McDowell had become the wrong pitching coach for these Braves

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The bubble burst. (AJC file photo)

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:

John Hart: The Braves’ rebuild is going faster than expected.

Bumgarner’s playoff domination began against the Braves.

Memo to Braves fans: There’s a case to be made for Bud Black.

Why wasn’t Ted at Turner Field’s farewell? The Braves don’t know.

The Braves must decide if Snitker is the best choice.

Draft downer: Only the Braves could lose by winning.

A moving day at Turner Field, in more ways than one.

There has to be a place for Walter Banks at SunTrust Park.

Turner Field somehow never felt like home.

The Braves are a .500 team! (If you don’t count the first half.)

A September to remember for, yes, the Braves.

Ender Inciarte ends game, stirs debate: Greatest Braves catch ever?

Tebow to the Mets. Can the Braves ever recover? (Kidding.)

Reader Comments 0

22 comments
khd713
khd713

Thank you for writing an accurate column about McDowell. So many, including your colleague, seem to have delusions of grandeur about his term here. We need a pitching coach who can build a complete staff of starters and relievers, with all of them over-achieving – or at least achieving – all at the same time. That's the trick of being a pitching coach, and it's not easy, but teams that go far in the postseason tend to have a whole staff of pitchers performing at the top of their game. McDowell never even got close to that, and in his case team ERA didn't tell the whole story.

DrTruth
DrTruth

@khd713 Since you know so much about "the trick of being a pitching coach", why don't you give us a few examples of what McDowell did well while he was the Braves pitching coach?

 And include some examples of his successes this season, if you can.

Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

@DrTruth @khd713 This is more an issue of HartCoppy wanting to hire Bud Black, than an Indictment of Roger being a bad pitching coach. Being let go now will likely give McDowell a better chance to get a job for next year. Likely with Philly or the Angels of Anaheim.Bud Black will bring in his own group of coaches, likely causing more of an uproar than the firing of McDowell.Replacing Pendleton, Perez and demoting Snitker will put more pressure on Hart/Coppy in 2017. They will no longer have any Scapegoats left from the previous (Wren) regime.

brushback69
brushback69

A fair article I think.  The Braves have had more than their fair share with arm injuries.  I don't know that it amounts to being all McDowell's fault, but it has happened under his watch  While his staff's have been superb for the most part over his tenure, maybe he isn't as effective with the younger, inexperienced guys.

Thanks and good luck to you Roger..

redweather
redweather

Two of our young pitchers, that being Wisler and Folty, do things that no coach can do much about. Wisler has a tendency to leave pitches right over the darn plate. As for Folty, he has a tendency to pout as soon as something doesn't go his way. 

Of the two, I feel better about Folty. He made strides this year keeping his cool, and I'm assuming Tyler Flowers ought to get some credit for that. I am also impressed with Adam Blair, who at first didn't look like he could get high school batters out. Whoever got him to change his wind-up and stop turning his back on the batter knew something. Was that McDowell? 

E983
E983

Great article Mark. The same is happening with Mets pitchers as the Braves. Too many TJ surgeries tell you the coach isn't taking care of his staff. In other words he needs to learn the new techniques of caring for a staff. He didn't.

TideDawg
TideDawg

Mcdowell.... A classic case.....the right man for the wrong job. Young men listen but they don't hear. Have you ever met a youngster that thought a senior member could teach him anything?

Gomez Addams
Gomez Addams

I agree with Bradley on this one. Schultz is off base.  And I know that Leo talks a lot, but we need him back or someone like him who has some idea on how to bring young arms along.

AtlantaDude
AtlantaDude

So glad to see him go.  I haven't done an updated analysis, but as of a couple of years ago, the Braves under McDowell had almost three times as many Tommy John surgeries as the next highest team.  I never understood the reverence for the guy.  Yeah, Leo had Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux for almost his entire tenure, but maybe he would have had Minor, Beachy and Medlin around for a dozen years too.  It's impossible to know, but I am so happy to say goodbye to Roger the meat grinder McDowell.

19palmer49
19palmer49

As usual you are an idiot and never respond and what are your credentials to even write about baseball. Basketball is theoretically your sport and you are at best mediocre at that. Please take your pension and leave.

FreeAgentFan
FreeAgentFan

We are stuck with the two brain dead porta Johns for the next decade of 90 loss seasons -- Hart has done nothing since he has been here expect build a hapless loser

FreeAgentFan
FreeAgentFan

Bradley loves the two Johns with a 90 plus loss per yr accomplishment

POV1948
POV1948

Bradley got another memo from the Johns.  

DaltonbywayofBickley
DaltonbywayofBickley

Snitker also sang McDowell's praises. I'm not so sure this isn't a precursor to Black. Like you, I agree Mazzone was very capable. Remember the year of the castoff bullpen under Leo that was really great? I do.

DoubleSubject
DoubleSubject

How soon we forget McDowell's expletive laced rant against some Braves fans with children present. Good riddance, Mr. McDowell. May we never hear your name again forever in Georgia. 

frankbrennan
frankbrennan

Respect the hell out of McDowell, but it appears he's the wrong guy for baby pitchers. Probably needed to go....

joedavis
joedavis

Care to share the names of any pitching coach, anywhere around the globe, who could succeed with a 2016 roster filled with: Matt Marksberry, Rob Whalen, Alexi Ogando, an overweight Arodys Vizcaino, Dario Alvarez, Jason Hursh, Madison Younginer, Jed Bradley, the remains of Eric O'Flaherty, Casey Kelly, and Williams Perez?


Go ahead, I'll wait.

slydawg
slydawg

Your comment only makes his implicit accusations stronger. Did he require superstar talent in order to get the job done? Any coach can get the job done with overwhelming talent.