The case against Bobby Cox

Bobby Cox won 2,504 games as a major-league manager, more than than any not named Connie Mack, John McGraw or Tony LaRussa. Cox had a .556 winning percentage, ranked third in games above .500, won a World Series, got to five, reached the playoffs 16 times, was ejected a record 132 times and made the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s the team you either still love or loathe today.

How can anyone object to Cox, one of 12 candidates the Veterans Committee will inspect for election to the Hall of Fame in 2014, being elected?

You’ve come to the right place.

This year’s ballot is long on managerial candidates — LaRussa and Joe Torre, who deserve selection, and Cox and Billy Martin, who don’t. It’s created a groundswell of sentiment to put them all in, and then add labor leader Marvin Miller and owner George Steinbrenner and catcher Ted Simmons, while we’re having a reduced admission day. Sure. And why not add Sam Mele?

I’m here to draw the line in front of Cox, not behind him. The case for Cox is impressive — if viewed casually. It’s frustrating that many of the same commentators who long ago learned not to determine a player’s value by his RBIs — think Hubie Brooks knocking in 100 with a .723 OPS in 1985; that’s not clutch hitting, that’s Tim Raines spending the season in scoring position — accept Cox’s win total as the defining factor of his managerial worth.

Cox had three stints as manager, two with the Braves. His first two, with the Braves and Blue Jays, were unremarkable. But in his second turn with the Braves, Cox won 14 straight division titles (a length enabled by the 1994 strike). That’s impressive. But it’s not indicative of extraordinary strategizing. Cox spent most of those years with three Hall of Famers (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz) in his rotation and another (Chipper Jones) on third base (his first baseman, Fred McGriff, may not be a Hall of Famer, but is pretty close).

More than 15% of his roster will be in Cooperstown. Give that to Dale Sveum and he might still have a job, plus a division title or two. Or to put it another way, think Dusty Baker would have done much worse than Cox? In the 21 years Cox spent on his second tenure with the Braves,’s Pythagorean formula says his teams won seven games more than they should have (his career total is plus 16). That’s good. Not Hall of Fame.

Cox took better players and beat teams with worse players. Which brings us to the postseason, where the sides are more equal. Cox didn’t do as well there, perhaps because he wasn’t penciling in a Hall of Fame pitcher against the Padres every October.

Cox made 16 trips to the postseason, won one World Series and lost four. That puts him one Series title behind Cito Gaston (who beat Cox’s Braves in 1992), Terry Francona, Bruce Bochy and Tom Kelly (who beat Cox’s Braves in 1991); he’s tied with Mike Scioscia, Bob Brenly, Johnny Keane and Fred Haney, among others.

Cox is 5-5 in league championship series (including blowing a 3-1 lead with Toronto to Kansas City in 1985) and lost the last five divisional series he managed. In fact, Cox’s teams, after making the 1999 Series, lost eight of his last nine playoff series. In all, Cox was 12-14 in playoff series, and 67-69 in postseason games.

That’s not all his fault, of course, but not Hall worthy, either. Included among the postseason losses were:

  • The 1993 NLCS, when his 104-win Braves lost to the 97-win Phillies in six games despite outscoring them 33-23. The Braves won 14-3 and 9-4, the Phillies won three one-run games, two in extra innings.
  • The 1996 World Series in six games to the Yankees, despite winning the first two games by a combined 16-1 at Yankee Stadium. The Braves lost the last eight Series games Cox managed; they blew a 6-0 lead in Game 4 of this one.
  • Lost the 1997 NLCS in six games to a Marlins team the Braves finished nine games ahead of in the season. Livan Hernandez was the MVP, though Braves fans contend it should have been Eric Gregg, whose strike zone was as big as he was. It might be the only time Braves fans ever complained that the strike zone was too big.
  • Lost the 1998 NLCS in six games to the Padres, despite winning 106 regular-season games to San Diego’s 98. Sterling Hitchcock was the MVP. Enough said.
  • Lost the 2002 divisional series in five games to the Giants with a 101-win team, six more than San Francisco. Dusty Baker doesn’t get to give Russ Ortiz the ball in Game 6 of the World Series if not for the Braves. Wait, Cox lost a playoff series to Dusty Baker? Isn’t that disqualification enough?
  • Lost a divisional series in five games to the Cubs in 2003, despite winning 13 more games — 101-88 — in the regular season. Steve Bartman can thank the 2003 Braves for making him infamous. And the 2003 Cubs’ manager? Dusty Baker. Two of the three playoff series Baker won were against Cox. Case closed.
  • In 20 of the playoff series Cox managed, his team had a better regular season record. They lost 11 of them, more than half. I’m not blaming Cox for all of that — bad breaks happens, the better team sometimes loses — although Charlie Leibrandt is on him. But collectively, it’s not a Hall of Fame resume.

    Part of the problem is the proclivity to put managers in the Hall of Fame. There are 20 currently in the Hall, or more than there are catchers and third basemen and as many as there are second basemen. That disproportion will increase whatever the Veterans Committee decides. It’s hard to believe that so many men who weren’t playing impacted games as much as those who do.

    Yes, Cox is fourth all-time in wins. That’s commendable. He’s also fifth in losses. That’s longevity, not excellence.

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    5 Responses to The case against Bobby Cox

    1. Hank says:

      Don’t forget the whole wife-beating thing.

      • Cox and his wife went to counseling, the charges were dropped and there hasn’t been anything more. Maybe it’s not fair to judge from afar. But we sure didn’t hear much about it at Cox’s induction ceremony.

    2. Pingback: Why Bud Selig shouldn’t be in the Hall | once upon a .406

    3. Pingback: Why Bud Selig shouldn’t be in the Hall | once upon a .406

    4. Pingback: The managers of the year, and who’s missing from the ballot | once upon a .406

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