Bobby Cox a bad tactician? Because of Puckett? Come on

It’s unfortunate the long and meritorious career of a Hall of Fame manager can, at least in the minds of many locals, be boiled down to one at-bat on Oct. 26, 1991. It’s unfortunate because the move that has come to be seen as wrong-headed was made for sound reasons.

Bobby Cox brought Charlie Leibrandt, a left-handed pitcher who’d been a starter all his career, in to face the righthander Kirby Puckett with the Braves and Twins tied in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 6 of the World Series. Puckett hit a home run. The Braves would lose the Series the next night, also in extra innings. Those looking to justify the oft-voiced claim — “Cox has always been a bad tactician” — start there.

But look close: Leibrandt had faced Puckett twice in that World Series, striking him out both times. In 1991, Leibrandt had retired righthanders at a higher rate than lefties. (Righties hit .237 off Leibrandt in 1991; lefties hit .274.) And when you’re tied as a visitor in extra innings, you know you have to get six outs to win, not just three. Why not summon a starting pitcher, a veteran of postseasons past who’d won 15 games that season, as opposed to a 21-year-old Mark Wohlers?

Because, you’re saying, it didn’t work. But wouldn’t that, on one side at least, invalidate every move made in every baseball game ever played? Was Tony La Russa wrong for letting Dennis Eckersley pitch to Kirk Gibson in 1988? Was Sparky Anderson wrong for having Pat Darcy work to Carlton Fisk in 1975?

The inconvenient truth is that most managers, given the same personnel, would make the same moves most of the time. As Greg Maddux would say, it then comes down to a pitcher making pitches and the hitter trying to trump him.

Can Cox be maddening in his seeming overuse of the bullpen (to say nothing of Greg Norton)? Sure. But even in a season that hasn’t seemed the esteemed manager’s finest, his team entered the final 10 days with a realistic chance to make the playoffs. And that body of work is a better measure of Cox than one swing by the Hall of Famer Puckett.

The hallmark of Cox’s teams is that they keep playing. They don’t implode from internal strife. That’s why his teams have finished first more times than any other manager’s in the history of the sport. (Cox has 15 first-place finishes; Joe Torre has 12; Casey Stengel had 10.) Cox’s men keep playing because they like playing for him. If they thought their manager was an in-game dunce, we’d have known it by now. We’d have known because they’d have quit on him.

It’s intriguing that Cox’s critics focus on the post season, which owing to the addition of the Division Series has been rendered almost a coin flip, and not the six-month regular season, which is the truer test of a manager and his team. It’s also fascinating that Cox is never given credit for any October move that worked. He began to use John Smoltz as a closer in the 1999 postseason, and he even used Maddux to finish Game 5 of the 1998 NLCS in San Diego. And the one Series his teams won turned on, of all things, a Cox choice.

Oct. 25, 1995: Wohlers had been touched for a home run and a double to begin the ninth. Cox summoned the lefthander Pedro Borbon Jr., who hadn’t pitched in nearly three weeks, to face Jim Thome, Sandy Alomar and Kenny Lofton. Borbon retired all three. The Braves took a 3-1 Series lead and would win the title three nights later. Should fairness not dictate that we hear as much about Borbon as Leibrandt?

Here’s hoping that, as Bobby Cox’s valedictory tour begins, we see him for what he truly has been. (And having Cox work one final more is Solomonic: It affords him a final go-around without leaving matters open-ended.) Even above John Schuerholz and Tom Glavine and Terry Pendleton and Smoltz and Chipper Jones, this manager is the reason the Braves became and remained the Braves.

173 comments Add your comment

One Cool Guy

September 25th, 2009
10:03 am

Thanks for the corrective!

JB Wright

September 25th, 2009
10:12 am

Enter your comments here
Cox is awful. But he can pick a nose like nobody’s business.

mike28212

September 25th, 2009
10:15 am

Great column Mark. Every manager, coach, player etc makes moves that leaves fans scratching their heads in disbelief. In Bobby’s case those are far outweighed by the success this team has had for the majority of his tenure.

