Free agency and the hot stove officially began this past Sunday morning, but this is Birdland and it's undoubtedly going to be a few more long weeks before any actual news hit the wire. But what the O's have done is hire some new coaches. Feel the excitement!
Mark Connor, at a brisk 61 years of age, is the new pitching coach of the Orioles, his fifth organization in a 35 year career. This is easily the least surprising of the new coaching staff positions because everywhere Buck Showalter has gone, Mark Connor has gone. His previous stop was in Texas, where Connor remained the pitching coach for nearly two seasons after Buck was fired in 2006. After Connor was himself fired mid-season in 2008, he was rehired to be a minor league consultant, so the man is obviously a respected baseball mind that the Rangers didn’t want to completely let go.
Unfortunately, the people who respect Connor don’t include the folks running Lone Star Ball, our sister Rangers-centric blog on SBN. I asked head blogger Adam Morris for his opinion on Connor, and he didn’t hold his punches: "Mark Connor was hated by the fans. There is a school of thought that he ended up ruining Brandon McCarthy. [Current Rangers pitching coach] Mike Maddux is treated as a miracle worker in no small part because he followed Connor, who set the bar so low".
McCarthy was the very highly touted young centerpiece the Rangers received in exchange for John Danks, who learned a cutter in Chicago and became really quite good. McCarthy meanwhile ran into a series of bad injuries (recurring stress fractures in his shoulder blade and elbow/foreman problems) and disappointing results on the mound. The thinking seems to be that Connor attempted to manipulate McCarthy’s mechanics into what he thought they should be and the alterations ruined the youngster.
But that is just one case-study, and the truth of the matter is, even (or maybe especially) in retrospect, very difficult to know. All we can say with certainty is that Mark Connor’s time in Arlington was marked by a Rangers team that did not pitch well. But it was also a Rangers team that did not seem to have nearly as much potential as the current Orioles team seems to have.
In fact, Mark Connor has never been given a pitching staff like the one he will he have in Baltimore, with a bulk of young pitchers and few complimentary veterans. As such, it’s pretty difficult to estimate how his presence will affect the development of Tillman, Matusz, et al. Can Connor turn that potential into realized talent? Well, he’s never definitively done it before, but he’s never definitively failed at it before. What he has done is coach a genuinely good pitching staff (the ’99 Diamondbacks), and that’s something outgoing pitching coach Rick Kranitz has never done.
I’m bothered by the dismissal of Kranitz. He didn’t reside over anything near a respectable pitching staff in Baltimore, but he did seem to have a good relationship with his pitching staff, and he was getting some good results out of the pitching staff taking in account that these were guys making their major league debuts. If you take the expectations into account, you have to be happy with Kranitz’s job, don’t you? He didn’t blow away the baseball world, but he did a solid job ushering in the young crop that we need to be the core of the next great Orioles team.
That is not to doubt Mark Connor's baseball acumen, but in my mind a huge chunk of the coaching job is personality-based. And whenever you replace a guy who is doing a solid job with someone else – even if that someone else is a long-time compatriot of your manager – you run a risk that the new coach simply won’t click with one or more of your players. I’m not sure taking that kind of risk is really worth the potential upside that Mark Connor offers over Rick Kranitz.