Mickey Callaway always had questions.
In his five years as the Cleveland Indians’ pitching coach that preceded his current role as Mets manager, Callaway constantly spoke with Dan Coyle, an Indians special advisor, author and culture expert.
Callaway has always had a deep passion for understanding what goes into creating a sustainable culture, and he took full advantage of having direct access to a New York Times bestselling author who specializes in that field.
If Callaway had questions about how to handle a certain pitcher, he asked Coyle. When he wanted feedback on his coaching, he knew who to turn to. After meeting with Navy SEAL captains and other successful coaches, Callaway often circled back to Coyle to dig even deeper. He wanted to continue the conversation.
“Almost everything I do and think about,” Callaway said, “came from him.”
As Callaway has guided the Mets to a 14-6 start that has them atop the NL East, his time learning from Coyle about the intricacies of culture helped prepare him for this role as a first-time manager.
Callaway has earned rave review from his players and staff alike for the culture he has created with the Mets, one that stresses accountability and punctuality.
“Mickey is really curious about people, and what makes them tick,” Coyle said. “With any great coach, you always see them able to do two things: they’re able to have the technical expertise, but they also have this amazing ability to connect and create a safe connection with the player.
“Mickey combines those two, and adds this incredible curiosity where he’s a learner.”
Culture breeds success
Callaway and Coyle first met in 2013 during Callaway’s first year as the Indians’ pitching coach, and they hit it off right way. Though Coyle tried to downplay his effect on Callaway, it’s clear the Mets manager has deep admiration for the author.
Coyle describes himself as a journalist focused on the science behind high performance in groups and individuals, and his role with the Indians is centered on talent development.
During spring training, Callaway had a copy of Coyle’s latest book, “The Culture Code,” in his office. Callaway has yet to finish it — after all, he is busy managing — but has read three of Coyle’s six other works. They have helped him develop a deeper understanding for group development and success, which is integral to running a staff or team.
Callaway believes the culture he creates in the Mets clubhouse carries over onto the field, and affects how his players react during games.
“Culture is everything,” Callaway said. “Culture breeds success.”
The two most often worked together during spring training, and Coyle’s guidance has helped shape some of the coaching techniques that Callaway still uses to this day. Callaway is quite receptive to feedback, and it helped build the rapport between them.
Callaway would sometimes ask Coyle about certain strategies the author noticed while researching his books, and other times asked Coyle to analyze his specific tactics. Coyle’s books allowed him to study how successful organizations operate.
One of Callaway’s coaching methods is to only provide brief tidbits to a pitcher or hitter, and then back out. Callaway believes those quick hits are better than stopping an athlete for an extended stretch, which can lead to overthinking.
Coyle validated that logic, telling him most successful coaches do the same.
He also praised Callaway for his rule that he won’t step in to tell a pitcher that he’s making a mistake until he sees it three times. Callaway allows the individual to attempt to self-correct the issue since he can’t be out there with them on every pitch.
“When you look at master coaches, they’re not giving lectures, they’re sending really short signals and getting out of the way,” Coyle said. “You sort of figure great leaders as great speakers, and that’s not true in the coaching world.”
Turning the tables
Callaway refined his coaching skills during a 2015 experiment with Coyle that allowed him to watch his own coaching technique as if it were his career highlights.
The Indians invited San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Chip Engelland to Cleveland for a coaching seminar in which coaches were filmed and their techniques were dissected.
The Indians are progressive in terms of tapping into other organizations as they bring in successful coaches from other sports as well as Navy SEALs and fighter pilots.
This experiment’s goal was simple: help develop better coaches.
Callaway immediately jumped aboard.
“I always want to get better,” he said.
Coyle, Callaway, former Indians assistant hitting coach Matt Quatraro and two minor league coaches met with Engelland at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in September of that year, and the coaches were filmed in 10-minute segments.
After the 10 minutes, Coyle and Engelland broke down the tape. How did they communicate? How did they help the pitcher? How were their mannerisms?
