Tuesday, October 12, 2010

(More than) A few words about Bobby Cox



I became a fan of the Atlanta Braves in 1969, as I listened to the Braves (on WKBC-AM in North Wilkesboro) win the National League West in the first year of division play. My interest waxed and waned over the years, but never my loyalty. When Ted Turner bought the team and broadcast the games on his network of UHF stations, I watched and heard Skip Caray, Pete Van Wieren, and Ernie Johnson become the most interesting team of broadcasters in professional sports. They never yelled or shouted. In fact, they were often so laid back that you wondered if they cared who won. But you welcomed them into your living room and never wanted them to leave.


I'll confess that I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to the club during Bobby Cox's first tenure as manager. For one thing, the Braves were pretty bad. Ted made a lot of awful decisions on free agents, notwithstanding the fine job Bill Lucas (the majors' first African-American GM) performed assembling young talent. Lucas died unexpectedly in 1979, and under John Mullen's watch, the minors fell apart within a few years.


Turner fired Cox in 1981 and replaced him with Joe Torre, who promptly took the talent Lucas and Cox developed and won a division title. Cox went on to Toronto, where he managed under another legendary GM, Pat Gillick.


While at Toronto, Cox began a stretch of putting his club in the postseason for 16 consecutive years, a major league record.


Which is why I think Bobby Cox is the greatest regular season baseball manager since World War II, if not earlier. Tony LaRussa may be the best manager, period -- he's more of an innovator and has had greater postseason success -- but Cox was unparalleled over the course of a long season.


Cox also was a mediocre manager once the regular season ended. None of his Toronto teams made the World Series. His 1985 club blew a 3-1 lead in the ALCS to the Kansas City Royals. And though the Braves won 14 consecutive division titles (1991-2005), his teams made the World Series only five times and won the championship once -- in 1995.


Why? Cox has said that the postseason was a crapshoot, and there's truth to that. Any club can get hot for a few weeks. But while he was a remarkable manager, motivator, and teacher, his talents were much more suited to a 162-game season than a short series.

STRENGTHS:


1) It's been said often, but he was the quintessential "player's manager." From the 1984 Bill James Baseball Abstract: 

It's hard to remember any widely publicized conflicts he has had with his players, either here [Toronto] or Atlanta.

The recent Brooks Conrad meltdown offers an example. When Cox took Conrad (who made three crucial errors in game three) out of the lineup in game four, Cox said, "he needs a day off. He needs to get away from it for a day. And I told him to hold his head high and maybe pinch hit and win a game for us.”


This was the typical way Cox handled his players, publicly and (by most accounts) privately.



Cox set the career record for ejections: 158 in the regular season, nearly an entire campaign. Why? He understood that players ultimately win games, and he would rather watch a game from the clubhouse if it kept his player in the game.


Cox not only "watched his players' backs," he also treated them like adults. John Madden said he didn't believe in expecting his players to abide by a lot of rules. "Be on time, pay attention, and play like hell when I tell you to," was the extent of Madden's rules. Cox's weren't much different.


That may be why he was so universally revered by his players. It may also explain why players who were considered prima donnas or head cases -- Gary Sheffield, J.D. Drew, John Rocker, Yunel Escobar, Kenny Lofton -- posed few problems in the Atlanta clubhouse. Or when they did (Rocker, Escobar, Lofton) -- Cox quietly made sure they played elsewhere.


2) Predictability, to a fault. Cox was not much of an innovator. LaRussa invented the one-inning closer, and whoever created the idea of the lefty/righty relief specialist, Cox copied both to a fault. As a result, he would leave his bench thin to make sure he had lots of guys in the bullpen to handle specific in-game situations. It was not at all unusual for his clubs to carry 13 pitchers. Which meant that he expected his starting eight to play everyday. (Leading to fatigue late in regular seasons and in postseason series.)



He also tended to work his relievers like Grand Canyon pack mules, particularly in the post-Glavine/Smoltz/Maddux era. During his final tenure in Atlanta (the full seasons from 1991-2010), at least one pitcher made at least 70 appearances in 12 seasons. Each of the past four seasons, two or more pitchers made 70+ appearances; in 2009, four did, and in 2010, three did. By late September/early October, his bullpens often were gassed.


In Cox's typical bullpen there was the ground-ball specialist (Clontz, Borowski, Gryboski, Moylan, McMichael, Campillo, Paronto) and the get-out-a-lefty (Remlinger, Dunn, Venters, Mercker, King, McBride, Ohman, O'Flaherty). Both got plenty of work. He preferred closers who threw strikes to those who could throw it through a wall (though he didn't complain when he had a Smoltz, Soriano, Rocker, Wohlers, or Wagner who could do both). And yet he had plenty of seasons when guys like Reardon, Ligtenberg, McMichael, and Wickman -- who rarely cracked 85 mph -- were finishing games.


