Leo Mazzone’s Criticism of the Nationals’ Handling of Stephen Strasburg Invites a Strong and Selective Reaction

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Leo Mazzone’s reputation as a pitching coach guru was bolstered by having three Hall of Famers and a pretty good background cast of characters with the Braves and was subsequently ruined by going to the Orioles and functioning without much talent. Like most coaches (and managers for that matter), it’s more about the talent than it is about any set of principles implemented by the coach or organization.

When Mazzone had Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, he looked smart. He had Rodrigo Lopez and Kris Benson with the Orioles and therefore, didn’t look as smart.

That said, it can’t be ignored that Erik Bedard had his two best and healthiest seasons working under Mazzone; that relatively pedestrian pitchers Denny Neagle, Kerry Ligtenberg, Greg McMichael, Mike Remlinger, and John Thomson blossomed with him as their pitching coach and did nothing notable anywhere else; that Kevin Millwood and Steve Avery developed under Mazzone; that Russ Ortiz, John Burkett, Jaret Wright and Mike Hampton all experienced a renaissance under him; or that the Braves came undone after Mazzone left.

Was it talent? Was it Hall of Famers? Was it technique? Was it Bobby Cox? Was it that the Braves in those years were super good and could’ve shuttled anyone out there and had them look better than they were?

Or was it a combination of everything?

Or is it something that can’t be defined as “this is why”?

Mazzone hasn’t gotten a pitching coach job since he was fired by the Orioles which leads me to believe that his reputation as someone who doesn’t adhere to organizational edicts—a version of going along to get along that’s been in place forever—is preventing him from being hired. Or perhaps it’s something else.

I don’t know and nor do you. This is why it’s silly to take Mazzone’s quotes about the Nationals’ parameters and much-discussed decision to limit Stephen Strasburg as the ranting of a has-been baseball dinosaur by referencing Steve Avery as “proof” (as Craig Calcaterra does here on Hardball Talk) that Mazzone’s way is one of the past and his opinions carry zero weight.

With the proliferation of self-proclaimed experts, stat sites, and insertion of viewpoints available at the click of a button, it’s hard to know which end is up. Everyone’s knows better than the previous person whether that person is an experienced baseball man or not. Dave Righetti and the Giants’ methods involving their young pitchers functioning similarly to the Braves of the 1990s drew old-school respect as Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum flourished. But Lincecum wasn’t working under the Giants’ program and was essentially left on his own. So where does the credit lie? Is it Lincecum’s dad? Is it the Giants for their willingness to let Lincecum pitch without limits? And who gets the blame for his poor season and decreased velocity? Does Righetti get the accolades for Cain and Madison Bumgarner? How does it work?

The Yankees can provide reams of printouts and cutting-edge medical recommendations for their treatment of their young pitchers, but all are either hurt (Jose Campos, Manny Banuelos); inconsistent or worse (Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain); stagnant (Dellin Betances); or have the fault shifted elsewhere for the Yankees’ shoddy assessments (Michael Pineda).

Did Avery get hurt because of the Braves’ overusing him or would he have gotten hurt anyway? Avery was another pitcher who learned his mechanics from his dad and was left to his own devices. It was only after he got hurt that those mechanics were deemed as the culprit. And now, years after the fact, Mazzone’s getting the blame.

Would he have gotten hurt anyway? Judging from the way pitchers are constantly injured—clean mechanics or not—it’s a pretty safe bet that he would’ve.

Will Strasburg get hurt? He was babied from college onward and still needed Tommy John surgery.

Some pitchers are overused at a young age and get injured; others stay healthy. Why doesn’t Calcaterra reference Maddux, who as a 22-year-old was handled by another old-school manager Don Zimmer and pitching coach, Dick Pole, and allowed to throw as many as 167 pitches in a game in 1988? Maddux credited Pole for teaching him proper mechanics and Pole has bounced from team-to-team because he—guess what?—asserts himself and doesn’t go with the organizational flow.

Jim Bouton wrote about this phenomenon in Ball Four when discussing why Johnny Sain hopped from club-to-club and never lasted very long in any one place. Ego and control are far more important to an organization than getting it right and iconoclasts don’t last unless they have massive success.

Mazzone’s not wrong here. In truth, nor are the Nats. There is no “right” or “wrong”. I disagree with the way they’ve implemented their plan because there were methods to keeping Strasburg’s innings down without going to the controversial extreme of shutting him down when they’re going to need him most in the playoffs (the 6-man rotation for example), but the smug condescension and retrospective denigration of Mazzone’s work is pure second guessing and random outsider expertise to prove an unprovable theory with the selective references to match.

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A.J. Burnett’s Yankees Epitaph

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There are some pitchers who need to be left alone.

Because pitching coaches are pitching coaches, they feel the need to jump in whenever they see something amiss or the results are lacking and adhere to mandate of “do something” even if there’s really nothing to be done other than letting the pitcher try to straighten himself out or wait for him to come and ask for help.

Upon his arrival at Pirates’ camp, A.J. Burnett made a few comments about his time with the Yankees that have been taken as criticisms of the Yankee organization.

Here’s Burnett’s quote from this piece in the Washington Post:

“I let a few too many people tinker with me, maybe,” Burnett said. “When you let that happen, you start doubting yourself sometimes. You wonder, ‘Am I doing it right? Is this how it’s supposed to feel?’ and things like that. In ‘09, nobody messed with me. I was able to do what I wanted to do on the mound, whether it was turn around, close my eyes and pitch upside down. Then you have a few bad games and you start changing and listening.”

