Thinking about the firing of Mark Connor and Dom Chiti.

As
the adage goes: “Coaches are hired to be fired.”

More
often than not, there’s no single incident that’s responsible, no specific misstep
that easily explains the decision to let a coach go.  We all know why Sidney Ponson was kicked off
the team.  Cowboys fans can tell you
today exactly why Curvin Richards was released in 1992, why John Roper was in 1993,
why Mike Vanderjagt and Marcus Coleman were in 2006.  But 99 percent of the time, particularly with
coaches, it’s the result of inadequate win totals, of underachieving, of a
porous pass defense or a stagnant offense or an unacceptably high team ERA.

A
lot of you emailed me Friday night wanting an explanation for the dismissal of
Mark Connor and Dom Chiti.  All I know is
what you know, largely based not on what the writers have written or the talk
show hosts have theorized, but on what the central players in the story have
said.  You can speculate all you want,
but the key to trying to understand what happened is in the reliability of the quotes.

Jon Daniels: “We need to try a different direction with the pitching staff.  A different voice.  A different message.  It’s not that anything Mark and Dom said was
doing anything wrong with these guys.  In
fact, in another situation, another group, another time, I would love to work
with these guys again.  Sometimes people
and players respond to different voices, different messages.”

There’s
no question that that’s true in some cases. 
The question here will be if the pitchers respond differently, better,
as a result of this change.

It
makes sense that the players were evidently (according to reports) not thrilled
about the change, given that Connor and Chiti are not only good guys but also
two men who have battled through things with them to go from a club on the
brink of a more drastic overhaul three weeks into the season to one that sits
in second place in the division now, owning the fourth-best record in baseball in
the three-plus months since a 7-16 low point going into play on April 25.

The
players, some of whom have been here for years, have probably never felt better
about where the Rangers are headed.  From
that standpoint, it probably surprised them to see the coaching staff reconfigured
now. 

But
the pitching has been bad.  In the club’s
miserable April, the staff compiled a 5.68 ERA and allowed the opposition to
hit .302.  The numbers were much better
in May (3.90, .259) and moderately better in June (5.08, .279) but, despite a
winning record in July, the pitching that month (6.63, .311) was the worst of
the year.  The staff’s 5.27 ERA for the
season going into Saturday night was baseball’s worst.

And
of course, it’s not as if the pitching had been otherwise effective through
Connor’s tenure.  He’s certainly not to
blame for the arms with which he was entrusted in his time here, but the bottom
line – fair or not – is that the results have been inadequate. 

As
for the present, there’s no way to imagine this team continuing to compete for the
Wild Card unless the pitching were to improve significantly.  There apparently wasn’t a reasonable trade opportunity
last week, and improving one spot on the staff wasn’t going to be enough
anyway.  The following comment sort of
sums that up:

Nolan Ryan: “We felt we weren’t seeing the progress we wanted to see.  We’re serious about the Wild Card race, and
in fairness to our offense, we needed to try to do something to improve our
pitching.  We owe them that.”

And
there’s another factor to consider.

This
was the pitching staff on April 25, the low point of the season, when no
changes were made to the coaching staff, as close as the organization might have
been to doing so:

Joaquin
Benoit, Scott Feldman, Frankie Francisco, Kazuo Fukumori, Franklyn German,
Eddie Guardado, Jason Jennings, Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, Josh Rupe,
C.J. Wilson, Jamey Wright

This
is the pitching staff today:

Scott
Feldman, Frankie Francisco, Eddie Guardado, Matt Harrison, Tommy Hunter, Warner
Madrigal, Luis Mendoza, Dustin Nippert, Vicente Padilla, Josh Rupe, C.J.
Wilson, Jamey Wright

So
Harrison, Hunter, Madrigal, Mendoza, and Nippert
are here, in place of Benoit, Fukumori, German, Jennings, and Millwood.  Nearly half the staff is different, and all
five of the replacements have spent significant time in Oklahoma this season, under the tutelage of
new Rangers pitching coach Andy Hawkins. 
In fact, the three of those five who have made their major league debuts
this season – all three of whom are key prospects, not coffee-cuppers – have logged
more RedHawks innings than Rangers innings in 2008.

