The Hot Button: Can Bobby Cox handle a pitching staff?

You know, I don’t just write these little posts. I listen to what you folks have to say about them. And in the wake of the Mets’ eight-run inning against Derek Lowe on Tuesday — not to be confused with the Braves’ eight-run inning against Bobby Parnell on Wednesday — the matter of Bobby Cox and his pitchers arose yet again.

I would suggest a check of the Braves’ team ERA over the fullness of time stands as powerful evidence that Cox does indeed know how to wrangle pitchers. From 1991 through 2002, the Braves finished first, second or third in the National League in ERA every blessed season. The only way that happens is if a staff stays healthy. The only way a staff stays healthy is if the guy in charge doesn’t overwork his men.

I know, I know. Cox had Leo Mazzone rockin’ beside him back then, and it was only after the 2002 season that the Hall of Fame rotation came unstuck — Glavine left for the Mets and Millwood was traded to Philly — and the Braves’ pitching hasn’t been quite the same since. So some of you will say: “See? That shows Cox had little to do with it. Things just managed themselves.”

In my time around big-league baseball teams, I’ve never seen any team manage itself. And I’ve seen Hall of Fame managers — Sparky Anderson in Cincinnati, say — preside over a staff that tended prime young pitchers (Don Gullett, Wayne Simpson) come down with arm trouble. The Braves fared obscenely well with the health of their starters for an obscenely long time, and that cannot have been an accident. Not for 12 consecutive seasons.

Mazzone left after 2005, and the Braves finished 10th among NL teams in ERA in 2006 and 12th last season, when all the old guys got hurt. Last season, I would submit, was a function of age, not managerial neglect. As Roger McDowell, Mazzone’s successor, has said: “There are only so many pitches in an arm.”

Given the proper arms, McDowell has held up his end. The Braves were third in the NL in ERA in 2007 and are third again now. They have a nice new rotation that has yet to see any of its members placed on the disabled list, and that’s ultimately the test of a rotation and its oversight. As Jim Leyland has often said: “It’s not necessarily the best staff that wins but the healthiest.”

And now you’re saying: “Typical — Bradley defends Cox. What’s next? A post about the sun rising in the East?” And I say …

For all his strengths, the man has taken to overtaxing his bullpen.

I wish I understood how a staff tied for the big-league lead in quality starts — a pitcher works at least six innings while yielding three or fewer runs — can also have three relievers rank in the top five among big-leaguers in appearances. (Peter Moylan has pitched in 65 games, Eric O’Flaherty and Mike Gonzalez in 60 apiece.) With so many quality starts (72), you’d think it would work the other way.

Can Bobby Cox handle a pitching staff?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

As we know, Cox uses the same guys over and over. He deploys his closer in non-save situations, which other teams take pains not to do. Rafael Soriano has worked in 54 games, with more than half those appearances (28) under non-save circumstances. Jonathan Papelbon has worked in only 19 non-save games, Brad Lidge in 18,  Joe Nathan in 15, Mariano Rivera in 14.

(No, Soriano hasn’t been the full-time closer all season. He and Gonzalez split the duty for a while. But Gonzalez has worked in 35 non-saves.)

My problem with Cox isn’t that he leaves his starters in too long — the business with Lowe on Tuesday was an obvious exception — but that he wears his relievers to a frazzle without cause. (It wasn’t always this way. At no other time in this decade have the Braves had more than one reliever among the top 10 in games.) The Braves have three relievers with 60-plus appearances. The Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers have none.

So there’s my answer, and I apologize for it being a half-step. But it’s clear, at least to me, that the same guy who handles his starters expertly has placed an undue strain on his bullpen. And when your closer yields two game-losing home runs in the span of eight days … well, it does make you wonder, does it not?

227 comments Add your comment

Barry

August 20th, 2009
10:12 am

First!! Spot on Mark. I think he is the ultimate manager of starting pitching, but I don’t think I have ever agreed with how he handles relievers, going back to his first tenure with the Braves.

Barry

August 20th, 2009
10:17 am

His record with starters is undeniable. He gives them the chance to pitch out of trouble. However, I don’t think he allows them the opportunity for complete games often enough. In the old days, he managed relievers too much by “the book.” Always lefties vs. lefties and righties vs. righties. I don’t have as much problem with how often the closers pitch as much as the setup guys. I think he could often squeeze another inning out of the starter, and if it isn’t a close game, don’t use the setup guys. It seems like Moylan pitches every game. I think Moylan is an outstanding talent, but he’s over-used. And now that Soriano is experiencing some arm issues, how about Gonzalez as the closer on occasion? That worked well earlier in the season.

Rock Preston

August 20th, 2009
10:21 am

I cant understand why Cox runs Gonzalez out there seemingly every night. I wonder when he will wear out.

DevilInLaw

August 20th, 2009
10:27 am

These guys’ arms will fall off before Bobby stops trotting them out there.

jeffrey d

August 20th, 2009
10:27 am

Thanks for writing about this Mark.

A lot of the crap Bobby gets on here, Schultz’s, and DOB’s blogs for leaving starters in too long is done in retrospect. But Tuesday…that was just painful. The whole world knew that Derek Lowe wasn’t on, but the camera kept cutting to Bobby who was still enough to be taking a nap. He later said he was hoping to get a ground ball to get the DP – DOB said he didn’t have the heart to point out that at that point the 9th and 10th batters of the inning were up) – but you can’t really get a groundball when your sinker isn’t sinking.

But the relievers, it’s embarrassing. It’s not just this year. Every year the announcers are noting how Braves relievers are leading the majors in innings pitched and appearances. Ray King, Chris Reitsma, Macay McBride….

Novice Ned

August 20th, 2009
10:33 am

Soriano looked as happy about pitching in a 15-2 blowout last night as Sean Hannity at the last Presidential Inauguration. Remember the time that Bobby rediscovered Manny Acosta earlier this season, and then proceeded to pitch him in 3 consecutive games? And in that third game, Acosta suddenly pitched like Dan Kolb. At least the guys who he is wearing out this season, Moylan, Gonzo & O’Flaherty, have never had arm or back issues. Right? Hello?

Vince

August 20th, 2009
10:37 am

The Braves turned things around(I hope not too late) when Bobby Cox decided to play the hot hitters(Prado, Diaz, ect.)when they were streaking. Why doesn’t he do the same thing with the bullpen?. Let them set up or close based on their recent(last 2-3 outings) performance and use different combinations each night to give them more rest. In this setup Moylan, O’Flaherty, Gonzalez, or Soriano could set up or close. It would give them each more rest, give Cox more options, and keep the other teams guessing. Through in the Gwinett closer after Sept. 1st and you would have plenty of options.

Jt

August 20th, 2009
10:48 am

I am a Bobby Cox fan. Cannot argue with the results he has obtained. My only problem with the way he handles pitchers is that I think he does not go enough by instincts and current results. He relies a little too much on the righty/righty and lefty/lefty match up. I have seen him take out a left handed reliever who was getting good results in order to bring in a right hander. So, he burned 2 pitchers without seeing if a particular lefty could get out a right handed hitter. As far as Lowe the other night, it drove me crazy. I know the reason he left him in- all the hits were ground balls or softly hit bloopers- and he was trying to get a ground ball. But, it was clear (before the game was tied at 4) that Lowe had neither the stuff nor the confidence to get another out. It looked like Lowe was hoping Cox would come take him out of the game. It was a 4 run lead- could not afford to let that game get away- needed someone to stop the bleeding and he waited WAY too long

Robert

August 20th, 2009
10:52 am

I wish the Hillbilly Deluxe would come up with a song about Bobby Cox or any subject. It was nice comic relief recently on Farve.

The Grinch

August 20th, 2009
10:54 am

It’s not just that he wears the same ones out while the others languish, but his absolute refusal to look at splits when making matchup decisions is absurd. We lost the other night when he took out the hot Gonzalez (who Ryan Howard has a .170 ba against) to insert a cold Soriano (who had been terrible for a week straight and Howard had a ba over .300 against) because it’s what his “book” says. One pitch, game over. There are 10-12 such games a year, where EVERYONE watching the game except David O’Brien either grabs their forehead in disbelief or throws a beer/remote at the TV set.

