When Mickey Callaway was brought on as the new manager of the New York Mets, he seemed like charming, enthusiastic hire that would bring a different skill set to the table than the previous regime. In spring training, he backed up all the promises he made at his introductory press conference and it seemed like the Mets had made the right decision with their young manager.
For two glorious weeks in April, Callaway could do no wrong. Every button he pressed was the right one and the Mets were off to an 11-1 start. The reality of it all was that it was a mirage. The roster was paper thin, and once the injuries to key players started to pile up, a perfect storm of events led to another lost season.
The first year manager was not responsible for the injuries that occurred. The truth of the matter is, as in years past, this team was ill equipped to deal with significant injuries. Any other manager in the seat would also probably struggle to get production out of what was left after the injuries set in.
However, that does not mean that Mickey Callaway was completely blameless either. He made several mistakes and questionable decisions over the course of the season.
The young manager’s first major transgression came when the Mets batted out of order against the Reds. It was never said who was responsible for the lineup card, but Callaway took the blame for the embarrassing mishap.
Coming over from the American League as a pitching coach he had a lot to learn, and he did not have a lot of help considering his bench coach also came over from the American League. He made quite a few mistakes when it came to double switches and pinch hitters. Twice he brought in a reliever before a pinch hitter was announced into a game which allowed the opposition to keep another weapon on the bench without having to burn it.
Callaway struggled with the bullpen as a whole. Granted, he did not have much to work with, but he came in saying he could use the bullpen in unconventional ways yet he was really no different from Terry Collins. He had those he could trust and he rode with them. In the beginning of the season it was Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman, and Paul Sewald. Perhaps the heavy workload led to Gsellman and Sewald being ineffective later on in the year, and it definitely led to Gsellman and Lugo being shut down at the end of the season.
After injuries and trades, the Mets had no choice but to play their young core. Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo both eventually got to face left-handed pitching and did reasonably well against them. Conforto specifically said that facing lefties has helped him learn how to approach them. However, when Jeff McNeil finally got his call-up, he sat against left handed pitching. In a year that was all but over at that point, McNeil’s development should’ve outweighed winning ballgames.
In the second half of the season, the team did play better. Amed Rosario, Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto, and Jeff McNeil all took steps forward and seemed like a solid core to build around. There were still some quibbles with Callaway’s lineup decisions since Nimmo found himself toward the bottom of the lineup while Rosario led off, but overall they all showed improvement and proved this team could win with them.
It was a rough road for Conforto in the first half of the year since he was still recovering from shoulder surgery. The team as a whole was playing poorly, but Conforto had unnecessarily drawn some criticism from his coach when he was blamed for missing the cutoff man. Conforto was hardly the only reason why they were losing which made it puzzling that he got called out for it. Toward the end of the year, Callaway had done a 180 on the young star and even went so far as to name Conforto as one of the players who could potentially fill David Wright’s shoes as a leader in the clubhouse.
Not only did the young hitters progress this year but the starting pitching also made a major leap forward. When Callaway was hired it was partly because of his work with the pitching staff in Cleveland and that became one of his strengths here as well. Combined with work from Dave Eiland, the starting pitching showed marked improvement. Jacob deGrom was always one of the top pitchers in the game but he morphed into the best pitcher in the league. Zack Wheeler put together the best season of his career and was arguably even better than deGrom in the second half before he was shut down. When healthy, Steven Matz was solid and he pitched a gem for his final start of 2018. Noah Syndergaard perhaps was not as dominant as in years past, but when he was on the mound he was still more than capable of putting together a brilliant performance. It took awhile but Jason Vargas showed signs of life toward the end of the year, and Seth Lugo was brilliant both as a starter and in the bullpen.
Callaway’s handling of Jacob deGrom was especially noteworthy this season. When deGrom hyper-extended his elbow, he was originally not going to miss a start but instead they played it safe and placed him on the disabled list. His next start back he threw a 45-pitch first inning against the Phillies and was pulled after that stressful inning. After those minor bumps by the ace, Callaway became very cognizant of what deGrom was trying to accomplish this season. He openly supported his pitcher and penciled in Mesoraco as his personal catcher. During the home stretch, Callaway did everything he could to get deGrom a win. Dominic Smith got the start over Jay Bruce at first to put the best defense behind deGrom, and Seth Lugo, the team’s best reliever, entered behind the potential Cy Young winner in an attempt to get him the win. The strategy worked. After struggling to earn wins for most of the season, deGrom finished with a record over .500 and reached double digits in wins.
So on the field, under Callaway’s leadership, the results were a mixed bag. He made some rookie mistakes and his bullpen usage was questionable, but the team was trending in the right direction at the end of the year. Off the field the results were similar. He recommended to Sandy Alderson in the offseason that the Mets keep Matt Harvey when it was rumored that the Mets were looking to trade him, and Alderson listened. Harvey’s performance on the field did not improve, he was demoted to the bullpen, and his relationship with the press deteriorated to the point where he did not speak to them. The Mets finally traded him and Callaway placed the blame on himself, but given the circumstances this was the best outcome for everyone involved.
Harvey was not the last pitcher Callaway recommended to the front office. Reliever Chris Beck was another Callaway project that did not go well. In 10.1 innings with the Mets he had a 5.23 ERA before finally being designated for assignment.
Before the season, Callaway preached accountability yet Jose Reyes continued to see playing time, and Amed Rosario was openly benched at one point. Perhaps the blame for Reyes’s playing time lies elsewhere, but it was still not a good look for the manager who did not follow through on the promises he made at the beginning of the year.
He was not always adept at fielding questions from the media either. This was never more evident than when Yoenis Cespedes was the one to break the news that he needed surgery on his heels. Sandy Alderson at that point had already stepped aside due to concerns over his health, so that left Callaway and John Ricco to answer the media’s questions. Somehow Callaway did not know what Cespedes said and John Ricco was surprised by the revelation. The entirety of the Cespedes situation, and the handling of it, was not a good look for the organization as a whole and did not quell any fears about dysfunction reigning within its walls.
On the other side of the spectrum, Callaway had to find a balance on how to allow both David Wright and Jose Reyes to say their goodbyes to the home crowd. The Mets had been concerned with giving Reyes a proper sendoff for awhile but once David Wright announced he would be playing one last time, Reyes became part of his goodbye. Callaway penciled them into the lineup together one last time for the fans that needed that closure; Wright and Reyes together again manning the left side of the infield.
Wright’s sendoff was handled perfectly by all involved and Reyes became just a bit player in Wright’s show. Known for the number 5 on the back of his jersey, Callaway came and got Wright in the fifth inning, and when the Captain left the field, Reyes took over at third and took the place of his longtime friend. The next day Reyes finally got his sendoff. He was pulled after one at-bat and said goodbye to the home field crowd for the last time.
Despite the missteps both on and off the field, and with the losses piling up, not once did Callaway ever lose his cool and he chose to see the positives in all that happened this season. No whispers of unrest in the clubhouse ever filtered out into the press unlike the division rivals and their new managers. Callaway had a lot to deal with both on and off the field and he made some missteps along the way. By all accounts, he will return at the helm next season, and hopefully he has learned from his mistakes. It will be interesting to see what he can do under a new GM and, perhaps, with a new roster.