By Father Gabe Costa
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The author, Jeremy Maness, will be our last guest blogger for a while (I’ll resume next time). As a long-time Atlanta Braves fan, he has seen some great pitching over the past twenty or so years. Giving credit where credit is due, Jeremy extols the great work of pitching coach Leo Mazzone.
Jeremy Maness: During the 1990s, the Atlanta Braves were arguably one of the best franchises in Major League Baseball. After going from one of the worst teams in the league in 1990, the Braves went all the way to the World Series in 1991. That season began a string of 14 division titles, five World Series appearances, and one World Series title.
Many attribute the success of these Braves teams to superior pitching and one of the winningest managers in the history of baseball, Bobby Cox. Maybe it was no coincidence that the Braves went from worst to first in Bobby Cox’s first full season as manager. However, while Bobby Cox had obviously proven himself as a gifted manager, he couldn’t have possibly devoted all of his efforts to coaching every position at all times. That is where his assistant coaches came in.
Leo Mazzone came to Atlanta at the same time as Bobby Cox, June of 1990. Mazzone was a left- handed minor league pitcher for a few years, but never made it to the Majors. After coaching in the Braves farm system for many years, Mazzone was named pitching coach of the Atlanta Braves when Bobby Cox took over the team. Mazzone’s pitching staffs anchored the Braves 14 division titles, won four ERA titles, six Cy Young awards, and had nine 20-game winners. After leaving the Braves to take a coaching position with the Orioles, the Braves stopped winning division titles.
In this blog, I will take a look at the impact that Leo Mazzone had on the Braves and the performances of the pitchers that passed through Atlanta from 1991-2005. I will limit this observation to pitchers that started 15 or more games for at least two seasons under Mazzone’s guidance. The metrics that will be examined to determine Mazzone’s impact are wins, ERA, innings pitched, walks, and strikeouts.
The starting rotation for the Braves really didn’t change much from 1990 to 1991. However, throughout Mazzone’s 15 year tenure with the Braves, Mazzone dealt with many different starting pitchers. For most of the 1990s though, Mazzone could count on Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux to pitch three of every five games. Being able to rely on three of the best pitchers ever to step on the mound, was a luxury not many coaches have had. But Mazzone was still able to help all three of these Cy Young Award winners improve.
John Smoltz was mostly known for being a power pitcher with a nasty slider. Smoltz was acquired by the Braves in the 1980s and played in Atlanta through 2009 as one of last remaining Braves from the 1995 World Series champion team. Without Leo Mazzone, Smoltz averaged 9.1 wins, a 3.97 ERA, 149.47 innings pitched, 46.1 walks, and 127.4 strikeouts. Under Mazzone, Smoltz averaged 10.6 wins, a 3.09 ERA, 172.9 innings pitched, 49.1 walks, and 156.6 strikeouts. All of these averages are over a season. None of the changes really seem all that impressive. However, we can’t forget that John Smoltz was a dominant closer for a few years in Atlanta. This definitely skews the average wins and innings pitched more than anything. Had he remained a starter, Smoltz’s average wins probably would have been around 15 per season and his innings pitched would have been somewhere around 210. With the help of Leo Mazzone, John Smoltz made several All-Star appearances and won the Cy Young Award in 1996.
In contrast to Smoltz’s power pitching, Greg Maddux is best known for his ability throw the ball just about wherever he wanted. Drafted by the Cubs, Maddux had already established himself in Major League Baseball before coming to Braves country in 1992, having won the 1991 Cy Young Award. Maddux averaged 13.4 wins, a 3.92 ERA, 206.7 innings pitched, 51.3 walks, and 128.6 strikeouts before and after pitching for Mazzone in Atlanta. From 1992 to 2003 under the tutelage of Mazzone, “Mad Dog” averaged 17.6 wins, a 2.63 ERA, 229.5 innings pitched, 34.8 walks, and 166.2 strikeouts. During his stay in Atlanta, Maddux won three more Cy Young Awards, made several All Star appearances, and also won 10 Gold Glove awards.
Tom Glavine rounds out the trio of future Hall of Fame pitchers that dominated the National League for so many years. Glavine was almost a “cross” between Smoltz and Maddux. He didn’t throw the ball amazingly hard and he didn’t have virtually perfect control, but he wore teams down with his pitching. Glavine arrived in Atlanta before Leo Mazzone and left before Mazzone as well. Before and after his time under Mazzone, Glavine averaged 9.6 wins, a 4.35 ERA, 171.3 innings pitched, 57.4 walks, and 87.6 strikeouts. Under Mazzone’s watch, he averaged 17.4 wins, a 3.17 ERA, 224.7 innings pitched, 77.2 walks, and 144.3 strikeouts. Glavine also won two Cy Young awards, made several All Star appearances, and won a few Silver Slugger awards just to top it off.
Aside from these three outstanding pitchers, Mazzone also impacted the pitching of 13 other pitchers who started at least 15 games for two or more seasons under his guidance. On average, pitchers won 2.3 more games, shaved 0.86 runs off of their ERA, pitched 15.9 more innings, gave up 3.1 more walks, and got 18.8 more strikeouts per season. While some of these are not earth shattering improvements, it does show that Leo Mazzone most definitely did have a positive impact on most pitchers that came through Atlanta during his time. I hasten to point out that some may say that giving up 3.1 more walks is not good. However, when the increase in innings pitched is taken into account, 3.1 walks per 15.9 innings pitched really is not that bad, especially compared to 18.8 more strikeouts over that same increase in innings pitched.
Perhaps we will never know exactly why most of these pitchers’ numbers improved. It could be because they found their groove in Atlanta, they had a great defensive supporting cast, or maybe Bobby Cox inspired them to pitch better than ever. However, Leo Mazzone would be the coach with whom they spoke, when questions arose about pitching.
On the bottom line, I believe it is safe to say that in a very real and concrete way, Leo Mazzone helped his pitchers to win more games, pitch more innings pitched, issue less walks per outing, record more strikeouts per inning pitched, and to lower their ERA.
Leo Mazzone, Pitching Coach…I salute you.
A final note: all statistics were provided by the following site: