Derek Lowe is Dealing in Cleveland: Atlanta Braves Coaching Lacking?

By Michael Collins

Atlanta Braves cast-off Derek Lowe is, to date, leading the American League in ERA (2.05), and wins (6-1).  Could this mean that the problem here in Atlanta wasn’t with Lowe, but lay with the Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell?  Yes,  it’s very early in the season, but baseball is a numbers driven and performance driven sport more than any other, and as they say…sometimes the numbers don’t lie.

Roger McDowell had a very unenviable job in 2006.  He had to come take over the pitching coach duties from arguably one of the most successful pitching coaches in the game, Leo Mazzone.  It’s never easy to follow a legend, and McDowell had lofty expectations from day one.  But, he knew that coming into the job.  This is the Braves.  This is where young pitchers come out of the minor leagues and turn into the best pitchers in the majors.  This is where the best pitchers want to play because they know they’ll be in the mix for the playoffs.  The problem with that is, the last time the Braves won the division was 2005 – Leo Mazzone’s last year as pitching coach.

This isn’t to say that pitching was the only issue that has kept the Braves from continuing their streak of division championships, but the fact is that the Braves relied heavily on pitching to keep them in games and to win games.  When that part of the equation began to fail, so did the Braves.

In looking at the career of Derek Lowe, it would seem that Atlanta was his only less than stellar stop.  Here are the numbers:

  • Boston Red Sox: 8 seasons, 3.72 ERA, 70-55 – .560 win %
  • Los Angeles Dodgers: 4 seasons, 3.59 ERA, 54-48 – .539 win%
  • Atlanta Braves: 3 seasons, 4.57 ERA, 40-39 – .506 win %

Derek Lowe’s performance thus far this season, as compared to his work in Atlanta, is just a small sampling of the greater issues in whole with Braves pitching.

Under Mazzone, the Braves pitching staff had an ERA of 3.65, and the team averaged 19 pitchers per season used in games.  Under McDowell, the Braves ERA has risen to 4.10, and Atlanta is using an average of 24 pitchers per season.  Mazzone’s pitching staffs were a part of 14 consecutive division championships, 5 World Series appearances, and one World Championship.  Thus far, in six-plus seasons, McDowell’s staffs have been to the post-season just once, as a wild card team.

Now some would argue that Mazzone had pitchers like John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and others to work with.  But the truth is – with the exception of maybe Maddux – Mazzone developed most of those pitchers from a young age, and helped make them into the Hall of Fame arms that they became.  He also took a lot of pitchers from other team’s scrap heaps, – such as Denny Neagle, John Burkett, Russ Ortiz and Jaret Wright – and coached them to some of the most successful years in their careers, only to see them falter when leaving Atlanta.  It would now seem that the opposite is beginning to happen.

McDowell has certainly had both some great young prospects, as well as seasoned veterans, to work with just as Mazzone did.  So what is the difference? Is it McDowell’s approach?  His personality?  Is he just too nice? (Mazzone had a reputation has a hard-nosed coach)

Obviously not all of McDowell’s work can be considered a failure or even bad, but the futures of some of the brightest young pitchers in the game are now in his hands.  The faults and cracks in the games of youngsters like Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty and reigning Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel are going to have to be spotted and fixed by McDowell, or we could see them end up like other highly touted prospects that came up to Atlanta under McDowell such as Chuck James, Kyle Davies, Jo-Jo Reyes, and Blaine Boyer.

McDowell’s staff is going to have to tighten up as this season progresses, as the Braves hitting is probably not going to continue at the torrent pace that it’s on for the entire season.  Sitting at 13th in the National League in pitching is not where the Braves want to be should the hitting begin to slump even a little bit.  But should the Braves miss the playoffs again this season, perhaps it’s time to say that another coaching change is due.

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