Last offseason, the Phillies tried to raid the Braves coaching staff, talking to Roger McDowell. A former member of the Phillies during parts of three seasons, McDowell was offered an undisclosed amount of money from Philly that was more than the Braves were paying him. Atlanta was face with the possibility of needing a new pitching coach, but acted positively to keep McDowell, increasing his salary and inking him to a new two-year contract.
After famously replacing the departing Leo Mazzone ahead of the 2006 season, McDowell’s hiring was criticized. Rockin’ Leo was held to just regard by Braves fans that anyone replacing him would have a tough time. Whenever a legend is replaced, whether it’s Bear Bryant, John Wooden, or even Bobby Cox, one of the common narratives that follows is how no one wants to replace a legend. Be the guy who replaces the guy who replaced the legend. It’s a lot easier. Whether Leo was the truly legend Braves fans make him…he did have three Hall of Fame pitchers…he was still regarded as such.
McDowell’s first season was rocky. The Streak came to an end as the Braves won 79 and gave up 805 runs. Gone was a pair of Hall of Famers. In their place was a good, but declining John Smoltz. Tim Hudson was awful. The rest of the staff was built on guys who would be out of the bigs within a couple of years. Chris Reitsma was miscast as a closer. Ken Ray appeared in 69 games. Pitching coaches can’t do much with an old team that lacks talent. Still, the pitching was much improved the following season, finishing third in ERA despite relying on Chuck James, Buddy Carlyle, Kyle Davies, Jo-Jo Reyes, Lance Cormier, Mark Redman, Jeff Bennett, and Anthony Lerew to start 96 games.
The Braves gave McDowell a young starter in Jair Jurrjens in 2008 and under McDowell’s stewardship, Jurrjens progressed into an All-Star. McDowell got the most out of Jorge Campillo and Bennett, though talent was still lacking so the Braves finally addressed the elephant in the room in 2009, getting Javier Vazquez and Derek Lowe. Tommy Hanson came up and was very good. McDowell got his hands on Kris Medlen and Eric O’Flaherty and both flourished. In the coming years, he would get solid innings from Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Brandon Beachy, Jonny Venters, David Carpenter, Anthony Varvaro, and Craig Kimbrel. The latter might be his most amazing accomplishment. Kimbrel walked 5.7 BB/9 in the minors, but during his Rookie of the Year season, he lowered that to 3.7 BB/9.
There are many more names. Since McDowell took over as the pitching coach, the Braves have posted a 3.76 ERA, good for second in baseball behind the Dodgers’ 3.71 in the same time frame. They are sixth in K/9, second in GB%, and second in WHIP. Under McDowell, the bullpen ERA of 3.41 is also second in baseball.
The Second Spitter deserved his pay raise. He deserves another based on what he has done this season with a staff that lost Medlen and Beachy and opened the year with Minor on the shelf. Venters is still trying to work his way back. He took a guy nobody thought deserved a long-term deal in Ervin Santana and has him clicking. Oh, and the spare part known as Aaron Harang? Experiencing a resurgence that doesn’t even look like smoke and mirrors (2.29 FIP). They took a sub-3.00 ERA into today’s action against the Red Sox, a number that is not likely to be maintained, but it’s also a representation of the talent and coaching the Braves are fortunate enough to have. McDowell has his detractors and he did embarrass himself, and the team, in San Francisco a few years back.
Nevertheless, as a pitching coach, he has few peers. Some might point to the injuries, though that is happening league-wide. Atlanta is quite lucky to have McDowell for the foreseeable future.