Bobby Cox’s Managerial Legacy a Mixed Bag

by M.C. Antil on October 18, 2010

(The following is Part I of a two-part analysis of Bobby Cox’s legacy as manager and general manager of the Atlanta Braves.  This part focuses on his role as the Braves’ manager.  Part II, an analysis of Cox’s role as the architect and master builder of the Braves’ historic run of division titles, can be found here.)

As Braves’ manager Bobby Cox goes riding off into the sunset I just couldn’t help sitting down and putting some thoughts together about his complicated legacy. 

And if you don’t think his is a muddled legacy, ask yourself this; who exactly was Bobby Cox?  Was he the guy who won over 2,500 big league games and guided a remarkable 16 teams into the post-season…or the guy who saw 15 of those 16 teams flame out in their final and ultimately most important playoff series of the year?

Was he the guy who possessed a such deep understanding of how to manage a modern-day clubhouse that one rarely, if ever, heard any of his players complain about him in public…or was he the guy who in the playoffs could seem so utterly tone deaf and so relentlessly by-the-book that at times you’d swear he was trying to tap dance in army boots?

Bobby Cox: How will history remember?

Was he the architect of one of the most remarkable runs of greatness in modern baseball history…or the guy who will shoulder the responsibility because that greatness will never be seen as unqualified, but rather unfulfilled?

Not to duck the issue, but in all candor the answer to all of the above should really be…well, all of the above.

Let’s talk post-season first. 

If there is a coach or manager alive who embodies the growing sentiment in all professional sports that the post-season needs to be played and executed far differently than the regular season, and that what works over the long grind of any regular season does not necessarily wash in an intense, win-or-go-home series, that guy might be Bobby Cox.

In other words, what continued to make Bobby Cox a highly successful manager over the course of 162 games, year after year after year — namely, letting every player know exactly what his role was and what was expected of him, and then never varying from the script; playing percentages religiously, despite what gut instinct and a pair of lying eyes might actually indicate; going with the guys most likely to get the job done night after night, despite how run down they might be getting; and giving games in April the exact same weight as games in September — made him an abject failure in October.

And in case you think “abject failure” is harsh, consider:  

  • In 1985, in the first post-season of Bobby Cox’s career, his Toronto Blue Jays led the Kansas City Royals 3-1 in the ALCS.  Cox, desperate for one more win, brought three consecutive starters back on short rest, and all three ended up the losing pitcher as the Jays became only the sixth team in baseball history to fumble away a post-season series after leading it three games to one.

 

  • His won-loss record in the 15 series in which his team was ultimately eliminated was 24-53 (.350).  Projected over 162 games that translates to a record of 56-106, just 14 games worse than the 1962 expansion New York Mets (42-120) all-time standard for major league ineptitude.  And Cox’s record in the post-season after 2000 was 11-22 (.333), which would seem to indicate that his teams, somehow, managed to perform even worse the more post-season experience he accumulated.  

 

  • His lifetime record in elimination games at Turner Field was an inconceivable 0-8.

 

  • Since 2000, his Braves were eliminated seven different times in the post-season, and only once did the team that knocked Cox’s team out of the playoffs go on to win the World Series.

 

  • In 1996, Cox’s Braves became the first team in history to lose four straight World Series games — three of them at home — after opening the series with back-to-back road wins.

 

  • Prior to that ’96 World Series meltdown against the underdog Yankees, Cox had won just over half of the nine best-of-seven series he managed, and both of the best-of-five series.  Following the Braves’ dramatic loss, however, his teams dropped four of their next five best-of-seven series and six of their next 10 best-of-fives.

And these are not statistical quirks, nor do those numbers represent a small sample size.  In fact, given the Braves unprecedented run of regular season success, it’s just to opposite.  They represent about as large a sample size as one could expect to find in MLB history.  Therefore, as much as I admire Bobby Cox and consider him one of most decent men I’ve ever met in baseball, honesty compels me to admit that if this were a court of law, the phrase that would jump to mind would be res ipsa loquitor.  The thing, my friends, speaks for itself.

But of all the post season series that Bobby Cox managed, none perhaps summed up his complex legacy quite like the one just concluded, the 2010 NLDS against the San Francisco Giants.

The 2010 Atlanta Braves, as constructed by Frank Wren, were one of the most flawed Brave clubs of the past 20 years.  Atlanta went into spring training this season relying heavily on two aging, fragile hitters for middle-of-the-order production (Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus).

The team had, arguably, one of the worst collection of outfielders assembled in all of Major League Baseball in the past half century (Nate McLouth, Matt Diaz, Melky Cabrera, etc).

