Baseball has no shortage of sacrificial lambs. We raise the ax over the heads of just about anybody when things are tough: the players. The bullpen. The lineup. The manager. The medical staff. The broadcast team. Each other. "Maybe you should stop carrying axes around everywhere," comes the advice. It is ignored.
The Phillies are bad right now, and with eight weeks of the season behind us, it’s time to start demanding answers. The tide has currently turned on pitching coach Bob McClure, who is managing a staff of young starters lacking discipline and experience, relievers with no roles and little success, and questions to the GM regarding the 65-year-old coach's job security.
McClure's rep prior to arriving here was as a mellow instructor who liked to see a backbone develop in young pitchers before anything else. He was hired all the way back in November 2013 by Ruben Amaro’s front office and has yet to add any real success stories to a meager anthology. He goes to work looking at a much different pitching staff than the one to which he arrived only two seasons ago, one that, given his history, temperament, and reputation, he seems, on paper, suitable to train. The struggles of Vince Velasquez, Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, and the gang have been duly noted, but we've yet to see McClure tap into his expertise in a way that results in their sustained success.
Matt Klentak assured us yesterday, however, that McClure is going nowhere.
— Stephen Gross (@SteveGrossMCall) May 22, 2017
In 2013, when Ruben Amaro began his search for a new Phillies pitching coach, he made one thing clear through the candidates he pursued: the next handler of his pitching stable would be experienced working with younglings. Roger McDowell fit that description. This past October, as the Braves began a reset for the next generation, they decided to refresh the coaching staff by not renewing McDowell's contract after over a decade. His personality and experience were lauded on his way out the door in the typical veneration coaches receive as they're packing up: "Veteran pitchers have lauded McDowell as a great pitching coach and many young pitchers have thrived under his tutelage," Mark Bowman wrote on MLB.com.
This came as no surprise to anyone who had read about the Braves’ initial decision to bring McDowell on board in 2005 after starting as a minor league pitching coach since 2002. Bobby Cox believed that McDowell’s versatile history as a starter, reliever, and sufferer of injury gave him the perspective needed to maintain the attention and respect of his staff, young and old. No word on how much of a factor McDowell’s reputation as a firecracker and hot foot specialist factored into the decision - his playing days were full of pranks, protests, and ribbings, with his outspoken nature actually getting him rightfully suspended in 2011 as the Braves’ pitching coach for making "inappropriate comments and gestures" to fans at AT&T Park.
This was the kind of coach Amaro was looking for: Experienced. Loose. Knowledgeable. Relatable. And when Amaro came calling with the Phillies’ job offer, McDowell loosely, knowledgeably, and relatably, turned it down.
As did Pirates special assistant Jim Benedict, who would eventually be hired away by the Marlins in 2015 and get the coveted "pitcher whisperer" label. Benedict, too, had his feet kissed by a grateful organization in Pittsburgh that was undoubtedly sad to see their guru go. His effects rippled even further than McDowell’s had in Atlanta, as GM Neal Huntingdon was happy to point to Benedict for not only heaping knowledge on Buccos hurlers, but fellow pitching coaches as well, simultaneously stabilizing the arms and the organizational system through which they worked.
The Pirates had become a pitching factory in his tenure, with the team ERA plummeting and careers being revived. Such was his value, Benedict actually cost Miami a prospect in exchange for signing their new pitching coach. Pitching coach Ray Searage and bullpen coach Euclides Rojas also were credited with the Pirates' success, but Benedict’s scouting and re-calibration toolkit were cited as niche skills that had earned him his reputation. The Pirates’ situation when Benedict first arrived had been ideal for his specialty: "...it fit who I am — someone with an us-against-the-world mentality," he had said. "When people quit on a guy, I like to be involved in maybe resurrecting and proving people wrong. It’s driven me for a long time."
A fixer like Benedict on staff makes a team more confident in seeking low risk, high reward pitchers, taking a chance on prospects, and trusting that a free agent veteran falling out of his prime could find success again. He didn’t coax out talent that wasn’t there, but if it an inkling of it ever had been, he could find it. The man loves to dig.
"It’s going to a place where others haven’t gone," Benedict said. "I call it the five levels of, ‘Why?’ Keep digging to find out why. Why does this happen? Why do you get Tommy John? The Clayton Richards, the Volquezes, those guys. Why are you in Pittsburgh? Why aren’t you making $150 million like a lot of other guys who are less talented than you? Let’s figure out why.