Brian

September 25th, 2009
10:20 am

Nonsense, Jeff. I played RBI Baseball on Nintendo the very next day, put Jim Clancy in, and won the game. I defy you to say we wouldn’t have won at least three World Series if I was the manager.

jarvis

September 25th, 2009
10:21 am

He started Keith Lockhart in an elimiation game in the NLCS for the righty-lefty match up. He’s a joke.

Brian

September 25th, 2009
10:21 am

And I defy you to tell me I can’t call you Jeff!

TomB

September 25th, 2009
10:21 am

Nice try Mark, but I believe you are outnumbered here. Why do so many people disagree here? Are we all boneheads. This imo, was a bad example to try and defend BC. BC is a great manager and the evidence to back that up is ample, but not this one. I disagree. Cox blew this one.

BravesFan79

September 25th, 2009
10:21 am

With the Rockies loosing twice to the Pads… i think we have a real shot at making the playoffs! Man it feels good to say that! We MUST sweep Washington tho. I think St Louis takes 2 of 3 and that would put us 1.5 games behind.

Brian

September 25th, 2009
10:24 am

TomB, do you care to provide any evidence, besides hindsight, that it was a bad move? If not, then you can’t knock Mark. He backed his stance up.

midnite

September 25th, 2009
10:24 am

What not playing to the extremist bloggers anymore? That blew up in your face(hurt your credibility)didn’t it Bradley? You probably can’t get near Turner Field anymore. I bet Cox and Wren really have the love for you now. Thank goodness for DOB and Schultz. If 40 is the new 20 then Bradley is the new Terrence Moore. LMAO!

Brian

September 25th, 2009
10:27 am

Hmmm…Keith Lockhart started two elimination NLCS games: Game 6 of the 1997 NLCS, when went 4 for 5, and Game 5 of the 1998 NLCS, which the Braves won. Oh yeah, what a moron!!!

DCbravosfan

September 25th, 2009
10:29 am

Bobby is the best. 15 first place finishes speaks for itself. I am a Bravos fan in DC and I am off to cheer on Bobby and hope the Braves can pull out one tonight against the Nats. Go Braves!!!

Really

September 25th, 2009
10:30 am

I understand where everyone is coming from here, but anyone who thinks Cox has EVER taken from this team is both short sighted and ignorant when it comes to the very soul of baseball.

Don

September 25th, 2009
10:31 am

The name of the game is PITCHING. If your Pitching is great enough, is far far superior to the other teams, it will forgive all kinds of weakness/failure of positive actions/negative actions in the manager, and you will still win over the long 162 game regular season especially if the manage keeps his team in on an even keel. Thus, 14 straight Division Championships for Bobby Cox. Bobby Cox has never taught/emphasized/demanded the most essential thing in run production and having a consistant offense — working the count/ being slective/ making the opposing pitcher throw a lot of pitches. This has cost the Braves countless, countless games every year. This is to say nothing of his slowness to react in obvious decisions in getting productive players into the lineup and non productive players out of the lineup, or his failure to move hot and cold hitters up and down in the bating order, or his terrible failures in opportunites to put pressure on the opposing pitcher in key situations, or his continuous actions of doing exactly what the opposing manager would like for him to do in key strategy situations, or his continued terrible use of the bullpen every year, or his failure to emphazie making solid contact instead of overswinging, – and on and on.

Space Monkey

September 25th, 2009
10:32 am

I think Cox is a great manager. But I also believe that he is a slave to lefty-righty matchups, regardless of the quality of the player. With bases loaded and two out, he would bat Greg Norton over Brian McCann if a scrub lefty reliever was on the mound. Every other manager knows this, and they can use it to destroy him in a five or seven game series. Also, I guarantee you that if we make it to the playoffs, Derek Lowe will start the first game instead of Javy. Count on it. Lowe will get drubbed and then we’ll be playing catch-up the rest of the series. I like Cox, but I wish he would go with the hot hand rather than the lefty-righty thing and his standard rotation.

