The Chicago White Sox pitching staff had its best season in years in 2020, thanks mostly to the signing of starter Dallas Keuchel and a young bullpen that turned a team weakness into a strength.
Pitching coach Don Cooper could be justifiably proud of his pitchers’ performance, but it didn’t save him from being fired Monday along with manager Rick Renteria.
General manager Rick Hahn made the surprising announcement during a teleconference about Renteria’s dismissal. Both were “mutual” decisions according to Hahn.
He said the front office and Sox fans “owe a debt of gratitude” to Cooper, who oversaw the pitching staff that brought the Sox a World Series championship in 2005.
“These things can get a little overshadowed by the managerial change,” Hahn said of Cooper’s departure. “I get that. But I would be remiss … if we didn’t take a moment to appreciate the contributions Don Cooper has made to this organization over the last three decades.
"The memories we have, not only from ’05 but in terms of the development of some of these pitchers throughout the recent history of this organization, from Mark Buehrle to Jon Garland and Chris Sale, some of the big names that thrilled us over the years in part thanks to Don’s efforts.”
The Sox finished sixth in the majors with a 3.81 ERA this year after ranking 22nd with a 4.91 ERA in 2019. Before 2020, the last time the Sox finished among the top 10 in pitching was 2009 (10th at 4.16).
Cooper, 64, had been in the organization since 1988 and had been the full-time pitching coach since July 2002, when he replaced Nardi Contreras.
“I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’ll tell you what, I’m not the dumbest either,” Cooper said upon taking over. “I’m a fairly quick study.”
Anyone who lasts as long as Cooper surely will have detractors, and his polarizing personality made him an easy target of Sox fans on Twitter and blogs. He outlasted manager Jerry Manuel and was inherited by Ozzie Guillen, Robin Ventura and Renteria, who all had little or no say in the hiring of their own pitching coach.
Cooper’s close relationship with executive vice president Ken Williams made him untouchable in a job that typically has the life span of a fruit fly. He eventually clashed with Guillen in 2011 and managed the last two games of the season after the Sox released Guillen from his contract to take a job with the Miami Marlins.
Though he was outspoken throughout his tenure, Cooper did not take part in any of the team’s video conference calls this season, seemingly walling himself off from any perceived criticism. He’s credited for the development of Sale into an All-Star, but he couldn’t fix first-round pick Carson Fulmer or re-create the magic of that 2005 staff, which finished second in the American League with a 3.61 ERA and compiled a 2.55 ERA while going 11-1 in the postseason en route to the championship.
When Lucas Giolito endured a difficult year in his first full major-league season in 2018, Giolito changed his delivery with the help of his high school pitching coach, Ethan Katz, bypassing Cooper. Giolito enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2019.
Hahn said the decision on Cooper had nothing to do with whether he embraced modern technology and analytics.
“I don’t want to make this like Ricky or Coop or whoever is not back with us next year didn’t buy into analytics or something like that,” Hahn said. “That’s not fair. That’s not fair at all.”
Hahn said the Sox could stay within the organization when choosing Cooper’s replacement. Bullpen coach Curt Hasler might have a chance to move into the spot, unless the new manager wants to bring in his own pitching coach. Pitching coordinator Everett Teaford, a member of the Houston Astros pro scouting staff in 2016-17, also could be in the mix.
Either way, the next manager is likely to have more say on his pitching coach than Manuel, Guillen, Ventura or Renteria did.
And whatever happens next, the departure of Cooper marks the end of an era on the South Side.
Love him or hate him, Cooper was one of a kind.
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