The recent departure of Braves' Pitching Coach Leo Mazzone has left the majority of Braves' fans worried beyond belief. How in the world should the team expect to survive when such a supposed important member like Mazzone just ups and leaves?
The worry is understandable. There are actually some Braves' fans that have never seen another pitching coach besides Mazzone. He is their pitching coach. Grandmothers love him, rocking back and forth nervously in the dugout. He's been a fan favorite, and when a fan favorite leaves, there is some concern.
But it is not the end of the world. The Braves will continue to be a pitching-heavy team. Their talent will continue to have them in contention every season for at least the next five years. And the new pitching coach might actually do a good job - perhaps even better than Leo.
Let me say that I have tremendous respect for the job Leo Mazzone did as Braves' pitching coach. I give him a lot of credit for helping Tom Glavine and John Smoltz and some of the other Braves' pitchers. You can't ignore the results, and he's been right at the center of that.
However this adulation that is going on is kind of extreme. He has been far from perfect in his job, and it's not that we should expect him to be perfect. In fact, that's the problem. When there has been someone who has been perceived to be the best at what he does, some set the bar so high that others may think he has been perfect.
But even if Leo is the best pitching coach in the game, he is not, and has not been perfect. In fact, when you look at the pitchers he has not helped, you wonder if you can remove the blinders and possibly even think that this change might be a positive one for the Braves' organization.
The Braves' pitching reputation is mainly because of three pitchers: Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz. Those three were 60% of the rotation from 1993-2002 - ten seasons. Even with Smoltz being the only one left standing, the reputation has taken on a life of its own.
Braves' pitchers are kind of like centers for the Lakers or quarterbacks for the Cowboys. Just like every young pitcher is going to be judged next to Glavine, Maddux, and Smoltz, every Laker center will be judged next to Wilt Chamberlin, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O'Neill, and every Cowboy quarterback will be judged next to Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. When you have excellence at one position, you expect greatness forever.
That stigma is part of the reason for the Braves' pitching success. The acquired pitchers, like Denny Neagle, John Burkett, Russ Ortiz, and even Jorge Sosa strive to live up to their own personal expectation because the expectations of their position are so high. The young pitchers who come up from the minor league system, from Kevin Millwood to Kyle Davies, know the expectations. They know what it means to be a Braves' pitcher.
It means something to be a Braves' pitcher. It's almost like an honor. You're following in the footsteps of greatness, and you don't want to screw up. Take the Texas Rangers or the Colorado Rockies, two teams known for not having great pitching. It doesn't mean as much to be a pitcher for one of those two teams as it does when you wear an Atlanta uniform.
Ask John Thomson and Mike Hampton.
That's why you've seen several pitchers come here and elevate their game. John Burkett couldn't make it as the fifth starter in Tampa Bay, not necessarily a pitching heaven, but when he came here he fit in perfectly. He was always a very good pitcher, but his game was elevated when he put on that Braves' uniform. The Braves believed he could do well in their environment, and Burkett did just that for two seasons.
Again, I will grant you that Leo is part of the reason for that environment. But I think he's been given too much credit. He didn't help John Burkett. Yeah, he told Jaret Wright to back off his fastball a little bit, but Wright was already showing our scouts that were watching him with the Padres' AAA team that he was turning the corner. And Chris Hammond? Nope. Credit Guy Hansen for turning him around in AAA Richmond the season before he came up to Atlanta.
How about Jorge Sosa? The Braves' scouts identified Sosa as a pitcher with solid stuff who had not yet fulfilled his potential due to the fact he was on a horrible team in Tampa Bay. They believed he'd succeed when he came to a great team, and Sosa did. Our scouts have identified several pitchers who were not very successful elsewhere that they believed would do well with a more successful organization.
And here's something that's always bothered me. Fans and others criticize the Braves because pitchers that leave here don't always do well after they're gone. They believe, at least some do, that it's because Leo had that much impact on them when they were here, and when he's not with them anymore, they struggle. I think that is hogwash.
The fact is Leo has really not been great with our young pitchers over the past several seasons. Look at the group from the late 90s: Bruce Chen, Odalis Perez, and Jason Marquis. These are three pitchers that never were on the same wavelength with Leo. He tried to change much of what they had learned in the minor leagues, the things they had learned that had made them top prospects they were when they came up to Atlanta. It's almost like he wanted to put his mark on them, even though they had been well-schooled by the minor league coaches in the system.
It's kind of funny, but now Mazzone has inherited Chen as one of the Orioles' best starters returning next season. Don't be surprised if Chen is traded this winter. It took Chen several years before returning to the status he held as a top prospect, after Leo had made a number of changes to his mechanics when he got to Atlanta.
How obvious was it that Mazzone had nothing for Marquis? You could see it on television, which made the Marquis trade inevitable. Every time Marquis would be on track, Leo would tinker with him and the results would be disastrous. And now Marquis has turned into a valuable middle-of-the-rotation starter for the Cardinals.
And Odalis Perez never clicked with Mazzone. Odalis had a blazing fastball, but Mazzone wanted him to tone it down. Perez resisted, and the two were on a collision course that ended in Perez being traded.