Brian

September 25th, 2009
10:32 am

Don, I’m sure you were sad to hear the news of Cox retiring. What are you going to do with your life now that you can’t write anti-Cox essays on people’s blogs?

MVick

September 25th, 2009
10:33 am

Good column, Mark, but if the Braves were interested in winning right now, in the present, next year, he’d be gone at the end of this year. But I guess 2010 will satisfy Atlanta appetites of mediocrity.

Bob Horner had a sweet compact swing

September 25th, 2009
10:35 am

BravesFan79 you are correct…it’s a tall order but stranger things have happened….hopefully St. Louis will play inspired baseball…they are 0-4 against the Rockies this year…

Brian

September 25th, 2009
10:35 am

Space Monkey, the way it’s set up right now, the rotation (if somehow we make the playoffs) would have Vazquez starting Game 1. Hanson theoretically would start Game 2, but I have my doubts that he would pitch in the playoffs if we made it.

jarvis

September 25th, 2009
10:39 am

Brian…sorry about that. I meant to say that Lockhart didn’t play for the lefty-right matchup. It was instead T. Graffanino.
You strengthened my point.

Brian

September 25th, 2009
10:39 am

The Cardinals have Carpenter and Wainwright going tonight and tomorrow. They’ll be playing to clinch the NL Central tonight.

F-105 Thunderchief

September 25th, 2009
10:41 am

Unfortunately, it’s human nature to focus on the negative and gripe, as anyone who has ever held a job, with a boss has noticed. The negative nearly always outweighs the positive. That tendency is only magnified on an anonymous blog. Not to be negative or anything, but we are a sad, fickle, ruined species (tee hee).

DawginLex

September 25th, 2009
10:41 am

If Wohlers throws Leyritz a 102 MPH heater and strikes him out in the 96 Series, do we remember Bobby differently?

THAT was the best baseball team ever assembled in Atlanta. It is a shame that one pitch destroyed it.

Don

September 25th, 2009
10:41 am

Brian, actually Cox has made so many blunders that a person could continue to write about them for years – and thats just relating to his blunders for this season. I will give you this – he is the best as far as making players like him – which is understandable if you let them do what they want to do without direction (as long as they keep their nose clean).

F-105 Thunderchief

September 25th, 2009
10:43 am

Jair Jurrjens is the Braves best starter. Followed by Vazquez, Hanson, Lowe and Hudson.

jarvis

September 25th, 2009
10:43 am

He also started Danny Bautista over Micheal Tucker who had single-handedly won the game the night before.

The entire lineup was a joke. The Braves had battled back from 3-0 in the series to 3-2 only to have Cox send out a joke of a lineup in game 6. Braves lost 5-0.

Brian

September 25th, 2009
10:46 am

Well jarvis, I can tell you that Graffanino was 2-3 with a home run against Sterling Hitchcock in his career going into that game. In addition to that, he walked in both PAs against Hitchcock in Game 2 of that NLCS. Lockhart never faced him, regular season or postseason.

Mac

September 25th, 2009
10:48 am

Some bonehead wrote: “Nice try Mark, but I believe you are outnumbered here. Why do so many people disagree here? Are we all boneheads.”

Yes.

Herschel Talker

September 25th, 2009
10:56 am

Mark – if you really think that you have to go all the way back to Puckett to come up with examples of why Cox is a terrible tactician, then you are being ridiculous. I can come up with far more examples. For starters, how about all the lefty-righty BS that led to a lineup in the 1998 NLCS with Danny Bautista? Would you like more? This blog entry is ridiculous.

Herschel Talker

September 25th, 2009
10:57 am

JARVIS at 10:21:

That was exactly my point with my last post. I said Danny Bautista. But exact same idea. Completely absurd by Booby.

