There’s an alternate universe out there where Mickey Callaway is still the Mets’ manager. A universe where the 2018 squad’s 11-1 start was more than an oddball quirk in a miserable season, where he was paired with a smart and instructive bench coach from the get-go, where multiple bullpen collapses didn’t teach him to manage from a position of constant desperation. That universe is not this universe.
To be clear, Callaway is the only reason Callaway was fired. He didn’t break Matt Harvey or Edwin Diaz, but when he needed to work around their struggles, his limitations were exposed, both on the field and in post-game pressers which quickly took on a level of awkwardness that would make even die-hard The Office UK fans cringe. A more talented baseball team wasn’t going to make Callaway figure out the basic principles of how to win baseball games that he seemed to struggle so heavily with, but it might have given him more time to figure them out for himself.
The easy narrative is already forming around why Callaway couldn’t hack it: experience. Coming straight from a role as the pitching coach that put together an all-time great staff for the Indians, his lack of managerial experience was noted, but only passingly, as he strutted into Spring Training in 2018 having “blown everyone away” in his interview for the new gig. It was easy to see what was appealing, especially in contrast to his predecessor. He was young! He came from a winning culture! He made a handful of offbeat but statistically justifiable early lineup choices!
But when the you-know-what hit the fan, it all came crumbling down. Sure, the stopped clock was still right twice a day, but it became clear with each passing day that there was no method to his madness, no discernible philosophy behind his head-scratching calls.
Would experience have changed that suddenly downward trajectory? Possibly. An experienced manager might have been able to think more critically about how he justifies playing platoon splits that don’t exist. An experienced manager might have recognized earlier that there was something seriously wrong with Diaz and adjusted his usage accordingly. An experienced manager might not have picked a fight with a beat reporter that quickly spread to his players. But it takes only a cursory look around the league, where fewer and fewer teams default to the classic model of the veteran manager to know that some people just have that natural knack for figuring it out as they go along. And Callaway didn’t have it.
We will never know exactly how much of the bumbling Mets culture came from Callaway because no ones loves to muddy the water as much as the Mets do. From mid-season reports that Brodie van Wagenen was texting in-game decisions to longtime rumors that Fred and Jeff Wilpon take a heavy hand in determining playing time to Brodie’s own anger management mishaps, there is ample evidence that Callaway was far from the only architect of his own failure. But at the end of the day, a manager has to be able to stand up and justify his choices and saying “I want J.D. Davis on the bench as a secret weapon” is not going to cut it.
The Mets now have some serious decisions to make regarding how to replace Callaway. Assuming they have no intention of shifting the top-down culture (a safe assumption given the last two decades of evidence), it’s a tricky needle to thread to find someone capable of marrying a modern, fact-based approach to running a game with the willingness to accept both direct and indirect guidance from his boss’s boss that runs directly counter to what metrics suggest or what players need (or both!).
Experience can definitely be a big part of that. It’s hard to imagine Joe Girardi hasn’t been in more than his fair share of situations of having to please everyone and look calm doing it. The team itself could also probably benefit in myriad ways from someone with the confidence to say “yeah, no, I’m not doing that” - and mean it. But too often, experience and dogma go hand-in-hand and it’s essential that the team not drift away from the actually laudable intention early on of bringing in a skipper who isn’t beholden to the old ideas of when to bunt, when to close, when to steal.
And it’s important that the team not lose out on the one thing Callaway was actually quite good at - engendering the goodwill of his players. As uncomfortable and toxic as the locker room fight was, players won’t try to get into physical altercations on behalf of a manager they don’t respect. Whoever follows in his footsteps will need to capture the same respect and while veteran managers often (though not always) draw that respect quite quickly and naturally, Callaway himself is proof that respect doesn’t have to be tied to experience.
The Mets have collected one of the greatest bounties of young talent they’ve seen in decades. It’s time for a manager who knows how to use it.