Is Bobby Cox really done with managing? He sure doesn't look like a guy who has lost his touch or his passion. The Braves have a magic number of two for putting Cox in the postseason for a 16th time, breaking a tie with Joe Torre for the most postseason appearances by a manager. To get this close, Cox deftly has used starters on short rest, worked around injuries to Chipper Jones, Kris Medlen, Jair Jurrjens, Takashi Saito and Martin Prado, and somehow squeezed the fifth-most runs in the league out of an offense with little power and even less speed.
You better believe Cox will get support for the NL Manager of the Year Award in a battle with Bud Black of San Diego and Dusty Baker of Cincinnati.
The Braves control the wild card. They have three games left at home against Philadelphia, a team that will start Kyle Kendrick tonight instead of Roy Halladay and will play Sunday as if it were a spring training game, running a parade of relief pitchers to the mound to get work in before they get two off days before Division Series Game 1. In home series this year, the Braves are 20-2-3. Only standing room tickets remain for the series, which includes a tribute Saturday to Cox.
When the Braves, behind Derek Lowe on short rest, beat Florida on Wednesday, 5-1, it was their 90th win. It marked the 15th time Cox's teams have won 90 games -- tying him with Joe McCarthy for the most 90-win seasons ever.
Does all of that sound like a guy who is finished managing? Friends close to Cox say he is retiring because he has been promising his wife for a few years that he would spend more time at home, not because he has lost his passion for the job. The Braves' announcement before the season that this would be his last season attached commitment to his ruminations of quitting. Atlanta has used Cox's final year as part of its marketing campaign, so someone else will be managing the Braves in 2011.
But what would stop a team from at least making a phone call this winter to see how firm Cox is with that commitment? Cox is one of the best managers of all time and hasn't lost his energy, so doesn't a team have to make that call just to inquire?
Maybe it goes nowhere. Maybe Cox really is going home to sip lemonade on the front porch and watch the grandkids. If he does hold firm, he will go out, nearing his 70th birthday, still on top of his game.
By the way, don't look for Cox or Torre to be inducted into the Hall of Fame next summer. Yes, it's true that managers age 65 and older do not require a five-year waiting period, and that a revamped 16-person Hall of Fame election committee will meet this December to vote on Expansion Era players (who made their biggest impact from 1973 through 1989) and managers, executives and umpires (1973 to the present). But there is one catch that will keep Cox and Torre off the next ballot: managers age 65 and older are not eligible until six months after retirement.
Cox and Torre (as well as Lou Piniella and Cito Gaston) will have to wait until the next Expansion Era ballot -- in December 2013 in advance of the 2014 induction ceremony. The December 2011 ballot is reserved for Golden Era players, managers, executives and umpires (1947-72) and the December 2012 ballot is reserved for Pre-Integration Era candidates (1871-1946).
Fans of chaos theory still haven't given up hope of a three-team tie for the last two playoff spots: the Padres sweep the Giants this weekend and the Braves lose two out of three to the Phillies, leaving San Diego, San Francisco and Atlanta with 91 wins each. What happens then? The Giants play the Padres in San Diego Monday. The winner goes to the playoffs and the loser goes to Atlanta for a wild-card tiebreaker Tuesday, and the winner of that game would then travel elsewhere to open the Division Series on Wednesday. In other words, San Francisco or San Diego could wind up playing four games in four cities in four days. But a three-team tie has never happened in baseball and it won't this year -- not the way San Diego fizzled down the stretch.
The 162-game season eventually exposed the Padres as a team without enough offense or experience to win pennant race baseball. As the pressure mounted, San Diego's hitters kept chasing pitches out of the strike zone, especially with runners on. The game speeded up on them.
On Aug. 26, the Padres were 76-49 with a 6 ½-game first place lead. Since then, they went 12-22 -- losing a whopping 9 ½ games in the standings in about a month. Wow. They scored 95 runs in those 34 games, an average of 2.79 runs per game.
The stretch run in the NL West simply came down to these numbers after Aug. 26:
Batting average for San Diego (12-22 record): .224
ERA for San Francisco (20-11 record): 2.30
Still, what will linger for San Diego will be the unexpected joy of taking the season down to the final weekend with the second-lowest payroll in baseball. A fan at Petco Park yesterday held up a sign that read, "Thanks for a Fun Year." It said a lot about the team, the city and the fan base to know that the sentiment was genuine.
People have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea of a guy with 13 wins winning the Cy Young Award. I understand. Wins do have value -- not as much as most people believe, but neither are they "meaningless" as fringe thinkers might try to tell you.
But wins shouldn't decide who wins the Cy Young Award, an award that goes to the "most outstanding pitcher." And too many people are inventing myths about Felix Hernandez because they can't get past his low win total. This exercise probably won't change anybody's mind, but I've heard so many myths about Hernandez that I had to respond with some truths:
Myth: He is a sabermetric creation, a candidacy based on esoteric stats.
Truth: How's this for bubble-gum card mainstream: he leads the league in ERA, innings and strikeouts. Since they started handed out the Cy in 1956, there have been only 10 times when a pitcher led in all three categories. In every case the guy won the Cy.
(Uh-oh. Jered Weaver of the Angels could pass him for the strikeout title with four Ks tonight in Texas. Sadly, the Mariners are not letting Hernandez make his scheduled start Sunday.)
Myth: The AL West is a joke. Imagine if he had to pitch in the AL East.
Truth: He is 5-1 with a 0.63 ERA in seven starts against the AL East. Imagine that.
Myth: He doesn't have enough wins.
Truth: He has more wins and a better ERA against teams .500 or better (10-7, 2.21) than 21-game winner CC Sabathia (7-3, 3.74).
Myth: He doesn't "know how to win games."
Truth: Do you know how freakishly rare it is to post an ERA under 2.30 over at least 34 starts and have just 13 wins to show for it? It has happened only once in baseball history: Walter Johnson went 13-25 for the last-place Washington Senators in 1909, smack in the deadball era. (Go ahead: try to tell me the Greatest Pitcher Ever didn't know how to win games.) So you're looking at once-a-century kind of buzzard's luck, not some lack of skill about "knowing how to win."
Myth: He pitched with no pressure.
Truth: With that offense, Hernandez pretty much knew this every time he took the ball: you give up a third run, you lose. The Mariners scored two runs or less in 15 of his starts. (They went 3-12 in those games). The Yankees scored two runs or less in seven of Sabathia's starts (1-6) and the Rays scored two or less in nine of David Price's starts (2-7).
Myth: His innings were meaningless.
Truth: What's more important to a manager running a game than a pitcher who gets his team off the field without a run scoring as many times as possible? Hernandez has done that more times than any pitcher in more than a decade. Hernandez has thrown 209 scoreless innings -- the most since Randy Johnson (252) in 1999.
Myth: He would have won more games if he pitched better.
Truth: Hernandez became only the seventh pitcher in the past quarter century to post 30 quality starts. All of the previous six won the Cy Young Award.