Herschel Talker

September 25th, 2009
10:59 am

DawginLex at 10:41:

Yes we do remember him differently if that pitch isn’t thrown. However, as much as I think Cox is a complete clown, I don’t pin that pitch or that game on him. There are far better examples where he was responsible, and not poor execution by a player. That one was poor execution by the catcher in the pitch call and the pitcher in leaving it hanging.

PMC

September 25th, 2009
11:09 am

The disapointing thing is not 1991. Yes it ruined the worst to first finish. Then they lost to the Blue Jays the next year. You could argue Cox helped get them there both times. 1995 they win. Then they completely and totally blow it in 1996 and 1997 they don’t get there in 98 and by 1999 when they maybe had their best offensive team…they get dominated by a much better Yankees Team.

Bobby is Bobby. What he tries to do is put his guys in the best position to win and win for the long haul. That’s why he saves his starters for this time of the year. The Bullpens we’ve had aren’t really special but they can’t hit like they did in the 90’s either. They haven’t had a really good team since 1999. Maybe 2001.

Bobby understands always that it’s a marathon and not a sprint. He doesn’t get too up or too down over anything and that’s his brilliance. That’s why he’s a good manager. It’s just disapointing they had the talent to win 4 WS and they only got one. 1991 was one of the best WS ever the final game was just in the wrong venue.

PMC

September 25th, 2009
11:11 am

101 wins in 97 only to come up short to the best Marlins team money could buy. I still hate the Dave Justice and Grissom trade for Lofton.

BugKiller

September 25th, 2009
11:13 am

Mark,

You can’t use “coin flip” and “crapshoot” to keep on excusing Bobby Cox’s horrible performances in all of these Octobers.

1 out of 15 (once with the Jays included) is statistically impossible when it comes to coin flips and crap shoots.

You know what’s closer to a “coin flip” or a “crapshoot”?

4 out 13.

That’s how many World Series Torre won.

You also leave out Cox’s ridiculous platoons. The fact that he ruined Ryan Klesko’s career by refusing to make him an every day player, something he more than proved he was while he was in San Diego.

Don’t forget his refusal to put the best players on the field or at the plate when games where on the line. I guess you’ve forgotten how many playoff series ended with Andruw Jones striking out with men on the bases in the bottom of the ninth.

What about losing to teams far less talented that your team?

Here’s the thing, a baseball manager’s job is to put his team into the best position to win. Do you really think Cox was doing that when he sat Klesko on the bench? When he let proven rally-killer Andruw Jones take the last at bat of a series?

Why did Bobby cox refuse to start John Smoltz first, EVERY year? He’s the second-best, or best depending on your bias, postseason pitcher in baseball’s history. Why did Maddux and Glavine, two mediocre corner-nibblers come October, start in front of him?

Was Bobby Cox putting his team in the best position to win by not having Smoltz pitch until the third game, based upon his regular season performance instead of his October history???

THIS is what people mean, Mark.

Bobby Cox put FAR too much faith into regular season performance instead of October history.

Bobby Cox REFUSED to manage October as the do-or-die prospect the postseason is. He managed the post season as if it were another early season series in April.

No sense of urgency. No do-or-die, win or go home attitude.

Because of this, he’s overrated. He never treated the postseason with the proper attitude.

JEZ

September 25th, 2009
11:18 am

I’m not arguing it’s difficult to win 14 division titles in a row. That’s incredible. But you also have to think about what our division has been the last 15 years. The only threats we had were usually the Phils, but that was in the mid 90’s when they had Kruk and Dysktra and Dalton. The mets had that subway series in 99 was it? Who cares…my point is, the braves did not have much competition within their division, and that was obvious when we played in the division games and would continue to get spanked. That is obvious proof of Cox’s flaws.

Mark Bradley

September 25th, 2009
11:23 am

The 1993 San Francisco Giants won 103 games. The Braves were in the West then, if you recall.

