooned a lot, but we have used a lot of different lineups, which is based more on what the pitcher can do against our guys. Our roster has also been kind of limited this year, so we’re trying to get the best players in there every day that we can. At times that’s been a challenge.
“What would I have done differently this year? That’s a good question. I think I would have been more aggressive, early, with the culture change. It takes time to change a culture, but that shouldn’t keep you from trying to implement it as quickly as possible. We’ve had more and more conversations lately, with the players. We’re telling them, ‘Hey, this is the way the Mets are going to do it from now on. You might not like it, but this is the way it’s going to be.’ That type of conversation has been happening more and more, and I wish it would have happened a little more sternly at the beginning.
“I like the direction we’re going in. No matter what our record has been, no matter what this season will look like at the end, we’ve become a better organization this summer. We’ve become a significantly better organization. That’s always the goal.”
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.