The downside of relying on control-type pitchers is evident in the postseason, where it's more important to have big arms than finesse. (Indeed, two sure Hall of Famers who were Braves mainstays, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, were good but hardly dominant in October.)


Longtime pitching coach Leo Mazzone took some of the blame for the spotty performance of the Braves bullpens. He was given much credit for developing the best starting rotations in baseball throughout his 15-year tenure but little for his relief corps.


I'm not sure this is justified. The 1984 Bill James Baseball Abstract had this, from James' profile of Cox, then in Toronto.

IS THERE ANYTHING UNIQUE ABOUT HIS HANDLING OF PITCHERS?

He likes his pitchers to be aggressive, to go after the hitters. That's hardly unique, I suppose.

DOES HE USE THE ENTIRE STAFF OR DOES HE TRY TO GET FIVE OR SIX PEOPLE TO DO MOST OF THE WORK?


Well, he'll use five pitchers in a game sometimes. You tend to get the entire staff involved that way.
So maybe it wasn't Leo after all, since Bobby's pitching coach in Toronto was Galen Cisco and after Leo departed, Roger McDowell's staffs have operated largely as Leo's did.


Nor was Bobby a particularly innovative or aggressive in-game strategist. His teams played for the big inning, the three-run homer, a la Earl Weaver, even if the roster didn't have a lot of home run power. His clubs didn't run a lot even when the stolen base was a big part of the game.


Also like Weaver, Cox put a premium on pitching and defense. And it showed in performance. During the 14-year run, all but two seasons his clubs had an OPS+ of less than 100 -- short version, the team's overall offensive production was below league average. And yet his starting rotations were typically among the best in baseball, even when the top winner on the staff was a Russ Ortiz, Jaret Wright, or a Denny Neagle.


Mazzone deserves kudos; in 2005, ESPN named him the best assistant coach in any sport of all time. So does Pat Corrales, the longtime bench coach, who set the defenses and used the most aggressive positioning in baseball. The outfields and infields often had huge holes, but the pitchers were expected to hit spots -- and more often than not, the batters would hit the ball right into the teeth of the defense. (The Braves' defense has deteriorated noticeably since Corrales left the club to join the Washington Nationals in 2007.)


3) He recognized talent, and was unafraid to elevate untested kids over veterans. When Cox left Toronto in 1985, Turner hired Cox to be the Braves' GM. And he drafted/signed/developed the nucleus that would take him to 14 straight division titles.


The Braves invested heavily in scouting, both in the U.S. and internationally. Their goal was to identify talented players, sign them young (usually out of high school or in their mid-teens if they were from Latin America), and teach them to play the game properly. Young guys who are trained the right way don't need a lot of rules.


As James said in the '84 Abstract, "If there's a 23-year-old on a Bobby Cox team, it's a safe bet he'll be in the lineup."


Cox was a really good high school quarterback (who played against Daryle Lamonica and was recruited by USC). And he was fond of two types of players -- great athletes and smart "grinders." His rosters reflected that. A typical lineup would feature a couple of physical specimens -- Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, J.D. Drew, Gary Sheffield, Andres Gallaraga, Jason Heyward, David Justice, Ronnie Gant, Deion Sanders, Jeff Franceour, Ryan Klesko, Rafael Furcal -- and a lot of gamers -- he gave significant playing time to guys like Keith Lockhart, Marcus Giles, Rafael Belliard, Jeff Treadway, Mark Lemke, Omar Infante, and Vinnie Castilla.


WEAKNESSES:


1) Predictability. See above. A superior game tactician could beat him. Cox played by the book, even if an individual matchup said to throw the book away. In the late innings, he'd routinely set up lefty vs. lefty and righty vs. righty matchups, even if his lefties weren't particularly effective against like-handed batters/pitchers (or had been lit up by the opposing player he was about to face).


2) Loyalty. His abiding faith in players failed him at times. Case in point: Jeff Franceour. Frenchy came up in 2005 because the team needed a warm body to play the outfield. He went on a hot streak immediately. Even though it took the opposition less than a full season to figure out that Franceour had no strike zone judgment and would swing at any pitch between the on-deck circles -- by one sabermetric measure, he was the worst outfielder in the 100+ year history of the franchise -- Cox continued to run him out there for three more seasons.


Perhaps it's not possible to find a skipper who combines the sunny disposition and people skills of Cox with the tactical chops and decisiveness of an Earl Weaver, a Davey Johnson, or a Dick Williams. Does Fredi Gonzalez? We'll find out.


But Bobby Cox is a Hall of Famer, without question. And just as I miss the voices of Caray and Van Wieren, I'll miss hearing Cox shout encouragement from the dugout, and shuffling on his artificial knees to make pitching changes.


Being a Braves fan just won't be the same.

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