The Lemmer

September 25th, 2009
11:23 am

“…Cox has made so many blunders that a person could continue to write about them for years….Cox is a complete clown…”

Geez, come on folks….

Don

September 25th, 2009
11:25 am

With Bobby coming back and with Pendleton coming back, we absolutely must have Norton to complete the set.

TomB

September 25th, 2009
11:26 am

OK Brian, I’ll give it a try. Liebrant had already pitched game one with miserable results. Pena was pitching great with Mercker, Wohlers and Clancy available. In game three that went into extra innings, the Braves used Pena,Stanton,Wholers, Mercker and Clancy to win the game. Relievers spend the entire year pitching many times with the game on the line. You can make the agrument that they were in a better position to pitch the 11th than Liebrant who hadn’t pitched since game one.

Just listen to what some of the Twins had to say: Puckett’s teamate Terry Crowley said Puckett told him that if they leave Liebrant in the game than this one is over. Crowley swears to this day that Puckett called the home run against Liebrant.Puckett’s teammate Kent Hrbek said he couldn’t recall Puckett specifically forecasting the homer. But he also said it wouldn’t surprise him. You know Puck, how he liked to talk,” Hrbek said.”I do remember they put Leibrandt in to pitch to him, and I don’t know why.”

bb

September 25th, 2009
11:28 am

Anybody who thinks that Bobby Cox is not a great manager has no clue. For someone who has been a Braves fan for 40 years, I would much rather lose in the post season (which has gone from a coin flip 40 years ago to three coin flips, and if you lose once you’re out) than what happened in Atlanta more often than not the first 25 years the Braves were here. Finishing anywhere other than last in the division was something to celebrate.

I remember being excited in July of 1991 that the Braves had a chance to finish above .500 and would have been happy with that; little did I know what was coming. Losing in game 7 of the World Series did little to dampen the excitement and pride in Atlanta that fall. Go back and look at reports of the parade that Atlanta put on for the Braves after that series loss.

jeff p

September 25th, 2009
11:29 am

If we had a Mariano Rivera, we have at least 3 maybe 4 titles. If Reardon doesn’t implode in Game 2 of the 92 series, it changes the face of that series. If Wohlers doesn’t implode in the 96 series, same thing. 91 was a Metrodome ceiling thing away from yet another title or Hrbeck pushing us off the bases.

Yes, we get spoiled assuming it is a God given right to make the post season but think about the run this team had over the course of 15 yrs – never see it again in our lifetime.

Yes, Cox can frustrate you at times, but overall the true test of the success is how the players and peers view you and you can say that probably most view Cox as one of the best.

I really like this team in 2010 if we can just find that one power hitter and a true leadoff hitter and a bit more bullpen depth.

The Lemmer

September 25th, 2009
11:33 am

Thank you bb and jeff p…

NCBravesFAN

September 25th, 2009
11:50 am

Hey Bugkiller…did you ever stop to think about the match-ups?? With Greg Maddox going against the other teams ace, TommyG going against the 2nd best SP…that leaves Smoltz quite often going against the opposing teams #3 starter!! Yes Smoltz was a postseason hero, but speaking of 91, didnt Smoltz get out pitched by a Ace in game 7? Its not as easy as you make it out to be, so quit trying to bash Cox and go rant on another UGA blog!

NCBravesFAN

September 25th, 2009
11:55 am

Where is the respect for Bobby leading the Braves into the playoffs in 2004-2005?? Yes we lost in the Div. series but those teams had no business even being in October. Do the names Dewayne Wise and Charles Thomas ring a bell? How about Chris Reitsma or Dan Kolb…those teams would have barely been .500 without Bobby Cox’s great managing and winning attitude. Give the man some respect!