And its bullpen was anchored by three rolls of the dice, two of whom (Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito) were absolutely ancient by power pitcher standards, and all of whom (Peter Moylan included) had undergone major reconstructive arm surgery within the past three years.

Cox's post-season record, alas, speaks for itself.

What’s more, the 2010 Braves as assembled were, perhaps, the worst fielding collection of Braves that Atlanta fans had been subjected to since the dark days of Earl Williams, Larvell Blanks  and Ralph Garr.

The one hope for Bobby Cox and his 2010 club was that the two elements of the team that truly were championship quality — namely, the starting pitching and the bench — would carry them over the course of the grueling six months of the regular season.

The X-factor, of course, was in right field, where Wren turned over the keys to 20-year old uber-talent, Jason Heyward

Fortunately for the Braves, the starting pitching and bench did all that the team could have hoped for, and more.  And Heyward, while remaining a work in progress defensively, hit just enough and at the right times to justify Wren’s confidence. 

But those things notwithstanding, the biggest reason the 2010 Atlanta Braves held on to win the first and only wild card ticket in their history was a remarkable performance by Bobby Cox.  

Cox struck gold early on with two young pitchers (the first two kids to emerge from the franchise’s astoundingly deep pool of minor league arms), Jonny Venters and Kris Medlen, who proved to be revelations.  And he worked both relentlessly, having them fill in where needed, getting key outs on demand and pitching critical innings night after night.

What’s more, he used his bench like he never had before in his tenure in Atlanta; so much so, in fact, that one of those bench guys, Omar Infante, actually made the All Star team. 

One of the complaints people like myself have always had about Bobby Cox had to do with his inability or unwillingness to work the many versatile and talented role players he’d been given into his starting lineup, if only to keep his regulars fresh.  That’s why his teams have always seemed to enter the post-season running on fumes, and why one-time Brave farmhands like Vinny Castilla, Mark DeRosa, Tony Graffanino and, even Mike Mordecai simply rotted away on the Cox’s bench, before finally going elsewhere and showing the rest of baseball what they could do.

The only way that Bobby Cox ever used guys like that was when an injury forced his hand.  That’s what happened in ’09 to Martin Prado when Chipper Jones got hurt, and this year to Infante when Jones, Glaus and Prado went down. 

(And if Jones hadn’t given Braves fans enough reasons to love him in his career, consider; if he hadn’t been injured for much of the past two seasons, it’s entirely possible — perhaps even likely — that both Prado and Infante would have soon found themselves numbered among the many capable utility guys the Braves let go for nothing, rather than risk arbitration.)

Fortunately for Cox and the Braves, this season Atlanta’s bench was filled with fringy role players who really stepped up when called upon; guys like Infante, Eric Hinske, Brooks Conrad and David Ross.  And the pitching, even with the loss of Jair Jurrjens to a knee injury, was just a notch or two this side of spectacular. 

But more than anything else, because Cox worked every game like it was his last, and got every inch out of every starter on his team for as long as he had them, the Braves played well enough, and pulled enough rabbits out of their hat in the first half to have built up an astonishing seven game bulge over the powerful Phillies by July 22. 

Unfortunately, reality seemed to set in at that point and within weeks the healthy and resurgent Phils had blown by the Braves on their way to yet another division title. 

Atlanta, meanwhile, had started to show the trademark wear and tear they’d always exhibited under Cox.  Medlen by then was gone, his elbow in tatters due in part, it would seem, to the erratic and sometimes heavy-handed way Cox used him prior to and during Jurrjens’ absence. 

And Venters, just three years removed from Tommy John surgery himself, was being treated by Cox the way many bosses reward their best employees; by working them longer and harder than anyone on the payroll. 

Cox's go-to guy in 2010, Jonny Venters

In fact, Venters’ final season totals spoke volumes in that regard.  Even though he was a rookie with a history of elbow problems, the young lefty appeared in 79 regular season games, which ranked him 6th in the N.L.  The difference was, no pitcher in either league threw as many as Jonny Venters’ 95 innings.

Even dependable Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson had started to show the strain of Cox’s heavy reliance on his starting staff.  Hudson, in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery, and Hanson, in his first full year period, were still effective, but less far reliable down the stretch than they’d been all season.

As a result, by the time October rolled around the Braves were a shadow of the team they’d been in July. Gone was their best hitter (Prado), their emotional leader (Jones), their most versatile arm (Medlen), and one of their most effective starters (Jurrjens).  So not only did they start the playoffs as, arguably, the worst hitting team in post-season history (surpassing, in my estimation, even the hapless  Dodgers of ’88), they were a team now relying on a toxic combination of great (but overused) pitchers and a handful of horribly bad defenders.

