CHICAGO -- The professionally printed sign held aloft by a fan in the lower bowl at Progressive Field during Game 2 of this World Series presented a presidential ticket Tribe fans can get behind."Francona-Callaway 2016," it read.It's a perfect pairing, but, just four years ago, Terry Francona and Mickey Callaway
CHICAGO -- The professionally printed sign held aloft by a fan in the lower bowl at Progressive Field during Game 2 of this World Series presented a presidential ticket Tribe fans can get behind.
"Francona-Callaway 2016," it read.
It's a perfect pairing, but, just four years ago, Terry Francona and Mickey Callaway were perfect strangers.
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Francona came to Cleveland with the pedigree of having won two World Series in Boston, and had he imported his own hand-picked pitching coach when he took over as the manager of the Indians before the 2013 season, he would have been well within his right to do so. But the folks in the Indians' front office presented Callaway, who at the time was their Minor League pitching coordinator, as an option to consider. And to say Francona's eventual selection of Callaway has provided a productive pairing is an understatement.
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It's been so successful that Callaway might one day be the manager selecting a pitching coach of his own.
In 2012, the Indians had the American League's worst staff ERA (4.78). In four combined years with Callaway in charge of the Major League staff, they have the best (3.72).
Callaway has been a difference-maker, a confident communicator whose understanding of how to strategize and harmonize has routinely allowed the Indians to make the most of whatever arms are on hand. And here in October, as the Indians have advanced to within three wins of their first World Series title since 1948, Callaway's work with a short-handed staff behind the scenes has been doubly instrumental in the outcomes.
"Mickey has been beyond his years or beyond his experience," Francona said before the Tribe's workout at Wrigley Field on Thursday. "He's so good. I mean, the game doesn't go too fast for him. You look over at him in the dugout, and he's got a great demeanor. I think if Mickey wants to manage, I think it's just whenever."
Callaway does, indeed, want to manage.
"That would be the natural progression," he said. "I'm definitely interested in doing that. ... I'd love to lead a team, a young group of people and see if we can go win something."
When Callaway was put in his current role, the leadership elements of the job and the potential to build a staff with an identity were the facets that appealed to him most.
"Not that I didn't want us to hit," he said, "but when people think of the Cleveland Indians, I wanted them to think of pitching."
That thought has been a persistent one this postseason.
Though their rotation was robbed of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, the Indians' pitching staff has compiled a 1.82 ERA (18 earned runs in 89 innings) in 10 postseason games, by far the best of any team that advanced to October.
Now, all coaches are only as good as their talent at hand, and there's no doubt Corey Kluber (0.74 ERA in 24 1/3 innings) and Andrew Miller (no runs in 13 2/3 innings) have done the bulk of the heavy lifting for the Tribe. But the key to this postseason run has been the preparedness of the pitching staff, the way the advanced reports have been incorporated and adapted into actual outs.
"It's the most fulfilling time of year," Callaway said. "I've never looked at so many numbers in my life, and I have to make sure when we're going through everything that I don't overcomplicate it."
Synthesizing information into digestible bites is the key for any coach at this level, and Callaway obtains his information and input from any number of sources -- from front-office interns to Francona himself.
"He doesn't think he's got all the answers," Kluber said. "Whether it be a scout or front office, analytical guy, he's open to anything and everything."
The postseason allows more time to dig into the data and the scouting reports and sit down with the staff to go over how to attack each hitter. But Callaway has actually harped more on the mental focus required on this stage than the nuts and bolts.
"We talk about the next pitch," he said. "That's it. Focus on what's going to happen with the next pitch, not what just happened."
Callaway has seen this stage before, as a player. The 214th overall pick in the 1996 MLB Draft, he made it to the Majors with the Rays three years later before getting traded to an Angels team that reached the World Series in 2002. Long before Carrasco's broken hand or Salazar's elbow flexor strain, there was Aaron Sele's shoulder injury. It thrust Callaway into starting duties for the Halos as they tried to nail down their division, and he acquitted himself well and wound up with a championship ring.
When his pitching days were done, Callaway's goal was to climb the ladder from Minor League coach to Major League coach to manager.
"And after that, sometime, I wouldn't mind being in a front office," he said. "That's for when I get really old."
He's just 41 now, a veritable baby in this industry. And what Callaway has done with this Tribe team -- and especially in this postseason -- is definitely attracting attention. Though he obviously doesn't want to lose Callaway to another organization anytime soon, Francona has made it a point to publicly promote him every chance he gets. He's certainly glad he took a chance on a guy he only got to know through the interview process.
"We went through an interview process, and it kind of came down to two," Francona said. "The other guy's name was Kirk Champion, who I'm really familiar with and think a lot of him. [Familiarity] makes it easier, but it doesn't make it right. We pushed both guys in the interview process like crazy, and they actually both were outstanding. I thought Mickey kind of took it to another level."
In the four years since, Callaway has helped take this Tribe team to another level. He and Francona smile when they talk about their working relationship, how in sync they are in those dugout discussions when games get tense and a decision must be made.
"He looks at me," said Callaway, "I kind of start to mouth something, and he goes, 'Yep.'"
It's a perfect pairing. Maybe not presidential ticket material, but, for the Indians, it might be the ticket to winning it all.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.