This coach is a Cy Young-producing machine

The first time Carl Willis participated in a big league victory, he was a 23-year-old rookie reliever summoned by the legendary Sparky Anderson to protect the Tigers’ slim lead against the Blue Jays on June 11, 1984. Willis turned in 1 2/3 imperfect but effective innings that day, then handed it off to Willie Hernandez, whose ensuing save was one of 68 games finished in his American League Cy Young Award and MVP season.

In retrospect, we can look back at that hold as a significant starting point in Willis’ long career at the Major League level. Because while he never attained the game’s most prominent pitching prize himself, he has proven an unusually Cy-adjacent individual.

Bieber, Bauer bring Cy honor back to its roots | Voting results

When Shane Bieber claimed the AL Cy Young honor unanimously on Wednesday night, it was a career first for him but old hat for his Cleveland coach, Willis. Incredibly, Willis has been the pitching coach during the Cy seasons for a record five different pitchers — the Indians’ CC Sabathia (2007) and Cliff Lee (’08), the Mariners’ Félix Hernández (’10), the Red Sox’s Rick Porcello (’16) and Bieber.

Willis, who will turn 60 next month, even worked with this year’s NL winner, Trevor Bauer, in Cleveland in 2018 and ’19.

“That is pretty cool,” Willis said. “But I haven’t thrown a pitch since 1995. … The focus is on the pitchers themselves. They do the work and make it happen on the field. I’m just blessed to be a small part of their success.”

Willis’ humility is sincere enough that we basically had to beg him to let us write this story. He doesn’t want to be painted as some sort of Cy whisperer.

While Willis is right to want the spotlight on the aces themselves, he has carved out his own small place in MLB lore. Per the research of’s Sarah Langs, Willis’ work with five different Cy Young pitchers eclipses Dave Duncan (LaMarr Hoyt in 1983, Bob Welch in ’90, Dennis Eckersley in ’92 and Chris Carpenter in 2005) for sole position of the top spot.

The only pitching coach with more Cy Young seasons outright is Leo Mazzone, with six. But all of Mazzone’s came with the Braves’ big three of Greg Maddux (three Cy Youngs with Mazzone), Tom Glavine (two) and John Smoltz (one).

All-time Cy Young Award winners

Willis’ record did not go unnoticed by the pitcher who put him over the top.

“He’s extremely special,” Bieber said of Willis. “He’s a pro’s pro. He is an absolute gem of a human being and a pitching coach. I’ve learned a lot from him not just about pitching but about life and the big leagues and how to go about things day by day. … It’s no random fact that this is his fifth one, because that’s really special. I hope he’s enjoying this.”

As is the case with many accomplished coaches, Willis’ expertise emerged not from Hall of Fame-level successes in his own playing career but from the grind of 13 professional seasons featuring frequent back and forth between the Majors and the Minors.

When he had first arrived in 1984, Anderson proclaimed Willis to be “another Rollie Fingers.” It didn’t quite work out that way. Willis had a 4.25 career ERA across 390 innings with four teams — the Tigers, Reds, White Sox and Twins. But the “Big Train,” as the imposing 6-foot-4, 210-pound Willis came to be known, was a survivor who stuck around long enough to make an impact on Minnesota’s run to the 1991 World Series title, including two holds in the American League Championship Series against Toronto.

Willis took the successes and failures and applied them to a coaching career that began in the Indians’ farm system in 1997. He was the pitching coach in the Rookie-level Appalachian League in ’98 when he was asked to go to the airport in Greensboro, N.C., to pick up the Tribe’s first-round pick from that summer’s Draft — an 18-year-old named Carsten Charles Sabathia.

Complete 2020 MLB Awards coverage

Thus began a working relationship that would benefit both men. Willis worked with the raw kid from Vallejo, Calif., at three Minor League levels before becoming the Indians’ pitching coach for the first time in 2003. And in the big leagues, he taught Sabathia to trust his breaking ball early in counts and to keep his emotions in check.

The result was Sabathia’s transcendent 2007 season (3.21 ERA in a Major League-high 241 innings) that is an important element of his Cooperstown case.

“[Willis] molded me into what I am now,” Sabathia said last year. “I didn’t have a windup. I didn’t have a delivery. I didn’t have any of that stuff. I owe him everything.”

While Sabathia was celebrating his AL Cy Young win in the offseason following ’07, Willis had a visitor at his North Carolina home. It was Lee, the star-crossed lefty who had been disappointingly banished to Triple-A the previous season. The two spent a couple days talking about baseball and life, with Willis encouraging Lee to be less stubborn, to scrap a slider that wasn’t working and to make the opponent respect his changeup and two-seamer.

The result was Lee’s otherworldly 2008 (2.54 ERA in 223 1/3 innings) that turned his career around.

Despite his key role in developing back-to-back Cy Young Award winners with the Indians, Willis was part of an overhaul of the Cleveland coaching staff at the end of 2009. He landed a pitching coordinator position with Seattle, and, when the Mariners made midseason changes to their staff in ’10, he took over as the big league pitching coach in early August. So he had a front-row seat as King Félix put the finishing touches on his lone Cy season.

“Let’s be clear about this,” Willis said, “I was with Félix for two months in 2010. He had laid the bulk of his work and the foundation of that award prior to my getting there.”

Fair enough.

Willis had a more hands-on role in another Cy season a few years later. After his Seattle run, he had rejoined the Indians as a Triple-A pitching coach in 2015, only to be summoned by the Red Sox in May of that season, when they fired big league coach Juan Nieves. That’s how he found himself working with Porcello, who was in the midst of a miserable first year in Boston. The two ultimately agreed that Porcello needed to re-establish his two-seamer as his primary weapon and reduce his reliance on four seamers up in the zone. The end result was a ’16 season in which Porcello went 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA and edged Justin Verlander for the Cy honor.

When Mickey Callaway left the Indians to become manager of the Mets in 2018, Willis returned to his old post as the Cleveland pitching coach. And it was midway through that season when an unheralded fourth-rounder arrived to pitch in a loaded Indians rotation. Over the next two years, Shane Bieber deepened his repertoire, increased his velocity and learned to command any pitch in any count. Now, he’s the fifth Cy Young Award winner to have worked with Willis.

“The common trait amongst all of them,” Willis says, “is the competitiveness and that drive to make adjustments and adapt. Knowing hitters are going to make adjustments but staying one step ahead of them — that’s just really special.”

So, too, is Willis’ achievement, whether he wants the credit or not. It’s his personality and adaptability that has made him successful in working with various types of pitchers in a sport that has become so analytically oriented. At a time when experience is not often valued as much as it ought to be, Willis’ success, staying power and Cy assistance stand out.

In the room in his home where he keeps his memorabilia, Willis has hung five jerseys — one for each of his first four Cy guys and one for Kevin Millwood, who won the AL ERA title while working with Willis in 2005.

Bieber’s jersey is, obviously, going up next.

“You feel so great for the pitcher, for that guy, when they win,” Willis says. “Because we see, more than anyone, the work they put in and the stress and we live every pitch with ‘em in the dugout, when you’re out there doing it. It’s really a great feeling to see them accomplish something special like that.”

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.