Yet, despite that, Braves still could have won their NLDS matchup with the Giants. 

Bobby Cox, however, as he had done time and time again throughout his long career, failed to make the kind of strategic adjustments other managers might have made in an attempt to manufacture (or prevent) a run here and there, and in the process, steal a game or two.

In the opener, for example, against Tim Lincecum, the two-time defending Cy Young winner, Omar Infante led off the top of the first with a solid double to left center.  Lincecum, mind you, was not only the best pitcher in the NL two years running, he was coming off a September in which he won five of six starts, posted an ERA of 1.94 and struck out 51 batters in 41 innings.  It would have been huge to have jumped on such a blazing hot pitcher early.  Not only would it have quieted the raucous home crowd, it would have given the Braves’ starter, Derek Lowe, perhaps, just enough wiggle room to sneak out of town with a win. 

But rather than playing small ball and moving Infante to third, where an out could score him, Cox let Justin Heyward swing away.  The rookie right fielder flew out weakly (to left, of all places) and by the time the inning had ended a pop up and a strike out later, Infante was still standing right where he’d been with no outs. The Braves, meanwhile, were well on their way to being completely shut down by a pit bull of a pitcher who just an inning into post-season play had already smelled blood and was now going in for the kill.

And the only run the Giants scored that evening?  A two-out, three-hop grounder just a couple steps to the left of Infante; a ground ball that somehow got through the Braves’ third baseman and was generously ruled a hit. 

The fact that second base is a far more critical infield position than third, and that Omar Infante is a far better at second than he is at third (a lifetime .982 fielder at second vs. a lifetime .952 fielder at third) seemed to matter little to Bobby Cox in the 2010 NLDS.  All he knew, it appeared, was that Brooks Conrad, the 30-year old career minor leaguer he named to replace Prado, was going to be at second throughout the playoffs (no doubt, due to Conrad’s somewhat middling .975 minor league fielding percentage at that position vs. his downright putrid .942 number at third).

Would having started a good field/no hit guy like Diory Hernandez instead of a bad-field/so-so hit guy like Conrad made sense for Cox?  Or perhaps installing Hernandez at third and shifting Infante over to second?  Maybe, especially in a best-of-five series when one mistake can, and often does, spell the difference between elimination and moving on. 

But that’s never been Bobby Cox’s way, and he wasn’t about to change things in the final post-season of his career.

But even so, starting Brooks Conrad was hardly Bobby Cox’s most damaging Game One mistake in judgment.  In Game One, not recognizing from the outset the Braves’ desperate need to play small ball at every turn possible was his true fatal blunder.  Yet, like he had done year after year, Bobby once again chose to play October baseball the same way he played April baseball, as though the percentages, like they’d done time and time again during one regular season after another, would ultimately come home to roost and vindicate him.

However, all that aside, the key game in the 2010 NLDS between the Braves and Giants was not Game One.  In fact, not by a long shot.  The key was Game Three. 

Following an improbable extra inning win in Game Two, which gave the Braves a split on the road and brought them back home to Atlanta tied with the Giants at a game apiece, Cox turned to veteran Tim Hudson to give his club the series lead.

Hudson pitched his heart out and when he left after seven, he did so trailing just 1-0.  Then, in the bottom of the 8th the managerial wheels started turning.  Following a leadoff single by Alex Gonzales, Cox asked an overmatched Conrad to lay down a bunt, which he popped up into an out.  Cox then sent up Troy Glaus to hit for Game Two hero, Rick Ankiel.

At that point, Giants manager Bruce Bochy (mercifully, it would seem, for Brave fans) removed his starter, lefty Jonathan Sanchez.  Even though he was at 105 pitches, he was nevertheless dominating the Braves and at that point had allowed just two hits while striking out 11. 

But when Bochy summoned rookie right hander Sergio Romo from the pen to face Glaus, Cox countered by sending up left-hand swinging Hinske.  It should have been a moment that provided all who love Bobby Cox a chance to hail him as a genius, because with one out, Hinske — the guy Cox picked to pinch hit for his pinch hitter — sent an absolute missile over the right field wall. The 2-run blast sent Turner Field into a frenzy and gave the Braves their first lead of the game, 2-1.

Now, only three outs separated Atlanta from a critical 2-1 series lead. In the bottom of the 9th, Cox sent to the mound to close out the game yet another power arm from his organization’s  incredible pool of minor league flame throwers, a kid named Craig Kimbrel

Fireballing Craig Kimbrel

By all rights, it should have been Billy Wagner coming into the game, but in Game Two Wagner had injured a hip and was, for all intents and purposes, lost to the Cox for the remainder of the NLDS.

