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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Pitching Coach Pep Boys

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How much of what a pitching coach says to his bosses when analyzing a potential trade target is legitimate and how much is said for their validation and consumption?

Is it accurate when a coach says, as Rick Peterson reportedly did when the Mets were considering trading Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, that he could fix Zambrano “in ten minutes”?

Is it the arrogance inherent in so many coaches, managers, executives and players?

Or is it bluster based on reputation?

Needless to say, Peterson did not fix Zambrano in ten minutes. Nor did he fix him in ten months. And he wouldn’t have fixed him in ten years.

On Thursday, the Nationals completed a trade for Athletics lefty Gio Gonzalez.

Gonzalez’s wildness has been well documented and is in black and white for all to see. 183 walks in two years speak for themselves.

Did the Nationals hierarchy discuss Gonzalez with big league pitching coach Steve McCatty? And did he tell them the truth as he saw it or was he influenced by the club’s clear desire to get their hands on Gonzalez at whatever cost?

McCatty famously slammed his hand into the dugout wall when Stephen Strasburg threw that fateful pitch in 2010 in which he tore his elbow in an injury that required Tommy John surgery. I’ve long said that because Strasburg was injured while the Nationals were following organizational edicts and stringent limitations on his innings and pitch counts, no one could be held responsible for the injury; this made it something of a relief when he did get hurt. There was no documented evidence of abuse; no outrageous pitch counts; no “arm-shredding” reputation for anyone.

This in spite of the fact that then-Nats manager Jim Riggleman was the manager in charge when Kerry Wood was overused and abused during the Cubs run toward the playoffs in 1998.

Somehow the onus for Wood and Mark Prior fell two Cubs managers later and Dusty Baker.

It’s about perception.

Will altering Gonzalez’s mechanics give him better control?

Perhaps.

But will doing so make him easier to hit?

Sometimes when a pitcher has funky mechanics and doesn’t know where the ball is going, it contributes to him getting hitters out. Not only does Gonzalez walk a lot of hitters, but he strikes out a lot of hitters as well; and he doesn’t allow many hits or homers.

The funky motion and wildness could be a large portion of that, so making a change that the pitching coach sees as “fixing” him could damage him.

Such was the case with the Pirates when the fired Joe Kerrigan.

Kerrigan was fired, in part, because of the mechanical adjustments he made to former Pirates number 1 draft choice Brad Lincoln.

The main transgressions on the part of Kerrigan were: A) that he was a quirky personality who made his presence felt and imposed on his already weak manager, John Russell; and B) the changes didn’t work.

What did they hire a name pitching coach for if they didn’t want him to do what a name pitching coach does in trying to address issues he may see in a pitcher’s mechanics and approach?

If he didn’t do anything and the pitchers didn’t improve, would he have been fired for that?

Of course.

Anyone can stand there and do nothing.

For years, Leo Mazzone was seen as the “brains” behind the Braves brilliant starting rotation. Then he went to the Orioles and couldn’t repair their pitchers; he hasn’t been able to get a coaching job since.

Why?

Maybe it’s because you can’t make an Astrovan into a Ferrari; you can’t make Kris Benson and Daniel Cabrera into Greg Maddux and John Smoltz.

Peterson and Tom House have theories, stats, stick figures, computer simulations and innovative techniques to help their charges, but they’re also selling stuff.

It’s hard to take people selling stuff at face value.

In spite of his documented and long history of success, Dave Duncan has never auctioned his services to the highest bidder; he’s never sought a managerial job; he’s shooed away anyone who even approached him with the idea that he manage.

He’s a voice you can trust because he’s not hawking a load of junk.

The others? I have my doubts.

I wouldn’t want a yes-man overseeing any part of my organization; nor would I want someone whose main interest is maintaining a reputation at the expense of doing his job. The attitude I prefer is “don’t ask me a question you don’t want the answer to” and with today’s pitching coaches, I wonder whether they’re of the same mind and working to make their charges better or hiding behind a curtain of agreeable self-protection by interpreting what the front office wants to hear and tailoring their responses to that in order to save themselves.

And that’s not how a team should be run.

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