The Politics of Replacing Leo

The hiring of Roger McDowell as the Braves hitting pitching coach seems a bit odd. What a coincidence that the “second spitter” from Seinfeld seems to be the Bizarro-world pitching coach choice for the Braves. Not only did he not come from within the Braves organization, he’s pitched for the Mets, Phillies, and Dodgers—three teams that have not been overly friendly with the Braves—and he doesn’t have much of a track record as a coach. I don’t think anyone saw this coming. But, I think the choice tells us quite a bit about the Braves pitching situation.

It’s no secret that Leo was not the most popular guy in the organization. Some internal source has been feeding “Mazzone sucks” propaganda for the past few months. It even spilled over into the normally even-handed reporting of Mark Bowman last week from “anonymous sources.” Bowman stated that at least one veteran pitcher thought Mazzone should go. It’s funny that for 15 years we hear nothing but praise, Leo leaves and then we start hearing how he was always the problem. Apparently the Braves farm is a lot like Animal Farm. Even John Smoltz had something to say, stating that Leo’s departure did not leave a “huge void.” However, Smoltz’s comments seem to be indicative of a pep-talk to the Braves fans that the team pitching staff will be alright, and not a slam at Leo. After all, Smotlz has gone out of his way to praise Leo in the past.

Here is what I think happened. Leo is a good pitching coach, and the Braves did like and appreciate what he brought to the team. Forget any of the studies that myself and others have done that quantify the importance of Mazzone’s influence. For one, no one can prove it’s just Leo, since he, Cox, and Schuerholz have been together all of this time. But, it’s clear that the front office had high confidence in Mazzone, which is why it kept him on the big league bench for 15 years. Additionally, nearly all of his former pitchers have nothing but nice things to say about him. Leo’s a foul-mouthed hot-head, which he admits, yet the players and management do nothing but praise him. Guys like that don’t last long unless they are good at what they do.

Leo’s autobiography is insightful. I’ve owned it for a while, but only sat down to read it a few weeks ago. His method is much more than down and away and extra throwing. It’s a system that involves treating each pitcher differently, physically and psychologically, and watching for necessary adjustments. It also means getting out of the way when things are going right. The last thing Leo ever wanted to do was to screw up a good thing. He’d yell at guys but let them yell back. He’d take ideas from pitchers, ask them how they feel, and he gives tons of credit to the talent that always existed in his students. Another interesting facet of his program is to “team up” on younger guys. Leo would teach along with the veterans. As long as everyone was on the same page, players could help each other out. If you’re a pitcher new to the Braves and Leo says, “you’re curve balls stinks, don’t throw it,” you’re going to be a little more receptive when Tom Glavine leans over and whispers the same thing in your ear.

It’s a shame that Leo’s departure seems to be so political. In his autobiography, Leo tells a story of a phone confrontation with a farm director somewhere down in the minor leagues. It wasn’t a polite one. I get the feeling that Mazzone did not see eye to eye with the guys below him in the system. And why would they? For all of the accolades the Braves get for their pitching, not much of the quality stuff has come through the Braves minor league system, lately. Sure Glavine and Smoltz (not really home grown, either) are home grown, but Mazzone had a big hand in their minor league and early major league development. The only non-Leo home grown regular starter in the Braves rotation in 2005 was Horacio Ramirez, and he’s not anything to get excited about. To keep with the Seinfeld theme, the Braves get their pitching where Jerry gets his coffee: on the outside. This is where Leo has been so important; turning has-beens into ace free agents.

Now, if I’m down on the farm, I’m a little put off by this. My guys don’t do well when they get up top, and soon after they are shipped out. I complain to the GM, “he’s ruining my guys,” but what can the GM do? The pitching coach says these guys have too many bad habits. They aren’t playing well, they still have some trade value, and the current pitching coach can’t stop leading the league in ERA. But I think this all came to a tipping point this year. The Braves sent up a lot of guys a bit too early out of necessity. Dan Kolb was awful. Injuries forced Jorge Sosa—who seemed to catch some Mazzone magic (and some luck)—into the rotation, and the pen had little to offer. Tom Martin, was on the opening day roster folks, and the Braves had eat a nearly $2 million to pay him not to pitch. Leo’s had scraps in the past, in 2005 he was cracking bones to suck out the marrow. Schuerholz scrambled to add Farnsworth and Devine , but it wasn’t enough. Leo had to have felt like an artist whose patron gave him worse materials because he was so good. Finally, he just said “screw this!” With Cox ans Schuerholz about to retire or move on, this was a great time to move.

And the front office probably saw this as an opportunity. The scouts and farm coaches had to be increasing their complaints. Youngsters would soon be all of that Leo had to work with. If things didn’t go well, someone would have to be blamed. I’m sure no one really wanted that. Why not just let Leo go, and the political head-ache goes away…except, it doesn’t. What if the kids fail anyway and Leo could have helped? I think Cox and Schuerholz felt that whatever they had in place with Leo can be replicated up to a point.

This brings me back to the addition of McDowell. If there was politics involved, hiring a pitching coach from outside the organization keeps the political status quo. There won’t be a disgruntled farm coach trying to “fix the damage” he’s been complaining about. McDowell has no stake in that battle. If he wants to have a career as a coach, he’s got to win. The best way to do that is to immerse himself in a major league system that has been so successful. He’ll have Cox and the veterans there to learn from and to teach. Plus, McDowell can make a great patsy if things don’t go well.

I think hiring McDowell is a good move. He’s got no reputation to establish an ego, so there should be no clashes with the front office, coaches, or players. And going outside the organization keeps all others’ egos in check. So, while the choice may seem odd, I think it’s a good one. His minor league record may not be stellar, but success at that level over such a short period of time is hard to measure. Cox and Schuerholz clearly found someone they think will work with the plan, so that ought to be good enough for now. After all, who the hell was Leo Mazzone in 1990? And let’s not forget, he gives TBS a great Seinfeld tie-in.

4 Responses “The Politics of Replacing Leo”

  1. Marc Schneider says:

    That’s a great analysis. Things have been going downhill with the Braves pitching for some time now. When you consider they were last in ks and 8th in bbs, this is a lot different that what we were used to seeing in the past. Clearly, the talent base isn’t what it was in the past. As you say, few of the so-called hot prospects have done much on the major league level and the team has been increasingly relying on Cox and Mazzone to make do.

    It’s intersting to me, too, that the Braves philosophy of drafting high school pitchers seems to be pretty much of a bust. Few of them have made it–even those that were considered really top prospects. Moreover, with all the talk about power pitching, where are the power pitchers in the Braves organization? Granted, the Braves don’t get shots at the real top prospects because of where they draft, but it seems to me the model has been Glavine and Maddux–guys that rely primarily on control and movement. Yet the guys coming up have had little control and, other than Sosa, don’t throw hard enough to be true power pitchers.

    So I can see where Mazzone is getting frustrated. Increasingly, he has been expected to make chicken salad out of you know what. As you imply, Mazzone has presumably made a lot of enemies in the organization who have a vested interested in exaggerating the talent in the minors and then blaming Leo when they don’t pan out. Everybody talks about the great arms the Braves have, but where are they? Other than Smoltz (who’s been around a long time), the Braves really don’t have any true power pitchers, certainly none that they have developed.

    But McDowell is in an almost impossible position. If he succeeds and the team’s pitching remains good, he inherited a great organization that Leo molded. If the pitching goes south, it’s McDowell’s fault.

  2. lisa gray says:

    well, just because he wasn’t a particularly good pitcher don’t mean he can’t TEACH.

    just like plenty of scounts never played, but they can spot talent.

    we’ll just hafta see if leo’s #### works somewhere else…

    lisa

    p.s.

    if edmundo don’t like your grammar, he can just come and edit all this his own self

  3. Dave says:

    Thanks for the insight. From an outsider (Cardinal fan), it was surprising that the Braves let Mazzone go. This helps give the decision some additional color.

    There is a perception among many fans that the Braves have produced a lot of good young pitchers. The truth is the opposite; they haven’t. In terms of the draft, the production has been pretty much lacking for the last 10 draft classes. The best of the bunch is probably Jason Marquis, now with the Cardinals (and he’s had his ups and downs).

    Whereas the drafting of high school players may be working well on the offensive side (with the guys they added to the ML roster this year), on the pitching side it doesn’t appear to have worked nearly as well.

    Dave

  4. I came to the site today hoping to find an explanation for Mazzone’s departure, and this definitely clears things up. Good work J.C.