The only way for a Bobby Cox managed baseball team to win is if the starter goes 7 or 8 and gives up less than three, or if the offense strings together 12 consecutive doubles (or both). The fact that we were able to win a World Series during his tenure despite that albatross is a testament to the talent and luck that have pervaded the roster. What I don’t understand is that every time one or the other of those things happen, announcers and journalists scream “Genius!” from the rooftops, as if he’d done anything other than take a nap on the bench.

Those voices seem quieter now, though, don’t they?

tvsportscaster

August 20th, 2009
10:56 am

Good points, Mark a prime example is last night. Why on earth did he deem it necessary to use four pitchers in a 15-2 blowout, bring one reliever in and let him finish the game. Granted that said pitcher is probably not available the next day, but it’s better than overworking three guys.

Kendawg

August 20th, 2009
10:59 am

It looks like some of the relievers could go two-three innings on occasion and have more rest between appearances.

jimmy

August 20th, 2009
11:01 am

you don’t like smoltz,vick and now cox are you trying to take terrance moore’s place

"Chef" Tim Dix

August 20th, 2009
11:04 am

In a word, yes.

BravesFan79

August 20th, 2009
11:04 am

Exactly! No excuse for running out both Gonzo AND Soriano in a game that’s not even close! Take the San Diego game for example. I said using both closers in that last game would cost us a game in the Dodgers series. And the very next night, Soriano gives up the big HR and the Dodgers win.
I still think Gonzo is one of the best relievers in the NL when used right. How does Cox expect his guys to be fresh at the end of the season when he constantly runs them out in blowouts? (not counting all the times they warmup in the pen)

What gets me is Cox will use Gonzo/Soriano in a non save situation time after time, but if were down by 1 run going into the 9th inning…. count on him putting in Acosta! And watch as the Braves go from 1 run down to 3 or 4 runs down.

Phil

August 20th, 2009
11:05 am

Moron Cox has been awful at handling a pitching staff for the last 20 years, the Lowe debacle Tuesday night was just another sorry chapter.

We know Cox is a total idiot, but you think Roger McDowell would have thrown a bucket of cold water on Cox Tuesday night and said “Bobby, we have to get him out of there! He is pitching half crippled, giving up hit after hit, run after run! The game is getting out of hand! Wake up Bobby, Wake up!!!!!!!!”

And then last night, why was Soriano in the game? I thought all those guys were over used! Let him get some more rest! Cox is using these guys when you don’t even have to!

Robert

August 20th, 2009
11:06 am

I can agree with Bobby’s critics that he sometimes leaves pitchers in too long or makes the wrong move but have you ever played fantasy baseball and did all the right things based on past stats just to have the .100 hitter against a pitcher hit two home runs on your bench while the .500 hitter against a pitcher you subbed in went 0 for 4.

jeffrey d

August 20th, 2009
11:08 am

jimmy – did you not even read the article?

Bama Aaron

August 20th, 2009
11:10 am

Mark I’ll give you an A for effort in trying to defend him, but it’s not just about innings pitched. Of course the numbers looked better back in the 90’s…I honestly don’t think Cox’s managing had much to do with trotting 3 HOF’ers out there.
Fact is the man has no managing instincts and I’m sick to death of Braves announcers talking about his “by the book” system. I can’t count the number of times I’ve screamed the the tv when he’s taken a hot pitcher out just so he could have his lefty/lefty or righty/righty matchup only to see the new pitcher get rocked and the game be lost.
Or continually using the same pitchers 3 or 4 games in a row until finally by the 4th game they get rocked and we lose a game.
Don’t get me wrong I appreciate all that Cox has done for the organization, but alot of the times it almost seems as if they win inspite of him instead of because of him.

Excellent job, MB

August 20th, 2009
11:10 am

Always wondered what he looked at as indicating it was time to take out his starter. How many times have we seen this year, last year, year before,etc…the starter doing good work not seeming to struggle, and then the seventh rolls around and the bullpen march starts. I get especially frustrated with the young guys, JJ especially. He seems to get pulled after 6 whether he has thrown 100 pitches or 60. Here’s an almost related question: Why do managers, certainly BC is included in this, get so worked up about the lefty/lefty thing but the righty/righty thing seems to be no big deal?

