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Griff says...Bobby Cox - Beloved, Confounding Enigma

In this his last season as Braves skipper it is fitting to devote some attention to Bobby Cox. He has been a master at avoiding personal attention throughout his career, preferring to give credit to the players. In all my years following Cox and the Braves I have never heard him take credit for anything. His humility and respect for his players is unsurpassed in baseball management.

Cox needs 87 wins this year to achieve 2500 for his career. It would really be a shame if he does not make that. It would make him the fourth manager to ever win that many games. He deserves it and I believe he will get it. There is a little bit of a special feeling about this year I think. Not destiny or a miracle about to take place, but it feels a little different. Kind of like a last chance or last gasp effort. To be clear, the Braves will continue on and still be successful, but it will be a new era without Bobby.

What is it that makes Bobby Cox so endeared by his players? His players love him because he always treats them with respect, he is always straight with them, he never criticizes them publicly and he always gives them as long as they need to either prove themselves or fail. He is the player’s manager. Most everyone has stated somewhere along the way that they wanted to play for Bobby.

If you listen to even one Braves game you will get an earful of Cox chattering when the Braves are at bat. He has a nickname for every player. He has something to say to them on every single pitch of every at bat in every game. It is always encouraging and supportive, never critical or suggestive. They can always hear it, just as the viewers can hear it. It’s amazing to me that he has been like that ever since he started. Even his dubious record for the most ejections is because he loves his players so much. He doesn’t chew out a player when they start arguing with the umpire, he takes over the argument for them. It is a show of support and regardless how stupid some of his ejections are, it is almost always done just to protect his player and show them that if they are upset about something then so is he. Of course he doesn’t want them kicked out either.

Cox attributes his style and respect for the players to the managers he played for when he was with the Yankees. Ironically, he was actually acquired by the Braves as a player for a short time but never played in an MLB game. He went into coaching in the Minor Leagues with the Yankees and won 54% of his games before moving up to the bigs and coaching first in 1977 when Billy Martin’s team won the World Series. His career includes four awards as Manager of the Year. He is one of only four managers to receive the award in both leagues and the only Manager to receive it in consecutive years. He also holds the more well known record of the most ejections, including the record for getting ejected in two World Series games. One of those was actually humorous as he tried to throw a batting helmet against the dugout and although he missed, it went onto the field and caused his ejection. His ejection record is still going and approaching 150. Maybe he will set another record this year and not get ejected. Right.

What has made Cox so successful? Certainly you have to start with the fact that if players are always treated with respect, support, encouraged, and given full opportunity to show their talents, they have the best opportunity to be successful. So Cox is able to maximize the talent of his players which contributes to an overall team maximization and gives them the best chance to win. Also, he will be the first one to tell you that he has been blessed with some very talented players, especially in the pitching staff. No other manager has had potentially three Hall of Fame pitchers on his staff at the same time for a decade or more. That’s pretty hard to beat. Additionally, those pitchers were in the days when pitching was the dominant force, even over a great offense. In today’s game, I sense an evolution in that a powerful offense is more important than it used to be and even more important than a great pitching staff. But that’s another blog.

Now for the more confusing part about Bobby. Why do all those fans who love him find him to be so annoying, irritating and frustrating so often? That may be hard to explain but not difficult to provide supportive evidence. Over the years I have torn out so many hairs over his decisions that I became bald. All right, in fairness, I may have turned out that way anyway.

Bobby’s style is most assuredly optimistic, businesslike, predictable, patient, counter- intuitive and Earl Weaver oriented. By that I mean he prefers to play for the two or three run homer. Although on the surface these qualities may appear to be advantages, they also too quickly become disadvantages over time.

His eternal optimism engulfs realism and when combined with his unending patience causes him to throw away half the season waiting for players to perform or fail. Think Kelly Johnson, Casey Kotchman, Greg Norton, and Rafael Furcal awhile back. At the same time he waits too long for non-performers, it prevents him from moving forward faster on obvious emerging stars such as Martin Prado. When you examine how close we came to taking the Wild Card last year you have to wonder if inserting Prado right out of Spring Training couldn’t have helped us win just a few more games, not just because of his individual stats but because he was a clear catalyst for our offense. How many years did Furcal have terrible numbers in the first half, then close the season okay, but falter in the playoffs?

His businesslike approach is ideal for the regular season and ensures that every game is just as important as the next. He never gets irate over a loss or exuberant over a win. Baseball has a regular season that seems to last forever so that is a very desirable trait to prevent long slumps. But when you get into September I believe you have to step up your game with more intensity and fire. Certainly in the playoffs you have to treat each game as critical and not just like any other one. I believe this lack of flexibility to adjust the emotion and intensity in the playoffs is a key reason why the Braves have only one World Series championship in those 14 years of winning the division. I do recognize we should have won a couple of those if it were not for this or that. But we just don’t show any real momentum and fire when we do get into the playoffs.

