Roger McDowell is a good pitching coach: His record tells us so. That said …
For what the Atlanta Braves have become, he was the wrong pitching coach. His best work — and his best work ranked with that of any big-league pitching coach’s of the past decade — was done with veterans who could execute the game plan McDowell gave them. (At game-planning, McDowell is the coaching equivalent of Clayton Kershaw.) With younger pitchers, he was less successful.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Braves are rebuilding around young pitching. That McDowell had struggled to take a hot young pitcher and develop him into a proven No. 1 starter troubled this administration. (The previous one as well.) Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson and Mike Minor rose fast and then, like Keyser Soze, were gone. They didn’t just disappoint. They went from being the apples of the Braves’ eye to being unable to hold a big-league job.
It was also true that, under McDowell, both Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy had two rounds of Tommy John surgery, which Will Carroll, who has written knowingly and extensively on baseball injuries, claims was without precedent. For one starter have two TJs within four years is rare; for two to do it in the same organization — for each to suffer a second breakdown within a 24-hour span in spring training — made you wonder if this had more to do with bad management than rotten luck.
Here, from last summer, was Carroll’s withering assessment of McDowell:
“It’s not even the ace thing. It’s the fact they haven’t come up with even a No. 4 starter. Go down the list and (their touted young starters) have become injured or ineffective … They’ve been good at finding them and getting them to (the major-league) level. They’ve had super prospects — they get there, and then they break. It seems to narrow the field (of culpability). I don’t like to point the finger from outside, but everything’s pointing to Roger McDowell.”
McDowell’s most powerful defenders were the managers he served — first Bobby Cox, then Fredi Gonzalez. Cox spoke of McDowell with a reverence never ascribed to Leo Mazzone, which always struck me as weird. (I know some people insist Mazzone hit the lottery by getting to work with three first-ballot Hall of Famers; I’m of the opinion that a key reason those three became first-ballot Hall of Famers was because they were shepherded by Rockin’ Leo.)
McDowell also had detractors, Frank Wren chief among them. It was on Wren’s watch that Jurrjens and Hanson and Minor flamed out, and there was concern Julio Teheran might do the same. Sure enough, Teheran had a bewildering 2015 season — Wren was gone by then — in which he fell in love with his two-seamer, which is essentially a sinker, at the expense of his better pitches. This year he stopped throwing the two-seamer so much and again made the All-Star team. (We note: As a pitcher, McDowell was a sinkerballer.)
You might recall that McDowell was on the verge of jumping to the Phillies after the 2013 season. I’m told John Schuerholz had to intercede to keep him. Wren would have let him leave.
The past two seasons saw the Braves finish 27th and 24th in team ERA. McDowell — full credit here — got the best anyone has from Shelby Miller, but the paths of Tyrell Jenkins, Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair weren’t so smooth. All needed re-calibration in the minors. Wisler and Blair appeared to lose the plot so completely that you wondered why they were deemed such exalted prospects when the Braves plied them from San Diego and Arizona, respectively.
Some of that is the nature of arms. Even established pitchers can need a reset. (Check Justin Verlander’s numbers from 2014/2015 to this.) But if the focus of your organization is pitching, you’d prefer that young guys could receive the necessary tweak without having to ride the Gwinnett shuttle. The Braves haven’t lost faith in Wisler or Blair, but the next few years will see arms of even higher caliber make their way to Atlanta, from Allard and Anderson and Fried to Soroka and Toussaint and Wentz. You’d prefer a pitching coach who’s good with striplings.
Some will see the cutting of ties with McDowell as a precursor to hiring Bud Black — former pitcher, former pitching coach — as manager. We won’t know for sure until the Braves announce their managerial choice, but at the moment I’m inclined to see this a separate move. With Gonzalez gone, McDowell’s biggest source of support was likewise absent, and this administration is duty-bound to do everything it can to ensure that its young pitchers succeed.
Super fun reading: