It’s no secret that the Braves pitching is awful right now, which is the main reason for the team’s recent woes. With the departure of Leo Mazzone, who has received much credit for the excellent Atlanta pitching staffs during the Braves division title streak, it’s a fair question if his absence is part of the explanation. While acknowledging that it’s somewhat unfair to look for any impact this early in the season, I’m going to do it anyway. When the O’s and Braves meet at the end of the month for an interleague series, it’s going to get talked about quite a bit anyway. The small size caveat applies, interpret at your own risk.
In my earlier analysis of Leo Mazzone for the Baseball Analysts, I acknowledged that one of the more difficult problems in assigning credit and blame to Mazzone is that he was not the only stable factor involved in the Braves’ pitching success. Leo came on board with the Cox-Schuerholz regime; therefore, it’s entirely possible that it was something in the organization other than the pitching coach that caused Atlanta pitchers to improve when they arrived and decline when they left. After much reading on the subject—since I published the study I’ve read nearly everything written on Mazzone’s method—I believe that there is something to his unique approach. Now that Mazzone has moved on, we have the opportunity to view the coach and organization separately.
Today, I want to look at a group of pitchers who pitched for Mazzone last year in Atlanta and are still pitching in Atlanta this year. This holds many things constant, since the main difference is the lack of Mazzone. Sure, the players are one year older—bad for older pitchers but good for younger ones—and other factors such as weather, personal matters, etc. may also have an effect; but, this should be fine for a rough, and admittedly premature, analysis. So, how have these pitchers performed this year versus last year? Here are the ERAs and Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) ERAs for these pitchers.
ERA Pitcher 2006 2005 Difference Horacio Ramirez 5.06 4.63 0.43 John Smoltz 3.73 3.06 0.67 Tim Hudson 3.93 3.50 0.43 Macay McBride 4.08 5.79 -1.71 John Thomson 4.84 4.47 0.37 Jorge Sosa 5.58 2.55 3.03 Kyle Davies 6.12 4.93 1.19 Chris Reitsma 9.11 3.93 5.18 Mean 1.20 Median 0.55 FIP ERA Pitcher 2006 2005 Difference Horacio Ramirez 4.22 5.15 -0.93 John Smoltz 3.39 3.14 0.25 Tim Hudson 3.47 4.22 -0.75 Macay McBride 3.93 1.34 2.59 John Thomson 4.67 3.39 1.28 Jorge Sosa 5.54 4.13 1.41 Kyle Davies 6.01 4.29 1.72 Chris Reitsma 6.76 2.82 3.94 Mean 1.19 Median 1.35
I wouldn’t put too much stock in the precise magnitude of these numbers, but it’s clear that the direction of the overall quantitative impact of this year versus last year has been negative. It’s exactly what we would expect if Mazzone was responsible for the improved pitching. The sample size is certainly too small to yield any statistical significance, but it’s still fun to observe. Even if the effect is real, I think it’s also unwise to say that this is the result of the differing methods of Roger McDowell and Mazzone. Even though Mazzone’s methods have brought results, McDowell may also have good methods that haven’t had time to bear fruit. I do think the pitching coach transition is part of the problem. Transitions to new work environments are always difficult. It could be that the Braves pitchers are still adjusting to a new advisor. Mazzone is not working any miracles in Baltimore, or at least it’s not obvious if he is, considering the they have the second worst ERA in the league. But, the Orioles don’t have the quality of arms that the Braves do—Smoltz and Hudson are far better than any pitcher on the O’s—and the organization is in much more flux.
As a Braves fan, I see the loss of Mazzone possibly affecting two pitchers: Reitsma and Sosa. Both seem to have lost none of their stuff, but consistently make placement errors with pitches. That’s something that Mazzone’s throwing program is designed to help. Thomson’s recent struggles also seem similar. But again, it’s too early in the season to say anything definitively. I would love for the O’s and the Braves work a trade involving some of these pitchers to see if Mazzone can work his magic. I don’t think either side has much to lose.
Addendum: Rick Maese of the Baltimore Sun has some more about this on his blog. He points to signs that the O’s pitching may be turning around. I guess we’ll see soon enough. I don’t think Mazzone just happened to be good for 15 seasons in Atlanta, so while some may be bailing on Mazzone, I wouldn’t bet against him.