Mark Connor is the Orioles’ new pitching coach for the 2011 season. Connor replaces Rick Kranitz whose contract expired at the end of the 2010 season. Orioles manager, Buck Showalter, and Connor have a long working history including: two stints with the Yankees (1984-1987) and (1990-1992), one with the Diamondbacks (1998-2000) and one with the Texas Rangers where Connor served as the bullpen coach (2003-2005) and pitching coach (2006). Connor also served as the pitching coach for the Toronto Blue Jays under manager Buck Martinez (2001-2002) and the Texas Rangers under manager Ron Washington (2007-2008).

The goal of this post is to evaluate this hiring and anticipate what skills on the Orioles pitching staff will improve or deteriorate during Connor’s tenure as pitching coach. The three pitching staff skills I will examine are: the ability to strike hitters out (K/9), not walk hitters (BB/9) and not give up homeruns to hitters (HR/9). I will also use FIP, which weights and aggregates all three of these skills into one ERA-esque number, as an evaluation statistic. FIP describes how well a pitcher pitched independent of how well the pitcher’s fielders fielded.

Connor has served as pitching coach or bullpen coach for 18 Major League Baseball (MLB) seasons. Of those 18 seasons Connor has served under Showalter as pitching coach for 11 seasons and served under Showalter in some capacity for 14 seasons. The three tables below show how well the pitching staff Connor directly oversaw (complete pitching staff or relief pitchers depending on Connor’s role) performed against the MLB average in K/9, BB/9, HR/9 and FIP. Table 1 shows the results for all 18 of Connor’s seasons, Table 2 shows the results for the 11 seasons Connor served as pitching coach under Showalter and Table 3 shows the results for the 14 seasons Conor served under Showalter in some capacity (either pitching coach or bullpen coach).
Evaluation Statistic Better than MLB Average Worse than MLB Average Approximately MLB Average
K/9 7 11 0
BB/9 11 6 1
HR/9 8 9 1
FIP 7 11 0

Table 1: Results for all 18 of Connor’s MLB Seasons

Evaluation Statistic Better than MLB Average Worse than MLB Average Approximately MLB Average
K/9 5 6 0
BB/9 8 2 1
HR/9 3 7 1
FIP 4 7 0

Table 2: Results for all 11 of Connor’s MLB Seasons serving under Buck Showalter as Pitching Coach

Evaluation Statistic Better than MLB Average Worse than MLB Average Approximately MLB Average
K/9 7 7 0
BB/9 10 3 1
HR/9 6 7 1
FIP 6 8 0

Table 3: Results for all 14 of Connor’s MLB Seasons serving under Buck Showalter in some capacity

Table 3 is the best predictor of Connor’s effect on the Orioles 2011 pitching staff. The results come from a fairly large sample size and are focused entirely on the combination of Showalter and Connor. The skill Connor has shown the best ability to coach is control. His pitchers consistently have a better BB/9 than the league average. This is encouraging. The Orioles starting pitching staff ranked 18th in the league in BB/9 last year. Given Connor’s ability to garner better than average control from his pitchers and an additional year of experience under the belt of the young Orioles starting pitchers, I would expect the 2011 starters to finish in the top half of the league in BB/9.

However, all the other rows in Tables 1-3 are not as encouraging as the BB/9 rows. It is alarming that Connor’s pitchers have struggled to post a FIP (a fielding independent ERA-esque statistic) that is better than the league average. The Orioles are projected to continue to have a poor defense in 2011 which could result in an ERA that is even worse than their FIP. Furthermore, Connor’s ability to coach K/9 and HR/9 has been average. In 2010, the Orioles’ starting pitchers were well below the MLB average in their ability to limit home runs and strike hitters out (27th and 26th respectively). I expect both of these will improve but the staff will finish worse than the MLB average in both of these respects.

Ultimately, I do not have any major issues with the hiring of Mark Connor. Showalter trusts him and the two have had success together in the past. I would have preferred seeing AAA Norfolk Tides pitching coach, Mike Griffin, promoted instead, but that outcome never had a chance of happening. Showalter clearly prefers ‘his guys’ around him and he got one. It will be interesting to see Connor’s approach with the young starting pitching. In Texas, he was accused of taking an overly hands-on approach and ruining Rangers’ top pitching prospect Brandon McCarthy. I could see an aggressive hands-on approach helping Chris Tillman, who has experienced issues with his location at the MLB level. However, I will have a heart attack if Connor suggests any radical changes for Brian Matusz. Yes, this does include Connor suggesting Brian Matusz bend the brim of his ball cap.