"I have tools that I’ve used to do that, whether it’s analytics, video, other people, the pitchers themselves, spending the time to figure out why and then building them back up through that. If they’re willing to do the work, I’ve always been willing to do the work with them."
In chasing McDowell and Benedict, the Phillies were showing that they clearly wanted a combination of experience, depth of intelligence, proven track record, and comfort with young players. You know. Coaching skills. They knew what was coming, even if Amaro himself would be out the door by September 2015.
And so, two rejections later, they knocked on Bob McClure’s door.
McClure, at the time, was best known - or at least most recently known at the time - for being on Bobby Valentine's coaching staff during Boston’s yearlong meltdown in 2012. I mentioned how most coaches aren’t blasted by their former teams while they part ways - but Valentine wasn’t above destroying that industry norm. McClure had taken two weeks away from the Red Sox that year to tend to an illness in one of his sons; time that Valentine referred to snarkily as "vacation" during a radio interview a few weeks before McClure was let go. Valentine’s putrid behavior is well-documented; the remark is simply an indication of the chaotic, tumultuous situation from which McClure was coming, as opposed to the lovefests that followed McDowell and Benedict's departures.
McClure’s reputation remained clean, despite the 2012 Red Sox having a 4.70 team ERA (fourth worst in MLB), a .262 BAA (seventh worst in MLB), and the ninth most walks (529). This was because he was less of a pitching coach and had been hired to fill what Boston called "a hybrid role," involving scouting, minor league coaching, and receiving the general "license to kill" awarded to guys assigned the "special assistant" role. Red Sox GM Ben Cherington said he liked McClure's history with young pitchers and mentioned that McClure had been looking for "something a little bit different after last year in Kansas City."
McClure had been let go after six years as the Royals pitching coach, where much of his reputation and mustache had been established. His work with Zack Greinke is generally what people are referring to when they cite his success working with young pitchers; the stubborn 22-year-old gave McClure a set of his personal rules from the outset of their time together, including "I don’t listen to pitching coaches," and McClure said that was fine.
Greinke certainly benefitted from adopting the change-up McClure suggested to him, but he was also aided by the help he sought for his social anxiety disorder. Nevertheless, McClure has said he prefers working with young pitchers who stand up to him and who challenge his coaching. He is known as a respected, relaxed, laid back, old school coach, who has published a book called "Rotting" about how to be a productive, if inactive, person.
This temperament has no doubt contributed to he and Pete Mackanin’s players-first zone that is the Phillies clubhouse; these are guys who don’t typically lose their minds, get suspended for interactions with fans, or set off firecrackers in the dugout. McClure’s first squad in 2014 didn't feature any 22-year-old Zack Greinke's, though: Just the likes of Cole Hamels, Kyle Kendrick, Roberto Hernandez, A.J. Burnett, Jerome Williams, Jeff Manship, Jonathan Pettibone, David Buchanan, Sean O’Sullivan, Chad Billingsley, Ken Giles, and the last ever 13 appearances of Cliff Lee. The next season saw Aaron Nola, Adam Morgan, and Alec Asher trickle onto the staff, but Aaron Harang also played a prominent role. It's fair to say McClure has not always had the tools to succeed, but since 2016, the young pitchers who are supposed to be more permanent fixtures to the future rotation have not made the progress a man credited with a talent for working with youthful arms should be able to get out of them.
We don’t know Matt Klentak’s proposed timeline for this process, but at some point during a rebuild, you’ve got to do some building. McClure’s future will be dictated by pitchers' success; a green staff that at the moment isn’t lasting deep into games, isn’t keeping pitches down, is giving up more home runs than anyone else, and is administering public lashings to themselves in front of the press. McClure himself hit something of a breaking point by (correctly) lambasting Cameron Rupp’s pitch selection in a radio interview.
You’ve got to give people the chance to succeed, and that goes for coaches as much as it does for prospects. But while McClure’s philosophy and demeanor aren't fundamentally flawed, his role and reputation have seemed at times mismatched with the Phillies staff, and now, after being handed a young staff that is supposedly in his wheelhouse, we’ve never seen them look worse. The smallest tip can spark a turnaround and perhaps that can still be uttered from below McClure’s bristling facial hair; perhaps he is better suited to a "special assistant" or scouting role. But as McClure is cast more and more as the sacrificial lamb, we recall that even though the Phillies’ decided three years ago that he was the right man for the job, he certainly wasn’t the first one.