Say What?

MLB.com Braves beat reporter Mark Bowman:

Still, while battling the storm, McDowell showed the patience and intellect necessary to make progress. The evolution of Macay McBride and Tyler Yates were a result of McDowell’s dedication and patience — two necessary qualities his predecessor didn’t always show.

Had Leo Mazzone been handed this pitching staff and faced the same obstacles, I’m apt to believe last year might have been a disaster on the pitching front in Atlanta. Young pitchers like McBride and Yates need somebody to provide both direction and confidence. With McDowell, they had somebody capable of providing both.

(emphasis added)

Look, I don’t believe that last year is evidence that McDowell is a bad pitching coach, nor do I think it shows he’s any good. But to say that Mazzone would have done worse is a bit much. I don’t know how you can defend that statement since the Braves pitched even worse after he left with a similar staff. I’m not sure what qualities make someone a good pitching coach—patience and dedication probably aren’t negatives—but Mazzone definitely has them.

In my upcoming book, I update my previous study on Leo Mazzone’s effectiveness as a pitching coach. This study takes into account aging, park effects, defense, pitcher quality, and the run environment of the league. What I find is that during his years in Atlanta, pitchers who pitched for Mazzone and with another pitching coach had ERAs 0.64 lower with Mazzone than without. How does this happen? Pitchers under Mazzone increase their strikeouts by 10% and lower their home run rates by 20%. I could not find any effect on walks. This is interesting, because it fits exactly with Leo’s advice to his pitchers.

Don’t give into the strike zone. This is about making pitches and trying to execute a good pitch. So forget about walks. And don’t throw one down the middle just because you walked a guy. I’d rather you be off the plate a little than give up a three-run bomb.

Furthermore, when pitchers leave Mazzone, they tend to revert to their old form.

Some Leo detractors have pointed to his first year with the Orioles, who had a pretty bad pitching season in 2006. I think his experience was quite similar to McDowell’s: he had a year of adjustment to a new environment and players, coupled with a little bad luck. But let’s not forget that Mazzone had 14 years of success in Atlanta with many different kinds of pitchers: young and old, lefties and righties, starters and relievers, jocks and nerds, future Hall of Famers and Quad-A cast-offs. If you’re looking to call some period of Mazzone’s career a fluke, last year would probably be a good pick.

Maybe Leo Mazzone is overrated, but the evidence indicates that he is good at what he does. Sure a few his former pitchers have complained about him, but many more have offered praise and given him plenty of credit. I was once one of those who thought his reputation was overblown, but I have changed my mind. Leo Mazzone is a damn good pitching coach, and I expect the Orioles to reap the benefits of his expertise for many years to come.

7 Responses “Say What?”

  1. Marc says:

    The Braves pitching had been in some decline before Leo left, largely because Maddux and Glavine were aging (or left) and Smoltz was in the bullpen. I think it’s also fair to say that some coaches will be more effective with some pitchers than others. And, no matter how good the coach, you can’ t make chicken salad out of –you know. I suspect the pitching would have been poor last year regardless of who the pitching coach was.

  2. Jason says:

    I agree. I guess it just shows you that you don’t have to understand baseball very well at all to be a writer. Leo was right a lot more often than he was wrong and it’s an extremely good point that pitchers tend to revert to their old form after leaving Mazzone’s guidance. Prior to last year I felt that Mazzone kind of missed the boat with Jason Marquis, but considering how bad he was last year and how he has been in decline for several years, maybe Mazzone didn’t miss the boat with him. I have to say that I think that one of Mazzone’s few failures was that he never was able to straighten out Bruce Chen and just seemed to not understand Chen at all. Chen was just awful last year under Mazzone after having had a very good 2005 season and I won’t be surprised if Chen does a lot better for Texas. Mazzone got some amazing work out of guys like Nagle, Ortiz, Bielecki and Remlinger, all of whom were a lot better in Atlanta than anyone had any right to expect. Well, Ortiz actually pitched well prior to joining the Braves, but it’s worth noting that he’s been awful since leaving them and he appears to be lost cause at this point. Even joining the Orioles last year and getting back under Mazzone didn’t help.

  3. Ron24 says:

    I wonder how big the Mazzone factor is if you take out Glavine and Maddux who had Hall of Fame performances in the ’90s under Mazzone then left Mazzone and the Braves at the end of their careers.

  4. Cliff Harpe says:

    Ron 24, JC is a whole lot smarter than me on that. It can be hard to follow, but the side links take you to his work on “the Mazzone effect”. Glavine would not qualify or be included because you had to have 2 or more years ML before Mazzone, 2 or more years with Mazzone, and 2 years after Mazzone. Maddux might not have fit either (because of the “after”). Smoltz would not count at all.

    JC measured people in changing environments. My gut said the Mazzone effect was real before reading JC’s work. After that, I was blown away.

    I can’t figure out if Bowman was just trying to start controversy or just sucking up to McDowell. It is a POOR job of either (1) understanding the facts or (2) explaining them in the article.

    I have had the pleasure as a Braves fan of seeing the two best pitching coaches in MLB history: Leo Mazzone and his mentor Johnny Sain. They both deserve enshrinement in Cooperstown, if the establishment there can just get its act together.

  5. Marc says:

    Just one small rejoinder to Jason’s comments about pitchers doing better under Mazzone than would be expected. That’s true for the others he mentions, but Neagle was a very established major league pitcher before he came to Atlanta and it was considered a steal for the Braves to get him. People have forgotten how good Neagle was because of how he flopped in Colorado, but he was already a very good pitcher before he got to the Braves. His record certainly improved with the Braves but I don’t know whether his pitching actually did.

  6. BD says:

    In economics terms, mazzone correlates very strongly with cox, it cannot be determined whether the observed effect in altanta was due to cox or mazzone. My insider in the braves says that mazzone was the most over-rated pitching coach in the MLB and a master of self-promotion. When the sample size increases, we will see.

  7. Kyle S says:

    Some guy on Primer did a study that adjusted for Cox (and included seasons for teams that Cox managed that Mazzone did not coach for). It showed that Cox had no effect, and the Mazzone effect was still there.