Harrison,
Hunter, Madrigal, Mendoza, and Nippert have a
collective 3.90 ERA in Oklahoma (2.2 walks per
nine innings, 6.0 strikeouts per nine innings), compared with a 7.75 ERA in Texas (4.6 walks per
nine innings, 4.9 strikeouts per nine innings). 
And that doesn’t count the currently disabled Eric Hurley, whose splits -
3.98 ERA, 2.3 BB/9, 6.1 K/9 in AAA, and 7.96 ERA, 5.4 BB/9, 6.9 K/9 in Texas – are right in
line with those composites.

Yes,
a pitcher should fare better in AAA than in the big leagues, but that’s a
meaningful disparity, and maybe the Rangers think Hawkins – who has experience with
these young pitchers at the top of their games – can help unlock some things in
them that, for whatever reason, haven’t emerged under Connor’s tutelage.

There’s
no question that Feldman, Francisco, and Rupe have had terrific resurgences
this season, and that Padilla and Wright have straightened things out for the
most part, and Connor and Chiti have to be credited for that.  But going forward, the ability of the Rangers’
young pitchers to contribute here the way that some who have departed recently (Edinson
Volquez, John Danks, Armando Galarraga) have contributed elsewhere is going to
be massively important. 

Ron Washington: “People respond to different people differently.  We hope that this will be that situation.  Being aggressive, having a presence out there
and attacking the zone and keeping the ball in play.  That’s part of the message that we’ll continue
to send and we’ll see how it goes.”

More
on the message – from a manager who called the decision the toughest thing he’s
had to go through in his life in baseball – plus an emphasis on mound presence,
attacking the strike zone, aggressiveness. 
Something else Washington
said on the radio pregame show Saturday night, paraphrasing: “I love [Connor] and
Chiti but our pitchers weren’t responding.  Maybe Hawk and Colborn can come in and preach the same things but in a different way.”

Dick
Motta, John MacLeod, Avery Johnson. 
Barry Switzer.

Buck
Showalter.

Should
tolerance be given to athletes making millions of dollars to respond differently
to the same message, simply preached in a different way?

Happens
all the time.

Connor: “I know how it works.  Our
pitching hasn’t been very good.  I’m the
guy responsible for it.  I accept the
responsibility.  Hopefully they can get
some things straightened out.”

Call
it class.  Call it pragmatism.  Call it whatever you want.  Connor, who had no preexisting ties with Daniels
or Ryan or Washington, understands the game’s realities and offered no excuses
or scorched-earth bitterness.  Daniels said
Friday night that he’d like to have Connor back in the system in some capacity
once he spends some time in Tennessee
recharging.  This was no personality
clash.

Hawkins: “I’m replacing a fine man.  I
have a lot of respect for him.  But we’ve
got to go on.  This is not the last time
a lot of these guys will see changes made in the middle of the season.  But whether you agree or disagree, we’ve got a
ballgame tonight, and we’ve got to finish the season.  We’re 4 1/2 games out of the Wild Card and in
the middle of a pennant race.  It’s
exciting.”

Connor
was Hawkins’s pitching coach with the Yankees in 1990 and 1991.  There’s a mutual respect there.  Connor will be the first to tell you that he
hopes Hawkins can get more out of this staff. 
And Hawkins will be the first to recognize, no matter what he accomplishes
here, that Connor helped turn a lot of these guys from prospects or journeymen into
big league pitchers.

Newberg Report, Dec. 1,
2004:
“Wire reports indicate that Andy Hawkins has
been named pitching coach of the High A High
Desert Mavericks, a Kansas
City affiliate (owned by the Brett Sports Group, which also owns the
Rangers’ short-season A club in Spokane).
 Over the years that I’ve been writing
this newsletter, there have been no more than two or three minor league coaches
that I’ve encountered to be as consistently praised by Ranger prospects as
Hawkins, who served as pitching coach for Low A Savannah in 2001 and 2002, Low
A Clinton in 2003, and High A Stockton in 2004.”