Robert

August 20th, 2009
11:11 am

If Bobby retires or is fired, who would we get as a replacement now or at the end of the season?

im4ball

August 20th, 2009
11:11 am

Cox seems to be adhering to (at least) three different philosphies; get your pitchers some work to keep their arms loose, don’t overwork one pitcher so you can use him the next night and then the (tired) old left/ right combination.

Where all this comes apart is when a starter gets into early trouble and you have to go to the pen. Now you are going with guys who just pitched the day before and thus may not be totally fresh.

what many do not see is how often a pither may warm up to come in which could be a couple of times in a game or he warms up and never makes it in. Add to this warm ups during the day and any practice they might do and you have a lot of pitches on those arms.

Cox needs to slow down the merry-go-round and things will be better

Blaine Boyer

August 20th, 2009
11:12 am

The guy ruined my career!!

lee

August 20th, 2009
11:12 am

i think to answer the question all you have to do is look at the past!! Everyone talks about 14 stright division titles!! but only 1 world chapionship!! i do not see this as the historical celreation as most people do. i see it as a failure!! the reason that the braves did not move on to play for more world series chapionship is the same thing we still still see now. Bobby Cox is not capable of handling a pitching staff. the only difference is shows up so much more in the playoff!! now he is is totally delusional and detached that it is now becoming more visible during the season!!

BravesFan79

August 20th, 2009
11:12 am

What i would like to see more of is Cox using his relievers to keep the game close.
For example, if were clinging to a lead in the 6th inning, and have bases loaded with 1 out… why not use Soriano there to try and get a strikeout? If you use your closers in blowout wins time after time…. why not use them in middle of the game situations before the game becomes a hopeless blowout we have no chance in winning?
I didn’t see the end of the game last night… but he used Soriano?? really?? Why am i not surprised!?

Homer

August 20th, 2009
11:13 am

FIRE BRADLEY!!!

Mark Bradley

August 20th, 2009
11:18 am

Four pitchers in a 15-2 game is two too many. I’d agree with that.

BravesFan79

August 20th, 2009
11:18 am

Bobby Cox’s biggest pitching failure ever: The last good team we had, when he ran Mike (NOT a big game pitcher) Hampton out there to start against the Astros in game 5. Smoltz was in the pen but wanted that start and should of been given it!

But nope…. Bobby just HAD to go by the book, and by the time Hampton’s sorry azz was dragged out of the game, it was a blowout. Funny, Cox had no problem using Smoltz in the 6th inning of that game to keep things “close”. That year it should of been the Braves in the World Series… NOT the Astros!

Mark Bradley

August 20th, 2009
11:20 am

I understand there’s a need to keep relievers sharp. There’s also a need to keep them fresh.

There’s a fine line between clever and stupid: That’s our credo here in Spinal Tap.

Phil

August 20th, 2009
11:20 am

BravesFan79,
Yes, that Moron brought in Soriano to pitch in a 15-2 game. Chipper could have pitched the 9th in that situation and given the pen some more rest! What an idiot.

Brian

August 20th, 2009
11:21 am

BravesFan79…only once all year has Acosta entered the game in the 9th inning down by a run. In 8 of his last 11 appearances, the margin was at least 4 runs when he entered.

You’ll have to provide some evidence that pitching in the San Diego game caused Soriano to give up a home run in LA. That’s quite a logical leap. Did he say after the game his arm was tired from pitching the day before (which was his first game in four days)?

tvsportscaster, just who do you suppose could have gone three innings to finish that game? Rule out Gonzalez, Soriano, O’Flaherty, and Moylan, because their arms are “falling off” apparently. Boone Logan pitched the previous two nights. Manny Acosta has pitched three innings exactly zero times in his career. Medlen went more than two innings the previous night. Maybe we should have called someone up from AAA during the game?

