Is Bobby Cox the Best Ever?
There has been a chorus of commentators and analysts describing the Braves' Bobby Cox as a great manager. Some have even gone so far as to anoint him the best of all time. Regarding Bobby Cox as a great manager is a little like praising the cask for producing a fine wine. What makes a great wine is the vintner, the soil and of course, the grapes. The cask plays a very small role in the greatness of the wine.
Looking at the facts, Bobby Cox has had the benefit of one of the most generous owners in baseball, a GM who does a decent job of getting quality players and two of the best judges of talent in the history of baseball (Paul Snyder, Bill Clark) who have produced a farm system that has been the best this decade.
So how does Bobby Cox get this reputaion as being such a great manager? Obviously, the Braves winning as many games as they have plays a large part of that. But how has Cox been influential in their success? Is it because he's more willing to break in rookies than other mangers? No.
In 1994, Terry Pendleton had an OPS of .678. In 1995 he had a choice of a repeat from Pendleton or go with Chipper Jones, the top prospect in the minors. I'm sure he would have rather gone with Chipper in 1994 as well, but couldn't because of Jones' knee injury. But nevertheless, he had planned to use Chipper in the outfield in 1994 and keep Pendleton as the everyday third baseman.
In 1994, Ryan Klesko had to share time with, gulp, Dave Gallagher, before he got a full-time shot the next year. Even then, Mike Kelly, Dwight Smith and, ugh, Mike Devereaux got an awful lot of at bats.
In 1996, he platooned Andruw Jones with Jermaine Dye (.304 OBP/.459 SLG), and then in 1997 with Michael Tucker (.347/.445). Considering that Cox himself said that he thought Andruw was the next Hank Aaron, he didn't really back up his high praise with action.
And Kevin Millwood had to win 17 games as a 5th starter the year after going 15-8 splitting time between AA, AAA and the majors, including going 7-0 in AAA with a 1.93 ERA, before he could enjoy the title of 4th starter.
OK, maybe it's because his pitchers are always healthy. Leo Mazzone deserves the credit if any is due. Cox really didn't show this kind of aptitude as manager of the Jays. And looking at the injury histories of John Smoltz, Steve Avery, Kent Mercker, Mark Wohlers and Odalis Perez, I'd say that reputation is not altogether deserved.
Maybe Cox is a player's manager and the player's like playing for him. Maybe, but Jim Riggleman and Phil Garner were player's managers but they didn't have the same talent to work with that Cox has had, and now they are out of jobs.
The post season record doesn't look like a good place to look either. Sure, the Braves have demolished lesser foes in the NLDS, like the one-dimensional Cubs, the Biggio/Bagwell Astros, and the OBP-inept Dodgers. But how have they done against foes who equal them in talent and in depth?
In 1992, they got beaten by the Jays in 4 1-run games. The Braves would have been swept if not for a three-run bomb by Damon Berryhill in Game 1 that saved Glavine's hide.
In 1993, they lost to the Phillies because the Phillies simply outgutted the Braves. The Phillies didn't get flustered when things went bad. They just kept playing hard. The Braves didn't fare as well when faced with adversity. In fact, many observers described their play as lacking fire or desire.
In 1994, they were getting trampled by the Expos, losing another 2.5 games in the two weeks before the strike to end up finishing 6 games back. More on this later.
In 1995, they won it all, but against a manager who's arguably a worse tactician than Cox and a Tribe starting staff that was almost as old as Cox himself. Even so, the 1995 Braves were probably the most user friendly team the Braves have ever had. Very good starting pitching, one of the best bullpens ever (according to ESPN bullpen guru Rany Jazayerli) and a solid everyday squad both offensively and defensively. This team didn't really need a whole lot of managing.
In 1996, they were one fat Wohlers pitch from winning it all. Or were they? Actually, that was Game 4. They would have only been up 3-1. And it was Cox's decision to bring in Wohlers to start the eighth, something he had not done at all during Wohler's brilliant stretch the final two months of the regular season. And the Braves went on to lose Games 5 and 6 as well.
