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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Prepare For The Cubs To Clean House

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The Cubs’ recent decisions indicate that Theo Epstein isn’t going to sit on his hands and wait until June or July before cleaning out the house of anyone and everyone for whom he can get value and/or salary relief.

With the sudden trade of Marlon Byrd to the Red Sox, Epstein wasn’t doing his former club any favors. He got rid of Byrd for Michael Bowden and a player to be named later with the Cubs paying Byrd’s salary. To make room for Bowden on the 40-man roster, the Cubs have designated veteran swingman Rodrigo Lopez for assignment.

This is just the beginning.

In the off-season, the Cubs made a series of low-cost signings for veteran competence. Their biggest and most expensive imports were Epstein, new GM Jed Hoyer and his assistant Jason McLeod.

The Cubs paid the Marlins to take Carlos Zambrano to get him out of their sight. This and the Byrd trade echoed a similar strategy. Presumably they could’ve gotten more salary relief had they been willing to take marginal prospects in return for Zambrano and Byrd, but they chose to pay them off and get Bowden from the Red Sox and Chris Volstad from the Marlins. That Epstein was able to get anything for Byrd at all—with or without paying him—is a testimony to the Red Sox’ desperation to do something. Byrd had managed 3 singles in 47 plate appearances for the Cubs.

Epstein’s not stupid. He knew when he took the job that the Cubs were going to require an extensive makeover. The biggest advantage he has isn’t the history of success he had with the Red Sox and the status of being the GM when the Red Sox not only broke their curse in 2004, but won another title in 2007. The biggest advantage he has is the Cubs’ fans’ blind loyalty to their team. In the past, the attendance—good team, bad team, whatever team—has been a dual-edged sword. They didn’t have to be good to attract fans. In the past 10 years, the Cubs have never finished lower than fifth in National League attendance and it made no difference whether they won 97 games or 66 games. The fans will be patient and support the uniforms regardless of the players wearing them.

They took a wait-and-see approach this past winter and signed the likes of David DeJesus to a reasonable and cheap contract; they acquired a veteran third baseman Ian Stewart; and made the aforementioned deal to get rid of Zambrano.

They’ve gotten off to a 5-12 start and got rid of Byrd.

Expect Ryan Dempster to be on the market. They’ll dangle Matt Garza at mid-season safe in the knowledge that he’s not a free agent until after 2013 and they have the multiple options of signing him long-term, trading him in July or sometime within the next year-and-a-half. They might swallow Alfonso Soriano’s contract ($18 million annually through 2014) completely and release him if he doesn’t start doing the only thing he still can do—hit a few homers. Carlos Marmol needs a change of scenery and will be available very, very soon.

The Cubs’ new regime gave them a chance to show they were a possible fringe contender.

They’ve lost 12 of their first 17 games and have looked lackluster and boring while doing it.

There’s no reason to continue the charade with players who won’t be Cubs when and if they’re ready to contend for a championship. Epstein’s got players to trade and he’s going to trade them sooner rather than later.

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If It’s Believed, It’s Real—Thoughts On Roy Halladay, Ubaldo Jimenez And Others

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Weakness, real or perceived?

Roy Halladay had to leave his start yesterday against the Cubs because of the inhuman heat in Chicago.

The heat wave had raised temperatures on the field to 108 degrees; Halladay felt dizzy and was pulled after allowing 3 runs on 7 hits. He took the loss.

While this is a fully understandable circumstance, Halladay has always put forth the image of impervious to the elements; to pain; to mental fatigue.

Will this give the hitters a minute amount of confidence that they didn’t have before? That Halladay is human?

Don’t discount perception being a factor in performance. If Halladay’s reputation as an indestructible force was reduced a tiny bit, it could affect the opposition’s approach and results.

And you can’t find that on a stat sheet—“advanced” or not.

Analysis(?)

In reference to the Rockies listening to offers for Ubaldo Jimenez, Jack Curry of the YES Network said the following on Twitter:

By even publicly seeking offers on Jimenez, the Rockies have devalued him. Why would Rox want to trade 27 yr old with manageable contract?

This is ignorant foolishness the type you get from a reporter who either doesn’t know what he’s talking about or says something without thinking it through.

We see that quite often on Twitter and other social sites.

If you look at some of the “experts” and columnists employed by the likes of YES, ESPN, CBS and WFAN, you see a profound lack of writing skill coupled with an inexplicable absence of analytical knowledge of sports and people.

But that’s the problem of the networks. They hired them, they have to deal with them.

I’d love to hear Curry’s explanation for this blanket statement.

The Rockies didn’t start calling around and saying, “Ubaldo Jimenez—make an offer.” Teams are calling GM Dan O’Dowd and he’s listening. Considering the request for the entire Yankees farm system to get the pitcher, they’re not specifically motivated to trade him. Apart for Curry’s skewed logic, how has Jimenez been devalued? They’re not desperately trying to trade him and the asking price is exorbitant.

So what’s Curry’s point? That if the Rockies play hard-to-get they’ll somehow be justified in taking phone calls and considering all their options?

It’s a groundless statement with no legs to support it.

This is on a level with Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times providing his resume to bolster his self-involved brilliance or Buzz Bissinger going on an expletive-laden rant against bloggers.

Based on what?

Just like the mainstream writers/broadcasters/editors, there are plenty of bloggers whose writing is atrocious and their assertions asinine. There are others who put work into what they do and provide value.

It goes both ways.

You can put me in either category. I couldn’t care less.

Simply being employed by a popular entity doesn’t automatically accord credibility. And we’re learning this fact with each word we read; each tweet we see; each uttered bit of nonsense.

And it’s not going to stop.

Madness.

Roy Halladay is human.

ESPN used the words “dominant start” and “Rodrigo Lopez” in the same sentence.

The Pirates are in first place in July.

Mike Francesa chose to come to work yesterday with a peach tan while wearing an orange shirt so he looked like the ING bouncing ball—knowing he’d be on TV.

The world is definitely ending.

Or it’s beginning.

One of those.

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