Struggling prospects? Must be McDowell’s fault, right? Wrong

022716 LAKE BUENA VISTA: Braves pitcher Sean Newcomb confers with pitching coach Roger McDowell at spring training on Saturday, Feb 27, 2016, at the ESPN Wide World of Sports, Lake Buena Vista, FL. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell converses with prospect Sean Newcomb in spring training. The Braves declined to pick up McDowell’s option for next season. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Roger McDowell is out as Braves pitching coach.

Big mistake.

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.

Some recent ramblings

Reader Comments 0

37 comments
gtha6
gtha6

Haven't you spent the last 2 years complaining about the new stadium and every move that has been made?  Don't really know why I read the article....you've really lost credibility....this doesn't change anything.  It would be nice to read something with depth instead of just naysaying.  

E983
E983

I'm sorry Jeff but I disagree. I don't believe he's the pitching coach for the future of this Braves team. But if they hire Bud Black it'll be a bad hire. I still believe Brian Snitker should be here another year. He's done an amazing job. But McDowell isn't the Braves pitching coach moving forward. Your stats for this season and last aren't flawed when it comes to this staff. In today's MLB McDowell is going to a team that he can move. He gonna land on his feet believe me but it was his time to move on and he knew it.

TideDawg
TideDawg

Every move the Braves make points to Black as the  new manager. The Braves are dragging it out to make it look like it was a tough decision, but I think that decision was made at the same time FG was fired.

JeffCriswell
JeffCriswell

Strong article. I think the real wave of pitching is in the low minors. Anderson, Allard, Fried, Muller, Wentz, Sokora. They're a couple of years off. Braves should be building the team around and for them. 

UltraElf
UltraElf

@JeffCriswell Soroka is a stud. Knows how to throw the DP ball. Allard and Fried are strike out kings. There are a couple of good relief pitchers in Rome. Hope the majors don't destroy this good crop.

19palmer49
19palmer49

As usual you are right. Bradley is a moron.

redweather
redweather

If Bud Black were black would he even be in the hunt? Answer: NO!

UltraElf
UltraElf

@redweather and you see what re tread dusty baker did. They need to go to the Triple A divisions to get new mgrs. These re treads are just the same old same old. Question is, why are pitchers constantly getting hurt?  what are the pitching coaches doing to them or is it too many innings or a certain pitch or two?  The Mets had a good core until 4 of their pitchers had to have surgery. Is it the conditioning/strength coaches that are doing this to them? O flaherty is on the DL, brandon beachey I think is and Williams Perez is done. he gave up 12 runs between Rome and Gwinnett in 6 innings. He looked awful in Rome. The near sellout crowd booed his butt off the mound.

TideDawg
TideDawg

@UltraElf @redweather Good questions. My opinion is about as worthless as many....but I'll offer it anyway. I think the pitching gurus are teaching pitches to the young guys that are contradicting the normal movement of the arm. Turning the wrist over to the inside at the end of a 90 mph arm puts a lot of strain on a young arm.  Lefties don't have much problem with that. I've never seen a lefty that could throw a straight ball anyway. They always seem to have natural movement without trying. It takes many hours of conditioning to strengthen and train an arm to do something that is not natural.

Archangel
Archangel

So firing Fredi was scapegoating and now firing Roger is scapegoating? Is that your explanation for every time someone gets fired from this organization?

If you don't like analyzing baseball Jeff just say so.

DrTruth
DrTruth

Many on here said Frank Wren would never work in major league baseball again when he was fired as Braves GM.  

Guess what?  He's in the playoffs and the Braves aren't....

brushback69
brushback69

@DrTruth 

woop-de-doo, doesn't mean squat 

He didn't immediately tear down the Braves anyway, it developed over time.  I'm not necessarily sure all the blame should fall on him though.

DrTruth
DrTruth

@brushback69 @brushback69  Wren tore down the Braves?   Some of you shoot from the hip guys have no clue what you're talking about.  

The Braves won more games from 2010-2014 than any other NL team.  The Braves have now lost 188 games from 2015-2016.

Do I really have to explain to you in a public forum WHO exactly tore down the Braves?

brushback69
brushback69

@DrTruth @brushback69 

I really don't care what you think, 

Every one has an opinion.

You're no better than anyone else


Eat my shorts...

brushback69
brushback69

@brushback69 @DrTruth 

I'm not talking about the Coppy & Hart teardown  that started after they got rid of Wren. Wren tore the Braves down by poor acquisitions and farm team depletion. He gave a poor model & outlook for the team.

Stow the superior attitude dude, like I said, we all have opinions...

DrTruth
DrTruth

@brushback69 You're using your opinion.  I'm citing facts.  In baseball, W/L record is objective while "farm system strength" is subjective.


Under Wren, the Braves had a Team ERA ranked from 1st to 5th out of 30 teams from 2010-2014 and won more games than any other NL team while the farm system was "depleted".  Why was it depleted?  Because John Hart said it was when he took over.


Now the Braves have "the number 1 farm system" in MLB with particular strength in pitching, or so everyone says.  Meanwhile, they've produced 188 losses in the past 2 years, they're going shopping for 1 or 2 starting pitchers on the open market and just fired their pitching coach because their pitching prospects aren't working out.


After 2 years, the best pitcher on the team (Teheran) and best position player (Freeman) are both Frank Wren holdovers.  Show me where any of that is my opinion.

