Pitching has been key for McKeon

Starting with K.C. in the '70s to now with the Marlins, Jack McKeon has a history of turning teams around.

Originally Published: May 19, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

How long has Jack McKeon been managing? He's been managing since Eisenhower was president. A first-term president (in 1955, he managed the Fayetteville Highlanders to a third-place finish in the Carolina League). McKeon managed in the minors for 16 seasons before he finally got a shot to manage in the majors, with the Kansas City Royals in 1973.

McKeon's current stint with the Marlins is his sixth as a major league manager (including separate and abbreviated tenures with the A's in the late 1970s). And with a couple of exceptions (those A's), McKeon's turned things around wherever he's gone. With McKeon having managed his 162nd Marlins game Tuesday night, now's a good time to look at his record ...

  • In 1973, McKeon took over a Royals team that had finished 74-88 in 1972, and brought them home at 88-74.

    Jack McKeon
    Jack McKeon has the Marlins standing atop the NL East.

  • In May 1988, McKeon took over a Padres team that was 70-92 in its previous 162 games; under McKeon, the Padres went 91-71 over their next 162.

  • In July 1997, McKeon took over a Reds team that was 74-88 in its previous 162 games. The Reds improved by only four games (to 78-84) in their next 162 games ... but in the following season (1999) the Reds finished 95-67, the fourth-best record in the National League.

  • In May 2003, McKeon took over a Marlins team that was 74-88 over its previous 162 games; under McKeon the Marlins have gone 96-66 since.

    Here are all four teams, 162 before and 162 after:

            
                    W-L
    Royals Before  79-83
    Royals After   88-74   +9

    Padres Before 70-92 Padres After 91-71 +21

    Reds Before 74-88 Reds After 78-84 +4

    Marlins Before 74-88 Marlins After 96-66 +22

    Totals Before 297-317 (.458) Totals After 353-295 (.545)

    So again, McKeon's teams have responded. But how?

    To find out, I compiled (with a lot of help from Retrosheet) pre- and post-162-game stats for all four of these teams, wondering if maybe there were some common thread running through McKeon's turnarounds.

    Alas, life is rarely so tidy. The Royals got better in 1973 for one simple reason: they got a lot luckier than they'd been in 1972. In '72 the Royals scored 580 runs and allowed 545 ... and yet finished 76-78 (it was a strike season). In '73 the Royals scored 755 runs and allowed 752 -- a worse run differential than in '72 -- and yet somehow managed to finish 88-74. The next year, again under McKeon, the Royals again scored about as many runs as they allowed, and this time they finished 77-85. If McKeon did anything special with the Royals, it doesn't show up in the stats or the standings.

    There are, however, some similarities among McKeon's last three teams. In McKeon's book, he wrote about his first season with the Royals, "We ran more, we sacrificed more, and won more." Well, they did win more, if only temporarily. But the Royals did not sacrifice more, and they stole only a few more bases. And beginning with his stint as Padres manager, McKeon's teams have stolen substantially fewer bases while averaging roughly a dozen more sacrifice hits than the previous season. In fact, McKeon's recent teams have improved their run production just slightly.

    The real improvement's been on the pitching/defense side of the equation. In Cincinnati, McKeon's Reds posted a 4.38 ERA in his first 162 games as manager, virtually identical to the previous 162. But his pitching staffs in San Diego and Florida showed significant improvements in ERA, primarily due to drops in both hits and walks per nine innings.

    In fact, the same things happened with all three teams: the hits and walks went down, and so did the strikeouts. Here's the percentage decrease in all three categories with each team:

             Hits/9  Walks/9  K's/9
    Padres    -5.7   -26.7    -6.0
    Reds      -0.5   - 5.9    -3.6
    Marlins   -5.0   -16.8    -2.7
    

    So if there's a statistical "secret" to McKeon's success in the National League, it's that his pitchers have walked fewer batters and given up fewer hits, which is a great combination. As a group, the three teams' collective ERA dropped from 4.24 to 3.83.

    There is also, it should be said, probably some luck involved. All three of these teams won more games under McKeon than we would expect from their runs scored and allowed. McKeon's Padres outperformed their expected record by 3.5 games, his Reds by five games, and his Marlins by six games (not to mention a World Series).

    What can we say about Jack McKeon? We can prove that his pitchers have shown better control, we can guess that his teams have been a little lucky, and we can assume that he's been doing something right. But what is it, exactly? If you know, contact your nearest major league franchise.

    Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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