A pitching whisperer? Cleveland Guardians still have one in underappreciated Carl Willis

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Pitching coach Carl Willis , center, is an underappreciated member of the Guardians' brain trust.
Pitching coach Carl Willis , center, is an underappreciated member of the Guardians' brain trust.

CLEVELAND — Carl Willis didn’t want to be in charge, but he had no choice.

Guardians manager Terry Francona and six members of his coaching staff tested positive for COVID-19 on May 11.

Bench coach DeMarlo Hale and first base coach Sandy Alomar Jr., who had filled in during Francona’s health problems during the previous two seasons, were placed in protocols. Testing and contact tracing began as the game in Chicago against the White Sox was postponed.

Players considered it a crisis, uncertain of how many more would be affected.

Even-keeled pitching coach Willis was named acting manager. Forced to step out of his comfort zone, Willis addressed the team.

“It was kind of a state of the union type thing because we don’t know what’s going on,” right-hander Shane Bieber said Friday. “We’re kind of in shambles and we didn’t know who else was going to test positive and where we were with the whole situation. It was a very uncertain time, but I know we appreciated him for it.”

First baseman/right fielder Josh Naylor was the only player to land on the COVID-IL during the outbreak. But right-hander Triston McKenzie agreed with Bieber on the stress of the situation and the calming voice Willis provided.

“It was a state of emergency almost,” McKenzie said Saturday. “He came in and talked to the whole group. He kept it 100% genuine. He talked to us all from the perspective if he didn’t have to be here, he wouldn’t want to do it.

“We definitely gave him a lot of grief about it. I called him ‘Skip’ for the whole weekend. I tried to continue it, but he wouldn’t let me.”

Their reluctant leader got four games in the spotlight as the Guardians went 1-3 before Francona returned. It was another example of the capable leadership of the underappreciated Willis.

That is not the sentiment inside the franchise. But when Ruben Niebla, who had spent 21 years in the organization and the past two assisting Willis, was hired in October as the San Diego Padres pitching coach, fans wondered if the Guardians had lost their pitching whisperer.

A California native who jumped at the promotion and the chance to return home, Niebla helped develop current Guardians Bieber, McKenzie, Aaron Civale, James Karinchak and Zach Plesac, and Corey Kluber, the 2014 and 2017 Cy Young winner now with the Tampa Bay Rays. In the past nine seasons since Niebla was hired as the Guardians’ pitching coordinator, their collective ERA of 3.74 was the best in the AL.

To credit only Niebla for that would be a disservice to Willis.

Willis, 61, pitched nine seasons in the majors, reaching the World Series with the 1984 Detroit Tigers and 1991 Minnesota Twins. He worked 13 seasons in the Guardians organization from 1997-2009 and was with the major league team for the last seven,  when CC Sabathia (2007) and Cliff Lee (2008) won the Cy Young. After nearly three seasons with the Boston Red Sox, Willis was hired to Francona’s staff in 2018.

In terms of a resume, that’s about as good as it gets unless you’re working for big-payroll teams such as the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers and have an endless parade of elite pitchers cycling through.

Cleveland pitching coach Carl Willis, center, taels with starting pitcher Triston McKenzie, right, and catcher Austin Hedges in the fourth inning of a baseball game, Friday, May 21, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Cleveland pitching coach Carl Willis, center, taels with starting pitcher Triston McKenzie, right, and catcher Austin Hedges in the fourth inning of a baseball game, Friday, May 21, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

In recent years, the publicity lavished on Niebla has unfairly overshadowed Willis.

“Totally. I think that’s a bit unfair,” Bieber said. “I love and appreciate Ruben. I love and appreciate where he’s at. I know he landed in a spot that he’s always dreamt of. He’s more than deserving of that.

“I felt like he was getting a lot of the press for better or for worse and it’s not just one person that makes Cleveland Cleveland. What makes Cleveland is priorities and values and kind of notoriety, which over the past few years is pitching development and pitching staff. It’s not just one person, it’s a whole bunch of people. That most definitely includes Carl.”

Civale got off to a slow start this season, Bieber’s fastball velocity has been down and Plesac has not been sharp. Cal Quantrill spent four games on the COVID-IL during an April outbreak during which four players tested positive. Spring training was shortened by the owners' lockout. The pitching staff has been knocked out of its routine by seven postponements, six at home due to weather.

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Normally carried by the starting rotation, the Guardians have relied on their hitters, often erratic but with a .246 team batting average that ranked second in the AL entering Monday. On any given day, Francona is fielding a team that is a year younger than the average hitting and pitching ages on a Triple-A roster.

With a team ERA of 3.98, 12th in the AL, it would be easy to point to Niebla’s departure as a reason for the pitching slippage. That would be an unfair criticism of Willis, who draws raves from those he oversees for his coaching style.

“I feel like Carl, especially last year, went underappreciated with how much he actually does,” McKenzie said. “He does a good job of letting us kind of having our own opinions, our own thoughts, but also interjecting. He’s a wealth of knowledge, so just being able to be around him consistently is huge for us.”

Bieber and McKenzie agreed that Willis does not come off as a know-it-all.

“He has his own special relationship with each individual, which I think is important and special, to be honest,” Bieber said. “You don’t always get that.

“He’s got that poise to him, he’s obviously got the wisdom fro being around the game for a long, long time and he’s confident in his advice. But never overbearing, never too much because you can be that way in this game sometimes. He always finds a way to convey his message smoothly and appropriately and confidently. It’s super valuable in this sport.”

Sep 1, 2019; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Cleveland Indians pitching coach Carl Willis (51), Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona (77) and teammates stand as pitcher Carlos Carrasco (59) comes in to pitch for the first time since he was diagnosed with leukemia at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 1, 2019; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Cleveland Indians pitching coach Carl Willis (51), Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona (77) and teammates stand as pitcher Carlos Carrasco (59) comes in to pitch for the first time since he was diagnosed with leukemia at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

McKenzie said Willis puts some of the burden on his pitchers to make the necessary adjustments.

“It’s him allowing us to kind of find ourselves as players, but also know he’s a resource, he has a ton of experience in the game,” McKenzie said. “‘I’d like to pass on what I can to you guys, but ultimately it’s your career and you guys are going to have to figure it out for yourself.’”

Go-to pitch: Aaron Civale leaning on curveball to get him back on track; Jose Ramirez fouls ball off leg

Figuring it out: Guardians pitcher Zach Plesac trying to allow his athleticism to take over his delivery

Reliever Bryan Shaw, who returned in 2021 after spending 2013-17 in Cleveland, believes the Guardians are as strong as ever when it comes to pitching development.

“This organization prior to Ruben here, with Ruben here has always been really good with pitchers,” Shaw said Saturday. “We took all the knowledge we got from Ruben over the years, I’m sure he instilled some of that into some of the coordinators down there. I’m sure we have plenty of smart guys down there.”

They also have one in the dugout in Willis, even though he hated being in charge. Bieber said Willis’ “calmness through waves of ups and downs” was important during his time as acting manager.

“He rose to the occasion, obviously,” Bieber said.

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cleveland Guardians pitchers have strong leader in Carl Willis