Pitch back: Willis returns to Indians as pitching coach
CLEVELAND (AP) — Carl Willis had other job offers, none like the one with the Indians.
Following two seasons with the Boston Red Sox, Willis has been hired by Cleveland to replace Mickey Callaway, who helped mold one of baseball’s best pitching staffs before leaving to manage the New York Mets.
This will be the second stint in Cleveland for Willis, who was contacted by several other teams. However, he chose to return to the Indians and oversee a staff that had two 18-game winners (Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco), a 17-game winner (Trevor Bauer), the likely Cy Young winner (Kluber) and one of the game’s best bullpens.
“There were other opportunities,” Willis said Thursday. “But those opportunities didn’t include Kluber, Bauer, Carrasco, (Danny) Salazar, names of that quality. That’s very exciting and appealing.”
With Boston, the 56-year-old guided a staff that finished second in the AL this season to Cleveland in ERA, was fourth in the majors in ERA and posted 11 shutouts. The Red Sox also recorded the second-fewest walks and set a single-season franchise record in strikeouts (1,580).
Willis is familiar with many of Cleveland’s younger pitchers after serving as a special assistant in 2014 and pitching coach at Triple-A Columbus in 2015 before he went to Boston.
Manager Terry Francona said that once Callaway left, the Indians were drawn to Willis because of his background with the club and success elsewhere.
“We started looking not just at names, but at attributes,” Francona said. “And then Carl’s name kept coming up. So, we moved quickly, because there was a lot of competition out there for pitching coaches. And the fact that he knows so many of our pitchers, he knows our organization, is a huge bonus. He’ll hit the ground running. He’s planning on talking to most of the pitchers today, and they’ll be easy conversations because he knows pretty much everybody.”
Willis has been a pitching coach for 14 seasons and during that time has worked with four Cy Young winners — CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez and Rick Porcello. While all are exceptional talents, Francona said Willis’ guidance made them better.
“He’s had veteran pitching staffs,” Francona said. “Every staff he’s had, whether in Cleveland he had CC, in Seattle he had Felix, in Boston he had (Chris) Sale. He’s had the elite pitchers and he’s had teams that have won. He’s a veteran. He understands. What we didn’t want to do was, with Mickey leaving, is try to put a Band-Aid and stop a leak or something. We want to get better, and that’s what drew us to Carl.”
Beyond the chance to see if he can help the Indians improve, Willis said returning to an organization where he got his coaching start in 1997 seemed ideal.
“I just feel like the culture and knowing the people and the expectations, but just how much caring and how much of a family it really is,” he said. “It’s a very, very unique situation. I think a situation that’s hard to find elsewhere, and that along with the fact that I did come back for a brief period of time in 2014 and early 2015 and knowing a few of the pitchers and knowing still most of the staff, it’s just a very comfortable situation.”
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