“Just like you’d break down a player,” Coyle said.
Coyle said Callaway shined in that setting, with his curiosity and desire to get to know the pitcher standing out. Callaway put his arm on a player’s shoulder, and then asked him a question. To Coyle, it signaled a genuine interest in that college pitcher.
“A lot of the other coaches instinctively focused on the action the player was doing. They coach the behavior. Mickey connects to the person,” Coyle said. “Mickey asked him: ‘What kind of pitcher do you want to be?’ That’s a hell of a question. The guy described what he likes to do. Mickey told him he’s a command guy, and they would work on that.
“It took five seconds, but the connection he created by asking that question and having that person express who they wanted to be, and supporting that, it was remarkable. It was really encapsulated in that five seconds the feeling he created within his team.”
The communicative skills Callaway showed that day reflected the lessons he learned from Coyle and Indians manager Terry Francona about the value of communication.
Coyle stressed to Callaway that communication is the backbone of any successful culture, and Francona’s managerial philosophy embodies this. Both Callaway and Coyle say Francona is a master at establishing culture, and sets the tone for that organization.
As the Indians’ pitching coach, Callaway instituted certain principles that fostered collaboration among the unit and allowed them to develop.
Callaway peppered Coyle with questions about group development, and Coyle pointed him to Tuckman’s stages of group development: forming, storming, norming and performing. He then passed along those lessons to the pitchers.
Those stages taught Callaway that it was OK if the pitchers didn’t get along at all times, and in 2014, his pitchers started watching each other’s bullpen sessions. Those sessions were designed to foster communication, and help them improve.
“We tried to make those bullpen settings where guys could bring up anything they wanted, a safe place to discuss an issue or mechanics and really embraced that really well,” Callaway said. “If they had a problem with how a guy was working they’d bring it up, get it out on the table so everybody can get over it. It worked out really well.”
Groomed for this role
All those discussions with Coyle helped ready Callaway for becoming a first-time manager, and he aced his interview with the Mets.
Callaway made it clear during the interview that he places a premium on culture, and with confidence he told team decision makers that he knew how to foster a successful environment, according to Mets general manager Sandy Alderson.
Alderson, with his military background, is also a big believer in the importance of group development and the power of collaboration.
He saw signs of Callaway leaving his imprint on the team during spring training, and has noticed that culture being re-established now that the season has started.
Alderson has been pleased with Callaway’s efforts.
“We’ve seen his ability to communicate and sustain relationships and willingness to address difficult topics and take decisive action,” Alderson said in a phone interview. “There’s also his willingness to consider feedback and different points of view.”
The 2017 Mets’ season ended with a negative clubhouse environment, but that has not been the case this season. The players have often complimented their manager, particularly for holding players accountable and his open line of communication.
Veteran Jay Bruce said there is a “comfortable but expectant” environment.
Callaway will be taking a page from the Indians playbook soon as the team is set to host motivational speaker and author James Kerr, who wrote “Legacy.”
Callaway gave some of his players copies of the book, which is focused on the New Zealand All Blacks’ rugby team, a team known for excellence.
Nick Francona, the Mets’ assistant director of player development, collaborated on the idea with Callaway to bring in Kerr.
“There aren’t any secrets,” Bruce said. “(The coaches) like to be honest and truthful with you. That’s all you can expect.”
With Callaway and Coyle now working for different organizations, the two don’t interact as much as they used to. They still keep in touch, texting each other every so often.
When Coyle congratulated Callaway about the Mets’ hot start, Callaway responded that it has been fun to watch his players every day.
To Coyle, that text encapsulated Callaway. It wasn’t about him. It was about the group and its development.
All those lessons about culture have helped Callaway to a fast start.
“The results he’s had are not surprising to anyone who knows him,” Coyle said. “He’s totally a remarkable and unique individual, as a leaner, thinker and connector.”