It seems like an act of desperation, and maybe it is. But an early-season change of a pitching coach in hopes of sparking an underachieving rotation has worked before.
In 1999, it took the Mets little time to feel as if their season might be slipping away. A pair of losses in Yankee Stadium in early-June ran a losing streak to eight straight, and dropped New York to 27-28. General manager Steve Phillips decided it was time to blow up the coaching staff, but while he had planned to wait until a Monday off-day, a leak on Saturday accelerated the timetable.
After a loss in Yankee Stadium, Phillips brought pitching coach Bob Apodaca, hitting coach Tom Robson, and bullpen coach Randy Niemann to Shea Stadium to let them know they were being fired. He made the decision with neither the input of manager Bobby Valentine nor with any certainty.
“Bobby always got the blame. He was always the one with blood on his hands,” recalled Phillips, now host of “The Leadoff Spot” on SiriusXM’s MLB Network Radio. “I did not want to have him involved in the decision because I didn’t want it to be Bobby killing the coaching staff. Otherwise, I thought it would compromise his ability to function. At the time, Bobby was not overly happy about it. He said, ‘Well, after the next 55 games I guess we’ll know whether it works or not.’ We went 40-15 for the next 55 games.
“I didn’t know if it was going to work. I thought it would work. I definitely believed it was the right thing to do. I didn’t know how dramatic an impact it would have. But I knew I was doing the right thing for the right reasons.”
Phillips made the change because he wanted to change the communication dynamics surrounding the club, and because he felt that the Mets’ preparation for games could improve. While the hire of Dave Wallace as a new pitching coach addressed that, Phillips discovered a further and more far-reaching benefit to the turnover.
“I think that the changes that we thought were necessary happened. But I also think that there was some accountability on the pitchers’ parts,” said Phillips. “They recognized that things weren’t going the way they should, and that they all had some responsibility and felt badly that someone lost their job because of it. Players understand that they aren’t disposable. You can’t just fire your players. Inevitably, it’s the coach who ends up taking the heat for them.”
The Mets went 70-38 after the firings. They went from allowing 4.9 runs per game under Apodaca to 4.1 per game under Wallace. They reached the NLCS.
“At the end of the year, [Mets owner] Fred Wilpon said to me, ‘That was a $30 million decision for the organization,’” said Phillips. “We ended up turning it around and going to the playoffs. What it does with ticket sales down the stretch, what it does for postseason revenues, what it does for ticket sales for the next year because of the perception of the team – he said it was a $30 million decision, and one that worked.”
What history shows
The Red Sox, who replaced Juan Nieves last week with Carl Willis as their new pitching coach, hope to catch similar lightning in a bottle. How likely is it?
In the 20 years baseball has used the wild card playoff format, there have been 33 in-season pitching coach changes that took place no later than a day after the All-Star break. Of those, nearly three quarters (24 total, 73 percent) saw improvements in the runs allowed by a staff, with more than half (19, 58 percent) improving by at least half a run per game, and nearly a quarter (8, 32 percent) improving by a full run per game after the pitching coach change.
There’s something of a chicken-and-egg issue there, however. Pitching coaches get fired because their staffs are underperforming. Improvement would appear a likely outcome whether or not a pitching coach change had been made.
Still, there are teams whose turnarounds proved so dramatic that it’s hard not to see the potential for some sort of causal link. The 1999 Mets represent one such example. The 1995 Yankees, who were under .500 coming out of the All-Star break while yielding 5.3 runs per game but caught fire down the stretch (48-29, 4.3 runs per age) after Billy Connors was dismissed in favor of Nardi Contreras, were another.