Tim Spooneybarger had some of the nastiest stuff of any pitcher to put on an Atlanta uniform. He threw 96 mph and this pitch they called "the thing." But he just wasn't Leo's kind of pitcher, and before you knew it, Spooney was gone.
Mazzone wanted everyone to conform to his style, but that's not always the best course to take when you're dealing with individuals. Sometimes it's better to conform to the style of the individual, and go with their strengths, especially if their strengths are against what you believe in. If teaching his style was not going to make some people successful, shouldn‘t Mazzone have worked with what those people had to maximize their potential?
Let's take Chris Reitsma. He was a hard-throwing fireballer when he came over from the Reds in spring training of 2004. Reitsma threw 97 mph with the Reds, but when he got over to the Braves, Mazzone backed him off that fastball and convinced him to throw in the 91-94 mph range. He's just not the same pitcher he was in Cincinnati. He shows flashes of it, but he's just different. I have to wonder if a new pitching coach will be beneficial for Reitsma, and perhaps we'll see a more consistent pitcher with Leo gone.
And I truly believe that Horacio Ramirez will benefit as well from Leo being gone. Ramirez was tentative at times, nitpicking with the strike zone instead of being more aggressive. Ramirez was an aggressive minor league starter, but he's been much more tentative the last few years. In reality, he's a bulldog on the mound, but you haven't really been able to see that side of his pitching. He's tried to conform to Leo's style, but it's just made him inconsistent.
Mazzone's rough personality made it difficult for some of our young pitchers to adjust. He found working with young pitchers difficult, not easily supplying the positive reinforcement that our young kids craved so much from a coach that was revered.
The Braves have two internal candidates that should be considered to replace Mazzone: Myrtle Beach pitching coach Bruce Dal Canton and Mississippi pitching coach Kent Willis.
Dal Canton was the man Mazzone replaced in the summer of 1990 as Atlanta's pitching coach when Bobby Cox came out of the front office to replace Russ Nixon. If you ask Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and guys like Steve Avery and Peter Smith, they'll probably tell you that Dal Canton had just as much of an impact on them as Mazzone did. But, unfortunately for Dal Canton, those guys didn't thrive until 1991, when Mazzone was the pitching coach. But it also helped that the new GM back then, John Schuerholz, got those young pitchers a new field at Fulton-County Stadium and two new infielders in Sid Bream and Terry Pendleton that actually knew how to catch the ball.
Many have said over the years that if Dal Canton had not been replaced that summer, and if he had remained in the job, he would be the one most would believe could be headed to the Hall of Fame. But Leo was the one from benefited from being there.
Dal Canton is very different from Mazzone. He stands back and helps his pitchers when needed. He doesn't rush to change them just because he's the major league pitching coach. Dal Canton does not have any sort of ego on par with Mazzone. All the attention will be on his pitchers, not himself. He would be perfect to take over this pitching staff. The young pitchers love Dal Canton, from working with him in Myrtle Beach, and the veterans will appreciate his hands-off approach.
Dal Canton is 63 years old, and has hinted at retirement the last few years. But with Bobby Cox probably a few years away from doing the same thing, it would be perfect to have Dal Canton in that role by Cox's side. Then they could both walk away whenever they choose, and these young pitchers would benefit from Dal Canton‘s experience.
Willis is going to be a major league pitching coach one day. It is inevitable. Give him credit for teaching our young pitchers. When he was at Low-A, both in Macon and Rome, he had a remarkable track record for keeping his pitchers healthy in their first full season of minor league ball - the most important season for a young pitcher. Willis was not only their coach, but their teacher, and he guided them through a very difficult task of making it through their full season club.
In 2003, when Willis was still in Rome, he had a starting staff of Kyle Davies, Blaine Boyer, Jose Capellan, Matt Wright, and Anthony Lerew. He also had Dan Meyer for the beginning of that season, before the lefty was promoted to Myrtle Beach. Those pitchers thrived with Willis, and the result was a South Atlantic League championship.
Then this past season, after Willis was promoted to AA Mississippi, near his home in Jackson, he helped Boyer, Lerew, Chuck James, and Joey Devine make that last jump to the big leagues. And when Kevin Barry was floundering in Richmond, Willis fixed him in Mississippi, and Barry was almost perfect as a starter when he got back to Triple-A.
With Boyer, Lerew, Davies, James, Devine, and Macay McBride being the future of our pitching staff, it will only help to have either Willis or Dal Canton as their leader. These kids love both of these guys, and that relationship will only help take their games to a higher level.
I know this article won't be popular with some people, since Leo was loved very much by the fan base. But the fact is he had run his course with a number of our major league pitchers and with some in the organization. It was just time for a change, and considering these young guns are becoming more of a factor, the change could probably not have happened at a better time.
If we don't win the division next season, it won't be because Mazzone is no longer with us. Fans might point to that, as I'm sure Leo would, but there would be other factors much more important than that. This is a very talented group of young pitchers we have on the horizon, and while Leo has been good, it doesn't mean he was the right person for them.
Leo Mazzone will go into the Braves' Hall of Fame one day, and perhaps if he starts a run with the Orioles for the next fourteen years, he'll be in Cooperstown one day as well. But you should not consider his departure as an automatic negative for the Braves' organization. He was good, but he wasn't perfect, and sometimes change can do both sides a little good.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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