One of the big questions looming over the Cleveland front office this offseason was answered on Thursday morning as the Indians announced that Carl Willis has been named as the team’s pitching coach for the 2018 season.
The Indians were quick to fill some very big shoes on manager Terry Francona’s coaching staff after losing the successful Mickey Callaway to the New York Mets on Monday, where he will serve as the team’s manager.
“We started looking not just at names, but at attributes. And then Carl’s name kept coming up,” Francona said. “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.”
Willis was one of several names speculated to be of interest to the Indians based on either experience or prior relationships to Francona. That list included Willis, recently fired Red Sox manager John Farrell (a former teammate of Francona with the Indians and a pitching coach on his staff in Boston), Curt Young (a longtime A’s pitching coach who worked with Francona in Boston in his final season there), and Mike Maddux (who signed with St. Louis on Thursday), and internal options like Ruben Niebla, Jason Bere, and Steve Karsay.
It will mark the fourth different time that Willis has found himself in the Indians organization during his career in baseball.
He appeared in 41 games for the Indians’ Triple-A Colorado Springs affiliate in 1990 during a 13-year professional playing career that ended in 1995. Willis spent nine of those years in the Majors, split between the Tigers, Reds, White Sox, and Twins organizations.
Willis returned to the Indians in 1997, serving as a minor league pitching coach at five different levels for six seasons in total. He continued his progression up the organizational ladder, reaching the top level in 2003 when he was hired as the Indians’ pitching coach on new manager Eric Wedge’s staff. Willis had worked as Wedge’s pitching coach at Double-A Akron in 2000 and at Triple-A Buffalo in 2001 and 2002.
The rebuilding Indians started out slow with a 68-94 season in 2003, but climbed to 80-82 in 2004 and a second place finish in 2005 with a 93-69 record that was marred by a late season collapse. After a disappointing fourth place finish the following season, the Indians won the AL Central in 2007 and came one win away from the World Series, but collapsed back to the .500 mark in 2008.
Wedge and his staff were let go following the 2009 season, one in which the Indians finished 65-97 and dumped several key players. Willis started the 2010 season as a minor league pitching coordinator for Seattle and became the team’s pitching coach in August when the Mariners fired manager Don Wakamatsu, performance coach Steve Hecht, bench coach Ty Van Burkleo (currently Francona’s hitting coach), and pitching coach Rick Adair. Wedge was hired by the Mariners beginning with the 2011 season and Willis was retained on the staff until both were let go following the 2013 season.
Willis joined the Indians organization for a third time in 2014, when he worked as a special assistant. In 2015, he moved back to his familiar pitching coach role, working at Triple-A with the Clippers, but in May of that season, he was hired by the Boston Red Sox as their pitching coach. That time came to an end at the completion of the Red Sox’s 2017 season, when Farrell was let go and his staff were allowed to pursue other jobs.
“It’s a situation that’s hard to find elsewhere,” said Willis about the opportunity to return to the Indians again. “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.”
Willis had also reportedly interviewed for the pitching coach job with his former club, the Minnesota Twins, prior to rejoining the Tribe.
“There were other opportunities,” said Willis, “but those opportunities didn’t include Kluber, Bauer, Carrasco, Salazar – names of that quality. That’s very exciting and appealing.”
He will inherit a well-constructed pitching staff, one that reached record levels during the 2017 season despite the club’s quick exit in the postseason.
The 56-year-old Willis has a solid track record of working with some of the best pitchers in the game. During his first stint as the Indians’ pitching coach, he saw two of his starting pitchers (CC Sabathia in 2007; Cliff Lee in 2008) take home the American League’s Cy Young Award. While with the Mariners, Felix Hernandez won the award in 2010, and during his time with the Red Sox, Rick Porcello won the top pitching honor in the AL in 2016.
There is a chance that Willis could add a fifth name to that list next month, as Boston’s Chris Sale is one of the top candidates for the pitching hardware this season. Sale’s most significant competitor for the award is Corey Kluber, who Willis will get to know much better next season and in the years to follow.
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