I’ve been on record several times now saying that John Schuerholz was secretly one of the worst GM’s in baseball for the past decade or so. I admit that this was probably somewhat of a hyperbole (after all, there were always guys like Dave Littlefield around). We can probably say now, looking back on his entire record, that he was adequate. And if people were just saying he was adequate right now, I wouldn’t be writing this post. But we are hearing things like “one of the greatest general managers ever,” and “best GM of the modern era,” so once again I have to step forward and be one of the only lone dissenting voices in the chorus of praise for Schuerholz.
I don’t deny that Schuerholz made some nice trades and signings, particularly early in his tenure with the Braves, but he also made some real clunkers, so I think we can say that on the whole, his record in those departments was pretty average. The Braves did manage to homegrow quite a bit of talent from the farm system during his watch, so he definitely deserves some credit for hiring good minor league personnel and leading some fruitful drafts, but a lot of other people had a hand in those players’ development, and he also did some really questionable things like promote his son beyond all reason.
What we have to realize is that Schuerholz benefitted from three amazing blessings early in his career that had nothing to do with his abilities as a GM – Ted Turner’s money, the once in a century coincidence of three Hall-of-Fame pitchers all falling into his lap at the same time, and the miracle work of pitching coach Leo Mazzone. As the money dried up in the late 90s, Maddux and Glavine moved on in the early 2000s, and especially after Mazzone’s departure in 2005, Schuerholz’s weaknesses as a GM were increasingly exposed.
It’s interesting to see Mazzone get fired by Baltimore a day after Schuerholz quits as GM, for the two men will always be linked in my mind. The Braves won 14 consecutive division crowns, and Schuerholz and Bobby Cox received most of the credit, but I will go to my grave thinking that Mazzone deserves more credit than the other two combined.
Under Leo Mazzone’s tutiledge, scrap-heap nobodies became decent, replacement-level mediocrities became good, good pitchers became great, and great pitchers became gods. I’ve now read three different studies that sliced the numbers different ways, and all came to the conclusion that on average, pitchers who came to the Braves reduced their ERAs by about half a run compared to how they fared before and after.
This is a huge, huge advantage, and one that I don’t see how we can give John Schuerholz much credit for. Every year for 16 years, he would let all his good free agent relievers go, and sign a bunch of nobodies off the scrap heap, and yet the Braves led the league in bullpen ERA year after year.
If Leo Mazzone helped all pitchers by an average of 0.50 off their ERAs, I think it’s safe to say that he probably helped starters a little less than that, and relievers significantly more. I mean, seriously – Kevin Grybowski? Kerry Ligtenberg? Darren Holmes? Chris Hammond? Tim Spooneybarger? Kevin McGlinchy? Mike Bielecki? These are just few examples of the no-name relievers who came to the Braves and had Mariano-Rivera-like seasons, only to suck again as soon as they went to another team. And there were a number of starters who had similar miracle seasons only to suck as soon as they left – Denny Neagle, John Burkett, and Russ Ortiz come to mind most immediately.
Somebody please tell me, how does John Schuerholz deserve credit for miraculous pitching performance after miraculous pitching performance that happened during his tenure, no matter who he signed and threw out there?
Schuerholz employed a similar strategy with position players as he did with relievers. Each year he would let all of his good free agents walk, and pretty much not replace them in any meaningful way, but the Braves would still win the division anyway. Oh sure, he would occasionally pull a trade to fill a hole, if one fell into his lap, but by and large he would just sign some scrap heap guys and sit back and wait for a Braves prospect to fill the hole eventually. This meant that hundreds and hundreds of at-bats got wasted on these fill-in guys – terrible players like Dave Gallagher, Michael Tucker, Tony Graffanino, Keith Lockhart, Gerald Williams, Brian Hunter, Bobby Bonilla, B.J. Surhoff, Rico Brogna, Robert Fick, and Vinny Castilla in his dotage.
Yes, its true, all of those terrible, terrible players I just mentioned were everyday starters for a whole season or more during the Braves’ 14 straight division championship years. Now I know that most championship teams have a player or two who is less than awesome, but these guys were truly, honestly god-awful. Go look them up – their collective average with the Braves must be something like .225. And several of them played first base! Division titles were won in spite of players like these rather than because of them.
But that’s the kind of player Braves fans could expect to see Schuerholz sign the following season after one of their All-Stars left as a free agent. That’s the kind of GM he was. And this tendency only got more pronounced as the money ran out toward the end. Schuerholz just wasn’t that creative a GM.
In fact not creative at all. It got so that in the past few years Schuerholz was so predictable in his behavior that I could call what he was going to do before he did it. Honest-to-god, I predicted he would sign Raul Mondesi to be his starting right-fielder in 2005 before he even did it. And I predicted that he would sign no relievers in 2006 and that the bullpen would fall apart without Mazzone, and it did just that. But most importantly of all, I predicted as soon as Mazzone left that the Braves run as AL East champions was over, and sure enough, it absolutely was.
The bottom line is, Schuerholz was like most other GMs. He did some things right, but he did a lot of other things wrong. He just happened to have the greatest pitching coach of our lifetime on his side, as well Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz, together on one team for a decade in the prime of their Hall-of-Fame careers.
To paraphrase Danny O in one of his past rebutals to my view, “at least you have to give Schuerholz credit for being a part of a winning formula all those years.”
Well okay, yes, but “the greatest GM of the modern era”? Not even close.