Overlooked McDowell ensures success of Braves' arms
Pitching coach has guided Atlanta's staff to top-five finish in ERA in past five seasons
The most underrated coach of any kind in Major League Baseball is Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell, and it isn't even close. Now admit it: until I just mentioned this guy, you didn't know who was teaching the hurlers these days in Atlanta. It's partly because splendid mound work for this franchise is considered to be pre-ordained by the sporting gods, but it's mostly because McDowell couldn't care less about his anonymity.
"I like flying under the radar," McDowell said, always in his low-key tone, reflecting on his nine seasons as the Braves' pitching coach. Yep, he's been there nine years, and among other things, the team's ERA has dropped every season since 2008 and Atlanta has finished in the top five in the Majors in that category during each of the previous five years.
Despite a slew of injuries this year that included season-ending Tommy John surgeries for starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy and the losses of veterans Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm to free agency, the Braves' 1.58 ERA is the lowest in the Major Leagues among starters by nearly a run. Not only that, they have the best ERA in baseball by 0.13 over the second-place A's. McDowell shrugged.
"I have a daily job to get them prepared to pitch a Major League baseball game throughout the season, and that's always my focus," McDowell said, before deflecting even more credit by reciting a litany of past and present coaches and officials in the Braves' organization that you've likely never heard of. "I enjoy what I do, and from a satisfaction standpoint, it's watching the pitchers grow. It's like watching our kids grow and get better. And that's the satisfaction I get, and that's enough."
Actually, it isn't. In addition to the bronzed statues in Atlanta featuring Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Phil Niekro and the rest, the Braves might consider clearing a spot someday around Turner Field -- or their future ballpark in a nearby suburb -- for this 53-year-old former Major League pitcher who keeps prospering at his craft despite everything.
I do mean everything. The Braves reached deep into their vault this spring to sign prized free agent Ervin Santana, but outside of Hudson, Santana is the only big-name acquisition Atlanta has made among pitchers during the years since Cy Maddux, Cy Glavine and Cy Smoltz -- otherwise known, in order, as Greg, Tom and John. The first two already are Hall of Famers, and Smoltz will get his Cooperstown plaque next year. They last worked as a trio in 2002, and the Braves made another dramatic change three years later: legendary pitching coach Leo Mazzone bolted for the Orioles.
Hall of Famer Bobby Cox was the Braves' manager back then, and after he consulted with others in the organization, he decided the best replacement for Mazzone should be this guy who spent 12 years as nothing more than a solid reliever in the Major Leagues through 1996. This was the same guy known as much for setting the shoes of teammates on fire as retiring hitters in crucial situations late in games.
This also was the same guy who spent a couple of seasons coaching in the Minor Leagues for the Dodgers.
Even so, McDowell was the guy that Cox figured could do what was considered the impossible at the time: replace Mazzone. The late Al McGuire, of college basketball fame at Marquette University, used to say, "The person who follows a dictator is always assassinated."
McDowell smiled and said, "Did I think about how tough it would be to replace like Leo? Sure. Especially those first couple of years."
Those were years of transition for Atlanta pitchers. Just like that, the Braves went from the hard-driving approach of Mazzone to McDowell's softer tone that featured a touch of his David Letterman-like past, along with his ability to make his students always respect their teacher.
"He knows when to be serious to work on things and when you need help, and he knows when to joke around and relax and keep the mood light," said Braves closer Craig Kimbrel. "It's a long season, and you can't show up every day with your game face on at all times. As soon as it's time to do some work or something serious needs to be said, his voice is heard, and it's strong."
What McDowell boldly tells his pitchers is a combination of everything he's learned through the decades.
McDowell learned from former Major League pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.
"I try to be Mel," McDowell said, "because he gave me the confidence when I had a bad game by always saying, 'Hey, just be ready tomorrow. Today's done.'"
He learned from Maddux.
"I remember he said that at the end of the day, he was as mentally done as he was physically done, because of the preparation he puts into every pitch," McDowell said.
He learned from Cox.
"One of the biggest things I learned from Bobby was creating an environment to make it as comfortable for the pitchers as possible over a six-month season," McDowell said.
McDowell also learned from a slew of books.
"I was able to get a lot from them, because I think I went to Barnes & Noble and bought every book that's ever been written on pitching," McDowell said.
Speaking of those books, McDowell's favorite was Harvey Dorfman's "The Mental ABCs of Pitching."
"The book goes through all of the different aspects of being effective [on the mound], whether it's breathing, whether it's anxiety, whether it's competitiveness," McDowell said. "Harvey Dorfman … that's the best and the most informative book I've read."
It's one thing to read that book, but it's another to use its principles. It's yet another to get others to make those principles work.
McDowell has done all three -- emphatically.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.