ExecutiveStinger

August 20th, 2009
11:21 am

Would you agree Mark that it is almost as if Bobby wants to “give everybody a turn”, because that is always the perception that I have had. Like in blowout games when we are winning, instead of leaving the starter in there a little longer and just letting him pitch, he brings in some random reliever who maybe hasn’t pitched in a few days just to give him a turn. And then, like in the game 2 nights ago against the mets, he takes Lowe out, understandably brings Medlen in, but then decides it’s time for Manny Acosta. Huh? I don’t know, I’m sure he has a method and is trying to balance it all out, but I don’t understand his methods at all. It’s almost like he is trying to show respect to his starters by not forcing them them to pitch too long, but that’s what starters, by definiton, are there to do. Give you a good 7 innings. I don’t know, his methods are bizarre to me, and it’s killing our bullpen. We said last couple of years that our bullpen was so bad because it was being overused due to the poor starting pitching, but this year we have great starting pitching and 3 or 4 guys are still among the league leaders in innings pitched. C’mon Bobby…..

EW

August 20th, 2009
11:22 am

Agreed MB, take the other night agains Philly as an example. We put Gonzalez in in the 8th and then bring in Soriano in for the ninth. But wait, who was leading off in the ninth? None other than Ryan Howard, who was batting .193 against lefties at the time. I don’t have to tell you what happened next, but wouldn’t leaving Gonzo in for ONE more batter have been the obvious move (and no we didn’t pinch hit for him in the bottom of the 8th or anything like that)? And on top of that we have another lefty in the pen.

Navigator

August 20th, 2009
11:22 am

I’m more to the point, never has and never will.

Bank Walker, Texas Ranger

August 20th, 2009
11:23 am

Cox is one of the alltime worst at over using a bullpen. He is to relievers as Billy Martin was to starting pitching. Martin had a stable of quality young pitchers in Oakland. A year later they all have arm troubles from being over worked. An example of Cox other than the obvious of Soriano pitching in a blow out, Moylan and Gonzo are coming off arm issues, what does Cox do, gives them 100 apperances. I wonder if the over use of the pen has anything to do with the success of the starters.

Mark Bradley

August 20th, 2009
11:25 am

Actually, I figured the Braves would have had a bunch of guys in the top 10 in appearances the past few seasons. But this year has been the most blatant.

AUMilo

August 20th, 2009
11:25 am

Why not let relievers pitch two innings at times???

Jurrjens4NLCY

August 20th, 2009
11:28 am

I’m really sick of people complaining about Bobby Cox. Seriously! When is it going to stop? If anyone of you whiners knew anything about baseball, you would know that deciding when to take out a pitcher and when to leave him in is the hardest thing for a manager. They stress about this all the time, its what keeps Pinella, LaRussa, Cox, Torre, etc. up all night. Furthermore, I believe its wrong for people to critic (although thats putting it lightly, you people are b*tching) something, if they can not to better themselves.

Bobby’s uniqueness entails building up players’ confidence. Do you think taking a pitcher out as soon as he gets in a jam is going to bode well in the long run? No. That player is going to get pissed. You also CAN NOT overuse an already tired bullpen by taking out a pitcher to early. Managers judge whether to let a pitcher get through a jam based on how good his pitches are, not the result of his pitches. If 4 men in a row get 4 cheap singles in the 2 inning, are you going to take him out? Well, you should say no.

If you want to root for a manager that is the anti-Bobby, then become a White Soxs fan and stop making Braves fans look stupid.

I would also like to add that I really like the White Soxs and have nothing against them expect for Ozzie Guillen.

MJM

August 20th, 2009
11:28 am

Bobby doesn’t leave his starters in long enough when thery are pitching well and too long when there not. The thing the other night with Lowe was ridulous. I still believe there was somthing physicially wrong with him.

The Grinch

August 20th, 2009
11:29 am

Fair enough, Robert, but just how about throwing the numbers out and looking at the same scenario a different way? Gonzo was pitching well, Soriano was not, and why the hell would you pitch to Howard in the 9th with first open anyway? There; no fantasy stats needed.

Y’all have a good day; I gotta get some work done.

PMC

August 20th, 2009
11:30 am

One of the things players seem to like about Bobby is that he keeps giving them chances to succede and tries to put them in places to succede. He was trying to give Lowe a chance to get out of it and put them in a better position the other night so he wouldn’t have to use his pen for so long. Generally the starters are asked to go at least 6 innings. He does overuse certain guys in the pen because he trusts them.. but I honestly don’t know how much because I’ve never managed and I have no idea how long they can go, all I can do is compare statistics.

