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.
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?