There
are some pitching instructor stars in this system, starting with Hawkins and minor
league pitching coordinator Rick Adair.  Was
it right to let Connor go?  I don’t know the
answer to that question.  But he has
been, and I’m excited that Hawkins is the man pegged to replace him.  He isn’t the type who will come in here and
try to overhaul things mechanically or try to implement some convoluted new
mental or metaphysical approach.  Hawkins
preaches mound presence, pounding the zone, pitching with tempo.  He wants his guys to compete.

None
of those things are revolutionary.  It’s the
same, simple message, but maybe it will be preached differently, and maybe the
response will be more inspired, more productive.  That’s the idea, at least.  Part of the equation will be Hawkins earning
the trust of his pitchers, and if the handful of conversations I’ve had over the
years with various pitchers in the Rangers system about Hawkins are any indication,
that’s not going to be a problem.

As
for Colborn (who like Hawkins has a big league no-hitter to his credit, his
coming against the Rangers in 1977 – the second ever in Royals Stadium, following
Ryan’s first career no-hitter in 1973), he moves in the bullpen coach position
from a scouting role, having served since November as the Rangers’ Director of
Pacific Rim Operations.  He’s been a
pitching coach for the Dodgers (five seasons) and Pirates (two seasons) – all for
manager Jim Tracy – as well as the Orix Blue Wave of the Japanese Pacific
League (four years). 

Hawkins
(age 48) and Colborn (age 62) will have the rest of the season to prove whether
they should return in 2009, but that’s not much different from most big league
coaches.  Daniels has said they should not
be considered “interim” coaches.

Keith
Comstock, who served as the Rangers’ Arizona League pitching coach in 2007 and
as the organization’s rehab pitching coordinator in Surprise this season, replaces
Hawkins as the Oklahoma
pitching coach.

For
what it’s worth, while Colborn was a Daniels hire and so was Hawkins in his
return to the Rangers organization in 2006, Doug Melvin was responsible for originally
bringing Hawkins to the system before the 2001 season.  Connor was brought here by Buck Showalter (with
whom he’s had a long history), and Chiti was hired by John Hart (with whom he
goes way back) and entrusted with various high-level scouting and player
development positions from 2002 through 2005 before joining the coaching staff.

Setting
aside the work Hawkins (a Waco native who now lives in Bruceville) has done with
various Rangers pitchers in spring training and fall instructional league, he coached
C.J. Wilson at Low A Savannah in 2001, A.J. Murray at Savannah in 2002, Josh
Rupe and Kameron Loe at Clinton in 2003, Rupe and Wes Littleton with High A
Stockton in 2004, and any number of Rangers pitcher at Oklahoma the last three
seasons.

Whatever
the reaction was from the players, one of the team’s leaders made it clear that
they’ll be pulling the oar in the same direction as Hawkins and Colborn.

Kevin Millwood: “These two guys are going to get the same level of respect
Dom and [Mark] got from everybody here.  We’re
definitely going to listen to them and try to learn from them.  I know Hawk from spring training and being
around here and having talked to him.  He
was a major league pitcher, so it’s good from that perspective.  I know he’s a good guy.”

Good
to hear, especially from a veteran whose decision to sign here long-term came
one month after Connor was elevated to pitching coach. 

Another
comment from Connor: “It’s a tough league
to pitch in and these young kids have growing pains.  The experience will pay off, it’s just going
to take some time.  I had a good time
there.  It’s a good place, good people,
great area.”

Washington,
on tonight’s radio pregame show, made his own reference to the subject of growing
pains, telling Eric Nadel that he expected some degree of growing pains with the
transition of Connor and Chiti to Hawkins and Colborn. 

That’s
fine.  Growing pains are acceptable, as
long as there’s growing.


You can read more from Jamey Newberg at www.NewbergReport.com.

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