In 1997, Eric Gregg put Livan Hernandez and the Marlins in the Series. Or was it Kevin Brown, who won Games 1 and 6, the latter of which actually put the Marlins into the Series? It's all so fuzzy. Even without #2 starter Alex Fernandez, the Marlins were able to oust Cox's supposedly superior Braves. Could the Braves have performed as well without Glavine? Probably not.
In 1998, they were shocked by the Padres. Actually, it was the Braves doing the shocking. The Braves clawed back into the Series when Greg Vaughn went down. Had he not been injured slipping on the grass, the Pads would have pummelled them in 4 games and likely would have been more healthy for the Series, which would have at least made that more interesting. The Braves record against the Pads regular line-up in '98: 0-4. The Braves had won the season series against the Pads 5-4, but had not faced a full Padre squad all season - in the early series they had missed Caminiti and Veras and in the late summer series they didn't face Gwynn or Joyner. And 2 of the starting pitchers they had beaten weren't even on the Padres roster by the post season. Numerous injuries cost the Pads a chance to finish with a regular season record that reflected their level of talent.
Some would say that it's very hard to blame Cox for the Braves' post-season troubles when (1) they haven't been exactly horrible, (2) with the current system, it's very difficult to run up a string of WS titles, and (3) if a couple plays here and there had gone their way, they'd have won a few titles.
That's one way of looking at it. Another way is that the strength of the organization is responsible for their good regular season performances (a strong farm system, a GM who does a decent job of filling holes and an owner who bankrolls the wishlist) and that Cox is exposed for the quality of manager he is in the post season, where the organization is not as influential on the outcome.
So how've the Braves won the division in 8 of the last 9 years? Attendance. Not the Braves' necessarily, but that of the Expos, or more precisely, how much attendance the strike cost the Montreal Expos in 1994. Two months of attendance and playoff revenue for one of the best teams of the 90's. There is a high degree of likelyhood that the Expos would have been a viable franchise had the strike not cut their revenue stream. With their farm system, they would have continued to beat on Atlanta and their annoying tom-toms, or at least provide them a Frazier to Atlanta's supposed Ali. When the strike stopped baseball, the Expos lead on the Braves was expanding, their attendance was rising and with the playoffs looming large, so was their revenue.
Larry Walker was the only player who was eligible for free agency after that year. Even had they decided not to afford him, the Expos still would have had Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou, Rondell White, Cliff Floyd, Wil Cordero, Sean Berry, Darrin Fletcher and Mike Lansing, with Vlad Guerrero on the way. On the pitching side, they had Ken Hill, Jeff Fassero, Pedro Martinez, Kirk Reuter, John Wetteland, Mel Rojas and Jeff Shaw, with Carlos Perez and Ugueth Urbina on the way. And a better game tactician at the helm.
No, the reason Cox's Braves have won so many division titles is that the rest of the division pretty much defaulted in the 1990's, either due to inept front offices (Phillies), terrible managers (Mets), wacko ownership (Marlins) or lack of revenue (Expos). The Braves' success is due more to Ted Turner, who bankrolls one of the most expensive teams in the league year after year, and Paul Snyder, who was the scouting director/GM who got Chipper Jones, Steve Avery, Kent Mercker, Javy Lopez, Ryan Klesko et al. For proof, look at the drafts after Snyder was fired as GM after the 1990 season in favor of John Schuerholz, but before he was rehired in 1993 as scouting director. You'll find a whole lot of Tyler Houstons and Mike Kellys in there and not a whole lot of Andruw Jones', Raphael Furcals or Bruce Chens.
Given Cox's situation and circumstances, I don't think it's too far fetched to say that just about any manager could win as many division titles and probably more World Series. Cox has proven that he is a good manager by his efforts this year under tough circumstances. However, if one great year couldn't get Roger Maris into the Hall of Fame, then it certainly shouldn't give Cox the mantle of greatest manager ever.