Honestly looking into the pen, It’s been fairly average to almost unreliable most of this decade, there are only a few guys that are fairly trustworthy and it’s difficult to depend on any of them to throw strikes consistantly so there isn’t much of a wonder he would wear out guys he feels comfortable with in order to keep starters more fresh for this time of the year.

rhynster

August 20th, 2009
11:32 am

You have to almost wonder if the Braves have no intention of resigning either Gonzalez or Soriano.

It’s seeming alot like how the Brewers bled CC Sabathia to death during their pennant chase, because they knew they wouldn’t resign him.

Also, I’ve always thought the consistency of most relievers is spotty at best. That inconsistency is why many of them wind up in the bullpen instead of starting. Seems to me that going with the hottest hands out of the bullpen is the best strategy.

Arkansas Transplant

August 20th, 2009
11:32 am

Mark,
I agree with you whole heartedly and have always felt that way. Why was Soriano out there lastnight is such a huge win? Why is it that you have a very promising rookie in the pen that gets very little work in games like that? Lastnight was a good night to get a few guys that don’t often see work a little warm up.

Mitchell

August 20th, 2009
11:33 am

What does it have to take for somebody to have a complete game in ‘09?

I mean, I get wanting to use Soriano in the 9th and perhaps Logan or whoever and that usually when you have a 12 run lead you’re starter can take a rest but under what circumstances would it take for Bobby to leave his pitcher in the whole game?

That’s what bothers me, it’s that we went out and spent all that money on these guys who throw lots of innings and were supposed to go deep into games and yet the bullpen has been involved in every game this year.

It’s ridiculous. I feel like if Javier Vasquez had a no-hitter going into the 9th inning and then gave up a hit to the first pitcher Bobby would take him out.

Other than the lack of run support, Bobby’s reliance on the bullpen has to cause more stress to the starting pitchers than, well, less. It’s like as soon as they run into trouble in the 6th or 7th inning he takes them out. And if it’s a close game and they don’t have a lot of runs to work with, it makes it even harder on them. They must have that thought in the back of their minds, “hey’s going to take me out if I don’t get this guy.”

But then he leaves Lowe in to give up 8 runs so nevermind.

Tami

August 20th, 2009
11:35 am

AMEN, Mark! At last! SOMEONE is saying what I’ve been thinking all along. Don’t get me wrong, though: I admire Bobby. But I wanted to pull him through the TV the other night for night for not pulling Lowe sooner. It was quite obvious and NOT coincidental that Lowe couldn’t locate his pitches or get a good grip on the ball right after the trainer bandaged up his blistered thumb on his … pitching hand. And, yes. Bobby does tend to wear out his bullpen. Frustrating.

Bank Walker, Texas Ranger

August 20th, 2009
11:35 am

EW, totally agree. I would rather have seen Craig Skok come out of retirement and pitch in that situation than have a right hander. (Thats right, Criag Skok. He was left handed and he was below average)

gmoney

August 20th, 2009
11:35 am

I think he looks for the first opportunity after 6 innings to use a pinch-hitter in the pitchers spot. Blame this partly on poor run support and a need to get an extra bat in there. But I’d love to see guys working into the 8th or even going for a complete game.

Arkansas Transplant

August 20th, 2009
11:37 am

rhynster, hottest hand is the best way, in the field and on the mount. I feel that a lot of the losses we took in the playoffs were because of this very fact. Cox has always loved sitting starters when we’ve had things all wrapped up, meaning they’re all refreshed for the playoffs but they are also out of rythmn. That’s the thing over the years that has always made me mad about cox.

Phil

August 20th, 2009
11:38 am

Jurrjens4NLCY,
I see you know how to cut and paste.

Lowe was in more than a just a jam, the game was getting busted wide open. Or did you have your eyes closed as well like Cox did.

skip

August 20th, 2009
11:40 am

Short and sweet: Cox lets Charlie Leibrandt pitch to Kirby Puckett in the ‘91 Series and we blow it. Makes the same mistake again in ‘92 by letting Leibrandt pitch to Dave Winfield and we lose again. The man cannot handle pitchers; starters or relievers.