That seemed to matter little, however.  Kimbrel had an absolutely electric arm and in September it seemed a rarity when a batter hit even a loud foul off him.  Although the kid had spent the bulk of the season at AAA, he came to the Braves with truly gaudy bullpen numbers.  And the fireballing Kimbrel continued that dominance at the big league level.  In fact, in 20 innings leading up to the playoffs, he had allowed only nine hits and no HR for the Braves.  His ERA entering the NLDS, therefore, was a microscopic 0.44, with a BAA of just .125. 

The only real chink in Kimbrel’s armor was his command, which on occasion could leave him for a batter or two.  That had yet to matter, though, because on those rare occasions when he did walk himself into trouble, no team ever seemed to hit him hard enough to actually make him pay for his transgression.

Prior to the start of the 9th inning, no one in the television booth mentioned it, but I remember thinking to myself, in addition to bringing in Kimbrel, why didn’t Cox also replace Conrad with Hernandez?  Especially since Conrad had already made three errors in the series — two of them in that game — and was proving to be, at least percentage-wise, one of the worst fielders in post-season history? 

But that hardly seemed to matter when Kimbrel sawed off the bat of the first batter and popped him up.  And it only seemed to matter a little when he walked the second hitter.  Because after that, fighting through jitters and command issues, Kimbrel threw a blazing, tailing strike three to the third batter that froze him dead in his tracks.

So now it was two-out with one-on, with Freddy Sanchez at the plate.  Sanchez, quickly found himself in a hole at 1-2, but then fought off a tough pitch to hit a seeing-eye grounder back through the middle and into center.  Though the ball was not hit hard, Bobby Cox apparently had seen enough.  The Giants’ most productive hitter, left-hand hitting Aubrey Huff, was coming up next and he wanted lefty Mike Dunn to get him for the final out and the save.

Forget the fact Huff had faced Dunn in Game One and singled off him, or that he had also singled off Venters earlier in the game, making him 2-2 against Brave lefties in the series. 

Forget as well that Huff hit 12 points better than left-handers than he had against righties all season, and that he was a career .275 hitter against southpaws. 

Forget too that Dunn had never recorded a major league save in his life.

Hell, even forget the fact that any 6-year old with a smart phone could have told you any one of those things. 

None of that apparently mattered to Bobby Cox.  All he seemed to know was that when he was a young Yankee farmhand lefties always had trouble hitting lefties, so Craig Kimbrel or no Craig Kimbrel — 99 mph fastball or no 99 mph fastball — it was time to bring in Mike Dunn.

To make matters worse, when the game resumed, Cox, Dunn and the Braves’ starting catcher Brian McCann had all apparently forgotten that in Game One against Huff, despite the fact that his best pitch was a rising fastball, Dunn threw five consecutive sliders to the Giant slugger, the last of which he shot into right field for a single.  

So rather than changing up his pattern and going mostly with fastballs with the game on the line, Dunn came back with that very same slider on the second pitch, and just like that the ball was spanked into right field and the lead was gone.

Bobby Cox: His sense of loyalty was both a blessing and a curse

But it only got worse for Cox and the Braves.  He quickly pulled Dunn and replaced him with Moylan, who finished the season second in the NL in appearances and who, as a result, had been leaking oil for weeks.

The good news for the Braves was Moylan did get the ground ball he needed.  The bad news was the ground ball went to Conrad, the guy Cox loyally stuck with, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. 

When the ball caromed off Conrad’s iron mitt like a bullet ricocheting off a boulder, it was not only his fourth error of the series and his eighth in Atlanta’s past seven games, it all but relegated the 2010 Braves and, most importantly, their Hall of Fame manager to history.

Mercifully, Cox finally benched Conrad for Game Four, but by then the die had been cast and the proverbial horse had left the barn.  In Game Four, the Braves would once again pitch well, hit poorly and field even worse.  But none of that mattered.  It was past the point that any one Brave could make a difference.

Their combination of poor execution and even poorer managerial decision-making had done them in, and all the heroics in the world weren’t going to make a whiff of difference.

In the end, the Giants moved on and the Braves, like they had done 15 times in their past 16 tries, simply went home.

How Bobby Cox’s Atlanta Braves earned a trip to the 2010 playoffs might someday be remembered as his managerial career’s final shining moment. 

How they were eliminated, however, will remain its epitaph.   #

 

Read Part II:  Bobby Cox –The Man with the Plan

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