McDowell all Braves could ask for in pitching coach
Prankster and mentor the one constant through changing regimes in Atlanta
ATLANTA -- Bobby Cox surprised many when he chose Roger McDowell to succeed Leo Mazzone as Atlanta's pitching coach a few weeks after the 2005 season concluded. After spending the previous 15 seasons sitting alongside "The Rocker" (Mazzone), Cox had suddenly paired himself with a man who would have been appropriately dubbed "The Joker" during his playing career.
Eight seasons later, the Braves view Cox's shrewd choice of McDowell as anything but a joke.
"He's the best pitching coach in baseball," Braves catcher Brian McCann said. "He's the smartest baseball guy I've been around. He's made me so much better."
Since joining Atlanta's staff, McDowell has distanced himself from those days when he lit unsuspecting teammates' cleats on fire in the dugout and earned a Ph.D. in clubhouse pranks. While he still has the ability to keep things loose with his witty tongue, he is now more of an analytical soul. McDowell's attention to detail and tireless preparations have proven invaluable to the Braves, who boast the Majors' best record courtesy of a pitching staff that has compiled the second-best ERA this season.
"There's no B.S. to him," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He's got the reputation of being the prankster and stuff like that. There is a time for that and there is a time to be prepared. He's got all of those qualities. During the course of the game, he's about as good as you would want."
When Gonzalez assumed his current post once Cox retired after the 2010 season, there was never any doubt he would keep McDowell on his coaching staff. Sure, the two are close friends and neighbors. But more importantly, McDowell had spent the previous five seasons successfully guiding pitching staffs that were not anywhere near as talented as the ones Atlanta celebrated during the Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine era.
Dating back to 2006 -- McDowell's first season in Atlanta -- the Braves have compiled the second-best ERA (3.82) in the Majors. That is remarkable when you consider the club ranked 12th and 10th in ERA among National League clubs in 2006 and '08, a stretch during which Smoltz and Tim Hudson were the only Atlanta pitchers to make more starts than Chuck James, Jo-Jo Reyes and Kyle Davies.
The talent level and results have proven to be much better as the Braves have posted the game's best ERA dating back to 2009. This stretch was marred by both disappointing signings -- Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami -- and the sudden injury-influenced decay of a pair of once-promising pitchers -- Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens.
But in the midst of theses frustrations, McDowell has spent the past few years fostering the development of the likes of Craig Kimbrel, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, Kris Medlen, Julio Teheran and his newest pupil, Alex Wood. At the same time, McDowell has proven capable of getting the most out of the wise under-the-radar waiver-wire acquisitions of Eric O'Flaherty and David Carpenter.
"You have a lot of guys who have benefited from the stuff he does," said Carpenter, who has compiled a 1.96 ERA in 34 relief appearances this season. "As a group, we're all able to make each other better, but it all stems from Roger."
Veteran backup catcher Gerald Laird competed in the World Series the past two seasons and has been part of four big league clubs over the past 11 seasons. Since arriving in Atlanta, he has been impressed with McDowell's ability to compile comprehensive scouting reports and relate the necessary message in a manner that each of his pitchers and the catchers can understand in the process of developing game plans .
"He's an approachable guy," Laird said. "The information he provides you is invaluable. In my opinion, it's one of the better scouting reports I've ever been around."
During his 12-season big league career, McDowell was a one-pitch reliever who did not have much need for the antiquated video analysis that was available. But since assuming his current role, he has dedicated himself to taking advantage of the technological assets that are now available.
With the help of video coordinator Rob Smith, McDowell spends lots of time analyzing both the mechanics of his pitchers and the approaches taken by the hitters his pitchers will face during an upcoming series or game. Much of the analysis is used to develop game plans. But a quick in-game look at footage can also provide the opportunity to guide one of his pitchers through the remainder of that particular game.
"Some guys don't like tinkering with stuff," Medlen said. "But if I feel something, I'll tell him and he'll go look at film during that game and tell me five minutes later, saying, 'You're doing this or you're doing that.' It's a game of adjustments, and he's big on those adjustments in game."
None of this seemed to be in McDowell's future when he retired in 1997 and then spent a few years away from the game. But while doing some community relations work for the Dodgers, he reunited with Dave Wallace, his former pitching coach, and began developing a passion for coaching.
After serving as the pitching coach for the Class A South Georgia Waves in 2002-03, McDowell spent the next two years handling the same role for the Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas. His success led both the Mariners and Braves to come calling for him to become their big league pitching coach after the 2005 season.
Eight years later, McDowell continues to savor the knowledge and direction he has gained through his relationship with Wallace, the highly-respected veteran pitching guru who has spent the past four seasons serving as the Braves' Minor League pitching coordinator, a role that has enabled him to guide Teheran, Beachy, Minor and other prospects in the manner he once did the likes of Pedro Martinez and Orel Hershiser.
"I have a special admiration for what he's done in the game and the pitchers he's developed," McDowell said. "His insight into all aspects of the game continues to be a tremendous asset -- not just to me, but to this entire organization."
Many of the Braves' players have the same sentiments about McDowell, who has continued to provide sanity with his wit and tremendous value with his pitching expertise.
"When you play this game every day for 162 games, you better have a sense of humor about you or you're going to go nuts," McCann said. "He's got a great sense of humor. He relates well with everybody. He knows when you need a pat on the butt and when you need a kick in the butt. He manages people and his staff. He knows everything."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.