Everyone has something to say about Leo Mazzone. Everything from "poor Leo, I can't believe how bad they are talking about him" to "I knew it all the time." But I have read the comments from the team and haven't seen anything yet that could be classified as a slam.
Braves' lefty starter Horacio Ramirez said he was "intimidating…old school." Guess what? Leo was! Ramirez also stated that, "He gets in your face and doesn't care what words he uses." Well, we've seen him for fifteen years, so we already knew that, didn't we?
Kyle Davies had the nerve to call him "one of the greatest pitching coaches of all time." Then Davies admitted that, "you want to be perfect for him. But you can't be perfect all the time. Pitching isn't like that."
Does that surprise or shock anyone?
Davies went on to say, "Leo's view was that you always had the down-and-away strike to fall back on, and if you could throw that you were going to be successful. He's right." How dare him tell us what we have known for years!
And I guess Roger McDowell took a swipe at Leo when he said that he was "a great admirer of Leo and what the Braves have done." The people who are upset with what is being said about Leo are not being realistic. No one has impugned him, no one has lied about him, and no one has taken shots at him. All I have heard is praise and the truth.
And the truth shall set you free. Now the Braves' pitching staff is free to breathe a little and be something other than exclusively low and away pitchers.
It isn't whether or not Leo had a warm and fuzzy feeling with his pitchers. He didn't and it really wasn't much of a secret. But what's most important is whether or not he did win and get results. Well sure he did, at least in the regular season.
The Braves' pitchers are big boys and for the money they make (even the poor ones making 300K plus) they are supposed to act like big boys. Leo expected that, and in most cases, he got it. A notable exception, of course, is Jason Marquis, who was pretty much a basket case when Leo was anywhere in his vicinity.
It was no secret that when Leo went to the mound he was not a psychologist, but a drill sergeant, my way and my way only. A proponent of The George S. Patton School of Leadership, Leo was in charge, like it or not, and apparently most didn't like it. Remember, I said that our pitchers should be big boys. I believe that, but I also believe that sometimes it doesn't always happen.
Being a Major League pitcher comes with a certain amount of pressure. Leo's style adds to that pressure, and it is even worse when you are a 23-year-old trying to be a big boy for the first time. When the playoffs come the pressure is even more enormous. Maybe, just maybe, the extra pressure of Leo in the dugout makes a difference in the playoffs. Should pitchers be able to perform at there best in any situation? Of course, but that's not the real world. Does it help in the pressure situations to look over into the dugout and see a man in his mid-50s rocking like he's an extra in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?"
Another thing that I think has hurt the Braves, especially in the playoffs, is "low and away". Any major league hitter worth his salt can hit a pitch if he knows what is coming, and everybody knows what is coming from Leo's boys. During the season, its not as bad, but in October, it was obviously a problem. Remember General Patton was great at eating up territory, killing the enemy, going straight ahead and doing what was predictable and winning the war of attrition, but it was calm, cool, likable Dwight Eisenhower that was chosen to lead D-day, and that was a nice change. Oh yeah, it was Dwight that won the war.
Hiring Leo was a good move back in 1990, and there's no question about that. But now, the new guys don't know him, other than the stories they've heard about him being intimidating. He would stand a foot from their shoulder and yell in their ear in bullpen sessions. I used to say that was just to keep them on their toes and get them used to pitching when the heat was on. I like tough, always have. Patton, Vince Lombardi, Mike Krzyzewski, and Mazzone were all my guys. But after seeing what I saw at the TBETP (an acronym for what will become as popular as "Camp Leo" after a few years) I have started to see things differently.
Our pitchers know how to pitch. They have the arms and have the talent, but now they won't have the added pressure of trying to please someone they didn't relate to. It is scary enough the first day in the big leagues without thinking one bad pitch will get you yanked. For most of the young kids last year Leo was to be avoided. He wasn't exactly a positive influence, even when they did well. He rarely offered compliments or much positive reinforcement when they succeeded.
This year new pitching coach Roger McDowell will have their respect, but he is and will continue to be approachable. That will be huge, especially for young pitchers who don't need to be intimidated any more by the initial experience of being a young major leaguer. We all know that even with all of the arms brought up last year there are plenty still on the farm. As injuries happen we will see more new faces and they will be more successful because of the new style we will see at the top.
Leo is going to a new world. He had been in the Braves' womb since 1979 as a minor league coach. The Braves' pitchers knew how he was and he did raise most of his star players from the minor leagues. In Baltimore he won't have the luxury of being a known commodity, at least first-hand to his new pupils. Half of the staff is over 30 years old and by now those types of pitchers are set in their ways.
Will Leo soften? I doubt it. He is being paid $1.5 million for the next three years to be Leo, so why should he anything else? Will they change and do it Leo's way, probably in the beginning. He is the most successful pitching coach in the history of the game, so they should listen. But everyone knows in both leagues what Leo's pitchers do. Low and away works, but pitchers have a tendency to go back to what they know best in a jam.
Pitchers know what has gotten them to the big leagues, so when the heat is on I think they will go back with what they know. Leo might flip, and since he's the not the tenured coach he was with Atlanta, the respect might not be the same. Then we will see how good a coach he really is. I think he will be glad he took the money, but I also don't see him having nearly the success he had in Atlanta.
Can McDowell be more successful than Mazzone? For now, for this era of Braves' Baseball, I really believe so. And wouldn't it be something if McDowell's staff did something in his first year that Mazzone's staffs did only once in fifteen years? I'll take my chances, as long as that World Series title happens this season. And it just might.
Skip Seda can be reached at email@example.com.
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