There are absolutely pitchers who have to be hounded; some have to be cajoled; others need to be left alone. It’s up to the individual pitching coach to gauge and determine how best to unlock the potential and get the pitcher to be the best he can be or to find a way for him to get hitters out regardless of stuff.

Earl Weaver and his pitching coaches George Bamberger and Ray Miller were great at that. Weaver would spot a flaw in a pitcher, whether it was a pitch he shouldn’t be throwing or a pitch he should throw and didn’t have in his repertoire, and he’d have his pitching coach instruct him on how to throw it; if the pitcher resisted, Weaver would ask him if he wanted to be a loser all his life—but he only intervened as the enforcer and left the tactical and mechanical work to the pitching coaches.

It worked with Mike Torrez, Steve Stone and Ross Grimsley among others.

Greg Maddux openly says that Dick Pole was the pitching coach who influenced him most on his way up to the big leagues, but Pole has bounced from team to team because he insinuates himself on the manager. Some managers don’t like that.

So there’s a limit to what the pitching coach can do and much of it is contingent on the manager and the pitchers.

I’m not blaming Joe Girardi, Dave Eiland, Larry Rothschild, Mike Harkey or any of the other Yankees’ staff members for Burnett’s complaints, but because Burnett struggled with inconsistency for much of his time as a Yankee and again proved why he’s basically a .500 pitcher in spite of having all-world stuff, there could be something to Burnett’s statements. It could be that the Yankees should’ve just tossed their hands in the air and let him be rather than immediately fiddle with him. They tried everything else.

As for Burnett, if this was a problem, he should’ve expressed it earlier rather than be polite and incorporate every little suggestion he received. Tom Seaver pushed back if his pitching coaches and catchers tried to interfere with him when he felt strongly about something. Perhaps Burnett’s lack of focus and lapses in competitiveness stem from his laid back personality. If he were a little more feisty, he and the Yankees might’ve been a lot better off.

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The Johnny Sain Travel Guide

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Here’s a quote from Ball Four by Jim Bouton:

Every once in a while there’s a guy that doesn’t fit into the coaching mold, a man with an original idea or two who’s not afraid to express them, a guy who would like to have some influence on the club. I mean a guy like Johnny Sain. And what happens to him? He moves around a lot. He has to, because as soon as he asserts himself the manager wants to get rid of him, no matter how good a job he’s doing. (Ball Four by Jim Bouton, page 287.)

I thought of this as soon as I read that Brad Arnsberg had been fired by the Houston Astros.

It’s hard to get a gauge on Arsnberg because there are publicly differing opinions about him.

After he was fired by the Marlins in their 2003 purge, he was savaged by the club for his reaction to the firing. It wasn’t temperamental owner Jeffrey Loria who made negative statements about Arnsberg, but respected GM Larry Beinfest who accused the former pitching coach of being unprofessional and bordering on violent to the point where he wasn’t allowed into the stadium to pick up his belongings—Sun Journal Story, 5.12.2003.

It certainly didn’t help Arnsberg’s cause that the Marlins went on to win the World Series that year with new manager Jack McKeon replacing Jeff Torborg and pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal replacing Arnsberg.

Moving on with the Blue Jays, Arsnberg was widely credited with the work of veterans Ted Lilly and A.J. Burnett, along with youngsters Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan and Jesse Litsch; it’s not hard to look smart when working with Roy Halladay.

Arnsberg was basically pilfered by the Astros after the 2009 season. Star pitching coaches are generally in demand due to reputation and a prior record of success. Sometimes it works—as has been the case with Larry Rothschild and Rick Peterson; other times it hasn’t as was the case with Leo Mazzone.

It’s fleeting and based on results.

Or other factors.

The Astros pitched well last season. Brett Myers rejuvenated his career; J.A. Happ was solid after being acquired from the Phillies; Bud Norris has been good; Mark Melancon has blossomed.

Who knows what was going on inside the Astros organization and clubhouse? Did manager Brad Mills feel threatened by Arnsberg? Was there a falling out? Did they feel like doing something to try and wake up a struggling (and pretty poor) club.

“Philosophical differences” is a convenient excuse for a change and it’s of a similar vein to the “lack of communication” absurdity that’s often used when there’s no explicable reason.

I have no problem with a GM saying, “I wanted to make a change”. He doesn’t have to give a reason. He’s the boss.

But clubs don’t see it that way. They think they have to give something tangible to the media and “feeling like it” doesn’t cut it.

Years ago, when the Marlins had several pitchers on the disabled list with injuries to different parts of their bodies, I suggested that perhaps Arnsberg was the common denominator.

I’ve evolved from this view.

Very rare is it that a pitching coach will have training techniques that deviate from the norm so egregiously that pitchers will take part in them to begin with; and if they’re so unusual, it’s hard to see any manager allowing them to be utilized or the pitching coach to make it up to the big leagues.

It goes back to the Johnny Sain travel guide and the main tenet: don’t usurp the manager’s authority by disagreeing with him.

There are pitching coaches like this still floating around. Dick Pole has bounced from team-to-team, usually working for Dusty Baker. None other than Greg Maddux has said that it was Pole who taught him a great deal about the mechanics and mental aspects of pitching that Maddux used to forge a Hall of Fame career.

But Pole is as much-traveled as Sain was.

And Arnsberg is on the way to catching up to these men with their honorable, but short-lived reputations for accumulating frequent flyer miles and different mailing addresses.

Go along to get along or get fired for “philosophical differences” and “lack of communication”.

Some men are willing. Others aren’t. Those that aren’t tend to move around a lot and have extreme reputations. From the outside, this appears to be the case with Brad Arnsberg.

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