SouthGeorgiaStrong
SouthGeorgiaStrong

I beg to differ, head man does the job to keep those under him the best they can be. He set on his behind and watched the young guys get embarrassed just like FG both were spoiled and lazy

STHornet1990
STHornet1990

His salary must have been too high. Liberty's got to save a few more bucks before the Sob in Cobb gets under way.

khd713
khd713

These columnists obviously have their favorites (read: anyone who will give them the time of day) and will stick with them through hell or high water. McDowell has never been one of the top pitching coaches in the game and to state that he is is farce. He's had success with a pitcher here and a pitcher there, but he's never, ever put together a complete staff of excellent starters and relievers. Never. Not once. And the few pitchers he has had success with have an almost impossibly consistent tendency to suffer career-ending injuries as soon as they turn things around. We need a pitching coach (Black, or whoever) who can build a complete staff of starters and relievers – like what Cleveland has done, and like what Atlanta used to have under Cox and Mazzone. They were never going to have that again with McDowell as pitching coach. I hope he gets a job somewhere else, because that's one less team we have to worry about having an effective and complete pitching staff.

STHornet1990
STHornet1990

@khd713 When did you become the MLB expert on coaching quality? Never mind. Reading this says you never did.

POV1948
POV1948

@khd713 You saying it's up to the pitching coach to put together, in your own words, "a complete staff of excellent starters and relievers"?  Name a few who should be given credit for that.  They work with what the front office gives them. 

DrTruth
DrTruth

@khd713  Out of 30 teams, here's where the Braves ranked by regular season ERA for the seasons McDowell was pitching coach.

2006 - 17th, 4.60 Team ERA

2007 - 6th, 4.11

2008 - 21st, 4.46

2009 - 3rd, 3.57

2010 - 3rd, 3.56

2011 - 4th, 3.48

2012 - 5th, 3.42

2013 - 1st, 3.18

2014 - 5th, 3.38

2015 - 27th, 4.41

2016 - 24th, 4.51

The more you know.....

UltraElf
UltraElf

@khd713 has anyone checked McDowell's record as a pitcher?  I would think a pitching coach would be someone with a winning record, or a saves record with several pitches to show the young staff. You don't hire Nino Espinoza to be a pitching coach if someone like Tekulve, Eckersley, Guidry, or Hudson were available.

DrTruth
DrTruth

@UltraElf  McDowell was an accomplished relief pitcher.  This will tell you just about everything you want to know about his career:

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/27527597

"McDowell racked up 70 wins and 159 saves pitching almost exclusively in relief over a 12-year big-league career, highlighted by a win in the decisive Game Seven of the 1986 World Series. "

Before his MLB career got started, "in 1983, McDowell’s career was nearly over. An 11-12, 4.86 season for Jackson of the Double-A Texas League was cut short when he began to suffer elbow pain. When months of rest failed to cure him, McDowell underwent surgery in February of 1984. Mets doctor James C. Parkes removed bone chips and spurs.

Recovery limited McDowell to just 7⅓ innings for Jackson in 1984 plus another 14 in the playoffs, but during a postseason stint in the Instructional League, McDowell rediscovered his signature sinker and a little something extra. Augmented by a slight adjustment in arm angle, giving him a three-quarters delivery, McDowell found that his sinker broke even more sharply than the one he threw before the injury."


So at age 22, he underwent elbow surgery himself....He now lives in Marietta with his family.

klsfriend
klsfriend

"McDowell is recognized as one of the top pitching coaches in the game. That’s undeniable."

I find this a fascinating statement. On what is it based? Judging from the stats and the results he has been no better or worse than the vast number of other pitching coaches. I doubt pitching and hitting coaches actually have that much impact one way or the other. Either the players have the talent or they don't.

brushback69
brushback69

@klsfriend 

Then why the hell do they have coaches, for any sport at all for that matter, by that logic?  

Have you ever played sports at all?

FineousMcDirtyBird
FineousMcDirtyBird

Can we blame Roger for our pitchers being frail and incapable of making it deeper than 6 innings on average?

Biff_Pocoroba
Biff_Pocoroba

Looks like the Rockies want to interview Eddie Perez for their managerial job. I'm taking this news to mean that Black will likely be the new Braves manager. Meh. I don't like it.

brushback69
brushback69

@Biff_Pocoroba 

Black could be but it certainly has nothing to do with Perez getting interviews.  He just wants to be a MLB manager one day and has developed a good reputation.  He's not bailing cause Black might be the manager.

RoyalDawg
RoyalDawg

This probably signals doom for Snitker.

DrTruth
DrTruth

It's pretty easy to see that Coppy ALWAYS views prospects with respect to their ceilings, not their floors or somewhere in between.  So yeah, he's disappointed in the progress of his pitching prospects.


This probably stems from the time when his nightly meal was a half-eaten Big Mac and rainwater found in a garbage can.   It's hard to see the downside in anything after that.



joedavis
joedavis

 This is funny in so many ways.  We've been spoon-fed how WONDERFUL McDowell has been with young pitchers.  Now, with no explanation, we're being told he's not.


As for Mazzone, he, like, Bobby Cox, was fortunate enough to be with the team when 3 Hall of Famers were in their pitching prime, with the best center-fielder in MLB history saving them a ton of runs.  Mazzone and Cox were both born on 3rd base, and history has been rewritten to make everyone think they hit a triple.

Wrecker
Wrecker

@joedavis Congrats!  Your comment is the dumbest post on the Internet today.  McDowell is an excellent pitching coach.  Numbers do not lie.  All three of those HOF pitchers lauded Mazzone's work.  That great CF'er Jones gave much credit to Cox, as did every player who ever played for him.  Don't discuss things of which you are ignorant.