LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The Braves have already reaped benefits of having Roger McDowell as pitching coach, ranking fifth or better in the majors in ERA in each of the past six seasons despite being at or below the middle in payroll for most of that period.
But now we’ve also begun to see another byproduct of having McDowell: Pitchers want to pitch for him, so much so that some have been willing to take a little less money or less certainty in terms of a spot in the starting rotation or even on the major league roster.
To wit, the Braves signed Eric Stults to a minor league contract this winter. This is a veteran left-hander who had a 4.30 ERA in 32 starts and 176 innings last season for San Diego, after posting a 3.93 ERA in 2013 and setting career highs in starts (33), strikeouts (131) and innings (203 2/3).
Sure, he’s 35 and gave up a career-high 26 homers last season. But do you mean to tell me that Stults, after pitching 379 2/3 innings the past two seasons, and after he finished last season by posting a 2.74 ERA and seven quality starts in his last 11 games, couldn’t have signed a major league deal from some team, or at least gone somewhere where he wouldn’t be competing with another veteran lefty (Wandy Rodriguez) and two prospects (Mike Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos) for the final spot in the starting rotation?
Because that’s the position he was in when he got to camp. Another spot has since opened with Mike Minor’s shoulder injury, but Stults came to camp as one of four candidates for one spot, on a team whose president of baseball operations made it clear the Braves would err on the side of youth if all other factors were fairly equal in a position battle.
But Stults had pitched for McDowell a decade ago with the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas, and the pitching coach left such an impression on him that Stults, at 35, jumped at an opportunity to work with him again.
“There was an opportunity there to be the fifth starter,” Stults said. “There’s history there with Roger as far as some minor league experience with him when he was with the Dodgers. So the familiarity with him and knowing the type of pitching coach he is played a big factor. And I think when the offseason started and teams were calling and interested, the Braves were one of teams that kind of stuck out. They’re a team that has been known over the years to produce some pretty good pitchers. You go back to Maddux and Smoltz and those guys. Glavine. There wasn’t a better staff in all of baseball. So I think that was intriguing, maybe to experience that.
“There’s obviously some great young arms on this team. To be around them and hopefully be able to help them as best I can, I think just being able to have that experience is also something that attracted me.”
With all due respect to the Braves’ vaunted Big Three, I tend to doubt their legacy was nearly as big a factor in Stults signing with the Braves than was the presence of McDowell. Ten years had passed since Stults worked with him, and they hadn’t said much more than “how are you?” to each other in the interim, on those occasions when their teams faced each other.
Stults had not pitched in the major leagues when McDowell had him under his tutelage in 2005. Since then, the lefty has toiled far and wide, pitching parts of four seasons with the Dodgers as a starter and reliever through 2009, making six major league appearances with the Rockies in 2011, two with the White Sox in 2012, and spending 2 ½ seasons in the Padres rotation.
But look deeper and you’ll find he also pitched a season (2010) in Japan for the Hiroshima Carp, where he led the team in losses (10), and a 51-appearances season in Triple-A with the Rockies organization in 2011.
“He’s done a lot. He’s been around,” McDowell said. “Obviously he’s pitched in a variety of roles. The last couple of years, he stays healthy, does the job that’s asked of him, whether it’s to come out of the bullpen to get a lefty at times, or long out of the bullpen, or starting. He’s been healthy throughout his career and he’s been through a lot of travels. Guys that do that have a great appreciation for actually being able to put on a uniform and pitch in the big leagues.”
It’s been a decade, but Stults remembered what it was like pitching for McDowell, in the relatively stress-free environment – I say relatively, because there is inherently a lot of stress in sports at the professional level – and with the atmosphere he tends to create among his staff.
When asked if they clicked again right away, Stults smiled and said, “Yeah, he’s the same guy. He keeps things light. He’s serious when he needs to be, but he also keeps things light and keeps it fun and interesting. That’s the same guy I remember 10 years ago when I was a 24-year-old minor league guy.”
Jim Johnson strikes me as a guy who’s not much like either Stults or McDowell. Johnson seems very serious, doesn’t smile or joke around a lot, at least among people he doesn’t know, and is coming off the worst season of his career, which followed the best two seasons of his career, back-to-back seasons with at least 50 saves for the Orioles, leading the majors in that category over that 2012-2013 span.
When he considered the offers that were out there, Johnson, too, signed with the Braves, despite them being in the middle of a youth movement and wholesale changes this winter that weren’t designed to make a championship run in 2015. And so far, he couldn’t be happier.
Johnson, 31, signed a one-year, $1.6 million contract to pitch for the Braves and work with McDowell, a former accomplished reliever who knows something about sinkerballs and the grind of working out of the bullpen year after year. Johnson led the major leagues in saves with 51 in 2012 as Baltimore’s closer, and tied Craig Kimbrel with a majors-leading 50 saves in 2013 for the Orioles.
But his decline last season was precipitous, as his ERA more than doubled to 7.09 in 54 appearances with Oakland and Detroit. After a couple of weeks working with McDowell, initial results are encouraging: Johnson induced three groundouts in a perfect inning against the Astros in his debut.
Johnson didn’t make his debut until Sunday because, he said, “I wanted to have a little extra time in the bullpen with Roger. We were talking about some things, just having dialog about things I think about or things he thinks about. The keys of a solid delivery, balance and direction. So far, so good.”
When asked whether he and McDowell had gotten on the same page, so to speak, Johnson smiled, “Oh, yeah, it’s always good. It’s an easy talk. You know him.”
Johnson went on to say that he wasn’t dwelling on what went wrong last year, that he was focused on the current situation. And it’s a situation he likes.
“Coming in here with this group of guys, I feel comfortable,” he said. “Not to say I wasn’t comfortable at times last year, but like I said, everything’s so far, so good.”
A big part of that, undoubtedly, is the relaxed setting that McDowell creates for pitchers. He’s modest about it, like he is anytime he’s given credit.
“I don’t know, I think it’s our club in general,” he said. “I don’t want to say it’s a relaxed environment, but it’s a nice environment to be around in here. A nice clubhouse, manager and staff and everybody, hopefully it puts player at ease to get the most out of their performance.”
When I mentioned to him what Johnson had said about being more comfortable right away with this team than he’d been last season, McDowell said, “It’s early, but you know what? Any time you can go to an environment and you don’t really know anybody, maybe a handful of guys, and as a staff you’re putting eyes on a guy for the first time, and you’re able to create that comfortability and ease, it makes it easier on the player to go out and do what he’s supposed to do, and that’s perform.”
• The late, great Townes Van Zandt had a birthday last week. Let's close with this one from his trove of terrific tunes.
"NOTHIN'" by Townes Van Zandt
Hey mama, when you leave
Don't leave a thing behind
I don't want nothin'
I can't use nothin'
Take care into the hall
And if you see my friends
Tell them I'm fine
Not using nothin'
Almost burned out my eyes
Threw my ears down to the floor
I didn't see nothin'
I didn't hear nothin'
I stood there like a block of stone
Knowin' all I had to know
And nothin' more
Man, that's nothin'
As brothers our troubles are
Locked in each others arms
And you better pray
They never find you
Your back ain't strong enough
For burdens doublefold
They'd crush you down
Down into nothin'
Being born is going blind
And buying down a thousand times
To echoes strung
On pure temptation
Sorrow and solitude
These are the precious things
And the only words
That are worth rememberin'
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC