Roger McDowell is out as Braves pitching coach.
One possible theory for Friday’s decision to not pick up the option on McDowell’s contract for next season — effectively firing him — is that this means the Braves will hire Bud Black as their new manager. Black is a former major league pitching coach and it stands to reason he would want to hire his own pitching coach — and to some degree he would run the staff himself.
But it’s also possible — even probable — that Braves president John Hart and general manager John Coppolella are looking for someone to blame about the perceived slow development of some of their young pitchers. Why? Because the only other alternative would be some level of admission that they overvalued some of their pitching prospects.
Most pro sports executives tend to overvalue their own draft picks and prospects. When things go wrong, it’s much easier to blame a coach. So never mind that most of the Braves’ pitchers over McDowell’s 11 years have been young. You don’t get a reputation as one of the game’s best pitching coaches if you can only work with veterans, as the Braves’ front office is now spinning.
From 2009 to 2014, the Braves ranked third, third, fourth, fifth, first and fifth in the majors in ERA. In the last two years, they ranked 27th and 24th. Did McDowell suddenly become a bad pitching coach, or was it what he had to work with?
I spoke to McDowell Friday but he chose to be nothing but positive and classy on his way out.
“I had an opportunity to cut my teeth with a Hall of Fame manager with Bobby Cox and got my first major league pitching coach job with the Atlanta Braves,” McDowell said. “In the past 11 years, I’ve made some terrific friends and I have nothing but fond memories. I have relationships not only with pitchers and players who’ve come through here but with clubhouse guys and front office people and an array of people too many to mention.”
In late August, I asked Braves interim manager Brian Snitker, who remains a top candidate for the managerial job, about McDowell. These were his comments:
“When I came up as a third base coach I decided the two jobs I would never want was pitching and hitting coach. Everybody thinks they can do your job better than you. Everybody has the answers.
“Roger has done a phenomenal job when you consider the turnover and all of the guys he’s had to touch and deal with. It would be crazy for the next manager to not keep him.”
I guess Snitker didn’t get a vote.
McDowell is old school to some degree. He’s tough. He will get in a pitcher’s face if he believes the player could be doing better. But he worked wonders with the likes of Kris Medlen and Mike Minor (who later develop injury problems), as well as developing Craig Kimbrel and others.
Is anybody going to give McDowell credit for reliever Jim Johnson’s efforts this season? Or how about a reclamation project like Aaron Harang a few years ago?
And wait, aren’t Mauricio Cabrera and Ian Krol young pitchers, because they looked pretty good this season.
How about Julio Teheran? He was blessed with enormous talent but needed to become more strong-willed. McDowell and Teheran haven’t always gotten along but Teheran’s improvement can be directly traced to McDowell’s work with him on his mental approach to pitching.
Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair are among the Braves’ prospects who have struggled. But maybe it’s just because they’re young and they haven’t learned yet. Or maybe they need to become mentally tougher. Or maybe they’ve been overvalued.
But so much of this Braves’ rebuilding project is based on pitchers that Hart and Coppolella have stockpiled and the last thing they want to do is give an impression that mistakes were made.
McDowell was hired by Cox, who handled pitchers as well as any manager in history. As strong of a pitching coach as Leo Mazzone was, it was Cox who was always mentioned first by Hall of Fame pitchers John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux.
When I spoke to McDowell in late August about some of the struggles of some of the Braves’ young pitchers and what the future might hold for him, he said he was simply doing what he always tells his pitchers: Focus on today and control what you can control.
“I have confidence in my ability as a pitching coach,” he said. “I believe in my ability to teach pitching staffs whatever they need, whether they’re young or old or inexperienced to experienced.”
Another team will be fortunate to get him.
SUBSCRIBE TO THE NEW, “We Never Played The Game” podcast on iTunes with Jeff Schultz and Zach Klein of WSB TV. The first episode with Part I of our two-part interview with Falcons owner Arthur Blank can be downloaded here.
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