Keeper

September 25th, 2009
11:56 am

And remember how close that game came to never reaching Leibrandt – I distinctly recall Justice crushing what would’ve been a game-deciding HR into the face of second deck, but it went foul by what, a foot or two? (I also remember having the brief consoling thought that the series was too good to end in six anyway, that it deserved a compelling game seven – and we sure got one, though not with the proper outcome.)

The clowns who rip Cox don’t have a clue. They’re also irrelevant – Bobby couldn’t be bothered to spit a sunflower seed in their direction. Of course, Cox is such a class act that if these detractors had the b*lls to talk strategy to his face, he’d shake their hand, hear them out, and likely refrain from pointing out exactly why they’re so clueless. (Unlike most here, I’ve actually met Cox and spoken with him, so I’m not just basing my comments on biased perceptions from afar.)

I love the fact that he’s coming back for a victory tour – mostly because it will be a perfect way for the vast majority to remember and honor him, but also because enduring him for another year will be such a painful thorn in the side of the blathering minority. When he guides the Braves to an unprecedented 15th division title – and if the playoff coin-toss goes our way, perhaps even more – he’ll go off grinning into the sunset, still joyfully oblivious to the bloggers shouting into the hurricane, hoping someone notices them and makes them feel relevant.

It’ll be our loss, but his retirement will be wonderful for Cox and his family. And as with Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, we’ll only truly appreciate his genius when those who follow fail to live up to a standard that will never, ever be touched.

NCBravesFAN

September 25th, 2009
12:14 pm

“Its Bobbys fault the Lonnie Smith stopped rounding 2nd base!!” “Its Bobbys fault that Ron Gant got yanked off 1st base by Hrbeck” “Its Bobbys fault that Livan Hernandez got every pitch he threw called a strike in 97″ “Its Bobby fault that Ryan Klesko dropped an infield fly letting 2 runs score in the top of the 10th inning Game 4 of the 96 World Series”

Coach (2010- Mr. overrated retires)

September 25th, 2009
12:15 pm

Winning one WS in fifteen trips to the playoffs is dumb luck. Coming up short in fourteen trips to the playoffs is a trend.

Get the picture. 1996 WS the Braves are up 2-1 in the first three games , then they are winning game four 6-0 when Neagle and Wade cough up three runs in the sixth inning. The bases are loaded full of Yankees with nobody out. Then Mike Bielecki comes in and strikes out the side to preserve the lead, then nails down the seventh inning. Score: 6-3 Braves.

What does Cox do? Something he hadn’t done all season long. Bobby brought Wohlers in for a two inning save and the rest is history as our closer melted down in the eighth inning, and the Yankees went on to take the series 4 games to 2.

Never mind these two facts. Bielecki had an ERA of 2.63 during the 1996 season and never did give up a run in 6.2 innings of work in the 1996 playoffs.

My point is: If it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it. Wohlers was always a one inning closer. Cox screwed up strategically and there is your proof.

In other words, the correct course of action was to leave Bielecki in for one more inning, bring Wohlers in for the ninth and more than likely we would have been up 3-1 in the series, which probably would have led to a repeat WS Championship.

Gary

September 25th, 2009
12:22 pm

I have an easy prediction to make, less than five years after Bobby Cox retires, everyone on this blog will be whining about the “good ol days” when Cox lead the team to the playoffs 15 straight years. Bring Bobby Back! will be the cry. I hope he tells all of you where to go. In the meantime, I’ll still be pulling for the Bravos and Bobby Cox.

Mark Bradley

September 25th, 2009
12:35 pm

Klesko’s drop cost one run. Steve Avery walked Wade Boggs withthe bases loaded to give the Yanks the lead.

tmac

September 25th, 2009
12:36 pm

Sorry MB it’s not one move that make BC a good or bad tactition…
It is a collection of moves in the post season and through out the regular season that earns him the title.
When you win 14 divisions and only have 1 world series to show for it (especially with that pitching…), than BC has earned that title. *Well deserved*

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen Bobby burn players two players in what should be a single player move…that deplete’s his bench… it’s rediculous!