His use of the bullpen is simply maddening and totally predictable. He has a lefty specialist, a set up man for the seventh, another one for the eighth, and a closer. When a pitcher hits 100 pitches they are out. There needs to be a bit more individual game assessment of what is really going on. If you implement those guidelines then who needs a manager? Anybody can make those changes at the appropriate time. Why not let a starter complete the game when he is hot? Why not take a guy out when he is obviously fatigued or sustains an upsetting set of circumstances? Last year I saw him leave Javy in when he had pitched a fantastic game for six innings. But if you watched closely in the sixth, you could see he was totally exhausted as it was humid and he was constantly wiping his brow and breathing heavily. Cox let him trot out there in the seventh and get clobbered before he took him out. It was obvious his tank was empty after the sixth.

In one of the infamous Derek Lowe hammerings, I noticed that he was hit on the hand from a hard line drive. His hand was literally shaking and red. You could see it on TV. He kept shaking it over and over. I thought sure he would get pulled. But Cox left him in and he proceeded to a meltdown from there. Lowe would never admit he was hurt later but it seemed so obvious to me that if it was not physical it had certainly shaken him up and affected his mechanics and demeanor. Another time Jurrjens was pitching a phenomenal game after eight innings and seemed to be cruising. Cox pulled him in the ninth and we lost the game. Jurrjens had not looked tired, was only in the high 90 pitch count, and still had his command. Or how about all the times Flaherty was dominant for a batter or two or a whole inning but never given an opportunity for one more inning. That led to overuse of Moylan.

I realize anyone can pick a couple instances and show a manager made bad decisions. But I’m only using those examples as a frame of reference for a pattern of behavior which indicates to me he is not a great manager of the pitching staff. I don’t know exactly how much influence McDowell has in those situations but it strikes me that Cox makes the decision on his own. If those were really McDowell’s recommendations then we have a bigger problem.

Of course we know Bobby doesn’t use speed as a weapon and seemingly does not value speed as a weapon. If he did, Rafael Furcal would have been one of the leading base-stealers every year. If he did, McLouth would have been stealing every time he was on first last year with less than two outs, or at least involved in a hit and run with such a fine contact, opposite field hitter as Prado.

I’m sure he doesn’t want to take a chance and take the bat out of Chipper’s hands if the hit and run or steal didn’t work, but that is counter intuitive because when it does work it puts Chipper into position to easily drive in a runner from third base. Bobby seems to play the Earl Weaver game and wait for the two or three run homer. There’s just one little problem with that. The Braves have not been a home run team for a couple years now so you need to adjust and manufacture runs differently. I would have preferred to see Diaz more in lead-off last year, then have him steal or hit and run with Prado to take pressure off Chipper to be a big bopper. He’s a good base-runner. That would have been an interesting scenario and may have created much more momentum and more big innings. Further, if he had McLouth hitting in the 7 spot, we have a more dangerous power lineup top to bottom.

Finally, ever since Joey Devine fell on his face after being drafted out of college in the spring and being called up in the bigs late that summer, they worry about bringing guys up too early. Of course some of it has to do with trying to delay their arbi years also. They did take a chance on Schaefer last year but let’s face it, he was ready, had a great spring, was off to a great start, and in my opinion would have been super had he not broken his wrist and played injured from the fourth game on. That wasn’t much of a risk. Of course we waited way too long to pull the plug on that problem too. Hopefully they will give Heyward an opportunity out of spring training and we will be really good I believe. But that’s another blog.

So, after all the head-scratching, I guess we all have to admit that Cox is still a very good manager. But I’m not so sure he is a great manager in today’s time. He is too staid in his style and ways. Who do you suppose will follow him? That’s another blog.

My next blog will be on Monday. The topic will be Chipper Jones. Griff says…later.

4 comments:

  1. Great blog! I agree with you on Bobby's style. While he is very predictable with the pitching staff, he will certainly be remembered for being a great player's manager.

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  2. I loved your words on the legendary manager. Who do you think his replacement will be?

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  3. Great blog. I found it from the bowman blog, and it's quickly become my favorite brave's site. Your critique is spot on, particularly with Cox's refusal to utilize speed and the long leash underperforming players are given. This is even evident in his time in Toronto in the mid 1980's. We will no doubt miss Cox when he's gone, but he does leave you wondering "what if?" when you look at the talent that has rolled through Atlanta over the past 2 decades.
    In reference to your previous blog about leadoff, many fans have correctly pointed out the lack of speed by the top of the order. With most managers this would be an issue, but with Bobby the speed would likely be wasted anyway.
    I also think Cox should be given credit for his tenure as GM. He did an excellent job acquiring young talent through the draft and has a keen eye for evaluating young talent, although he wasn't nearly as sucessfull in getting established major league talent via trade/free agent.
    I look forward to blogs about possible replacements for Bobby. It might be nice to go outside of the organization and get someone with less of a reputation of a player's manager who will light a fire under the team come playoff time. But I suspect the bravre's may stay in-house or bring in someone from the Cox coaching tree. I will miss Bobby, but his leaving seems for the best.Keep up the good work Griff!

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  4. There is an upcoming column in about a week on Cox's replacement.

    It would be great to get a larger following here so invite your friends for more discussion.

    It just seems like the braves.com site and Bowman's articles are boring, stale and redundant. Look at today's article from Bowman for example. He announced tonight's release of the top 50 prospects and discussed whether Heyward would still be #1. But another article pre-announcing Heyward as #1 came out about the same time so it seemed pointless. he never has anything really valuable or new to say in information or opinions. As a Braves insider he should have a lot of juicy tidbits but doesn't seem to be fed that type of information.

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