Of the 33 teams to change pitching coaches in the first half over the last 20 seasons, six have landed in the postseason. Can the Red Sox become the seventh?
|Opened year||Replacement||Runs allowed before||Runs allowed after||Change (RA/G)|
|2000 Devil Rays||Rick Williams||Bill Fischer||9.0||5.0||-4|
|1998 Mariners||Nardi Contreras||Stan Williams||7.3||5.2||-2.1|
|1995 White Sox||Jackie Brown||Don Cooper||6.5||4.9||-1.6|
|2002 Tigers||Dan Warthen||Steve McCatty||6.7||5.3||-1.4|
|2004 Orioles||Mark Wiley||Ray Miller||5.8||4.6||-1.2|
|2009 Nationals||Randy St. Claire||Steve McCatty||6.2||5.1||-1.1|
|2003 Red Sox-x||Tony Cloninger||Dave Wallace||5.6||4.6||-1|
|1995 Yankees-x||Billy Connors||Nardi Contreras||5.3||4.3||-1|
|2002 Blue Jays||Mark Connor||Gil Patterson||5.7||4.8||-0.9|
|1996 Red Sox||Al Nipper||Sammy Ellis||6.4||5.6||-0.8|
|2003 Marlins-x||Brad Arnsberg||Wayne Rosenthal||4.9||4.1||-0.8|
|1999 Mets-x||Bob Apodaca||Dave Wallace||4.9||4.1||-0.8|
|1998 White Sox||Mike Pazik||Nardi Contreras||6.3||5.6||-0.7|
|2005 Reds||Don Gullett||Vern Ruhle||5.9||5.2||-0.7|
|1998 Dodgers||Goose Gregson||Charlie Hough||4.5||3.9||-0.6|
|2003 Padres||Greg Booker||Darren Balsley||5.6||5.0||-0.6|
|2011 Tigers-x||Rick Knapp||Jeff Jones||4.6||4.1||-0.5|
|2008 Mets||Rick Peterson||Dan Warthen||4.7||4.2||-0.5|
|2001 Rangers||Larry Hardy||Bobby Cuellar||6.3||5.8||-0.5|
|1999 Dodgers||Charlie Hough||Claude Osteen||5.1||4.8||-0.3|
|2011 Astros||Brad Arnsberg||Doug Brocail||5.0||4.8||-0.2|
|2001 Royals||Brent Strom||Al Nipper||5.4||5.2||-0.2|
|1999 Tigers||Rick Adair||Dan Warthen||5.5||5.4||-0.1|
|2004 Diamondbacks||Chuck Kniffin||Mark Davis||5.6||5.5||-0.1|
|2004 Astros-x||Burt Hooton||Jim Hickey||4.3||4.3||0|
|2002 Royals||Al Nipper||John Cumberland||5.5||5.5||0|
|1996 Phillies||Johnny Podres||Jim Wright||4.8||4.9||0.1|
|2001 Padres||Dave Smith||Greg Booker||4.9||5.1||0.2|
|2000 Astros||Vern Ruhle||Burt Hooton||5.7||5.9||0.2|
|2004 Royals||John Cumberland||Mike Mason||5.5||5.7||0.2|
|2002 Rangers||Oscar Acosta||Orel Hershiser||5.3||5.6||0.3|
|2009 Diamondbacks||Bryan Price||Mel Stottlemyre Jr.||4.4||4.9||0.5|
|2011 Orioles||Mark Connor||Rick Adair||4.7||5.7||1|
The work of Willis will be secondary to the actual talent level of the Red Sox pitching staff in making that determination. Still, in a world of guaranteed contracts in which the entire rotation was performing below expectations, it’s not hard to understand why the Red Sox were willing to take the drastic step of reconceiving how their pitching staff operates.
“If everyone is underachieving, then you have to believe that the potential is there that maybe it can get better because it probably can’t get worse. I completely understand why the Red Sox would consider it. This isn’t going the way they thought it would,” said Phillips. “Now, I think they had a more optimistic view of their pitching staff than most of us did. I think a lot of people evaluated them as having a pitching staff of No. 3s and No. 4s, and I think they thought they were better than that. Now, they’re not performing like No. 3s or 4s or 5s right now, except for [Rick] Porcello, and I think they’re trying to find some answers.
“I think as a front office, you get to a point where you wonder, ‘Were we really this wrong?’ You’re trying to prove that you weren’t wrong. So you’re searching for some reason that you can get better.”
Perhaps Willis will be able to work some form of magic for the Sox. There’s some precedent that suggests the possibility. But there are also 27 October vacations that suggest that the extreme measure of a pitching coach change is far from a sure thing.
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Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexspeier.