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Orioles go "ZZ" tops by hiring Mazzone

Maybe we should call it "The Return of the Killer Z's." Barely one week after locking up manager (and Marylander) Sam Perlozzo for the next three seasons, yesterday the Orioles announced the signing of Perlozzo's longtime friend, Leo Mazzone, to a three-year contract to be their pitching coach.

Coming off a remarkably successful 27 years in the Atlanta Braves' organization, the last 15½ overseeing the Braves' pitchers, Mazzone returns to the state in which he grew up and where his parents and children still live. The New York Yankees also had been courting Mazzone, but the ties of friendship and kinship proved a stronger lure than Yankee money and pinstripes. (Apparently, the Orioles' "Confederate money" wasn't a deal-breaker in this case.)

Early coverage from the media:

The lion's share

The 57-year-old Mazzone replaces Ray Miller, who is recuperating from aortic surgery. In light of his health issues, Miller gave the team permission to interview and sign Mazzone. Although Miller had an undeniably positive short-term impact on Baltimore's pitching staff when he returned for his third Oriole coaching stint in June of 2004, his guidance was not as effective this season, as the team ERA slipped to 4.56, which was 10th in the league.

The terms of Mazzone's new contract are commensurate with his sterling reputation. While multi-year pacts are unusual for coaches, who usually are given one-year contracts, the Orioles decided that Mazzone merited an exception. Reportedly he will earn a market-high rate of $450,000 per year with the Orioles after earning a middle-of-the-road $250,000 with the Braves last year. But if he helps the Orioles' pitching staff as much as he did Atlanta's, then he will be more than worth the outlay.

Indeed, he might still be undercompensated if he were paid ten or twenty times as much. Last December, economics professor and Sabernomics blogger J.C. Bradbury did a study of what he called “The Mazzone Effect”—that is, “how much better pitchers have been with Mazzone than without.” He concluded, “Leo Mazzone's presence lowered a pitcher's ERA by about 0.63 ERA points.” The impact was –0.41 for starters and –0.68 for relievers.

It's hard to say how much of those ERA differences are directly caused by Mazzone; although Bradbury's analysis is as good as any, pitching performance is complicated to measure because of the vast number of variables involved. Bradbury attempted to correct for factors such as league ERA, pitcher age, team defense, and home park, but did not separate out other factors, such as the quality of the hitters faced by the Braves' pitchers, or how much of the pitchers' in-game usage patterns were decided by manager Bobby Cox and not Mazzone. And until someone does similar studies of other pitching coaches, there is no frame of reference in which to place Mazzone's impact.

But suppose that Mazzone indeed can lower a pitcher's ERA by approximately half a run per game. Cursorily applied to the 2005 Orioles, that would have meant a staff-wide reduction in ERA to about 4.05, which would have ranked sixth in the league this season. (Of course, Miller is generally considered to be better than an average pitching coach, so take that extrapolation loosely.) Assuming that RA falls at the same rate as ERA, the so-called Mazzone effect would result in a team allowing about eighty runs fewer over the course of a season, which in turn would account for an improvement of some seven to nine wins over its performance with a hypothetical average pitching coach.

To accomplish the same feat with players alone would be costly in today's market: according to analysis by the Baseball Prospectus, in recent years teams have paid close to $2 million in marginal player payroll per marginal win (see BP's web site for more details). By that measure, Mazzone would be worth in the neighborhood of $15 million a year, which is about what a superstar player fetches these days. Even if Mazzone's effect with the Orioles turns out to be less than Bradbury's calculation, he should remain a relative bargain.

Blest be the ties that bind

Such analysis is moot to Mazzone, who said the decision wasn't about money. Rather, part of it was a desire to be closer to his family, and most of it was his long and strong friendship with Perlozzo. Here's what Mazzone told the media in his Friday conference call:

“Opportunities don't come along very often where you can work with your best friend in the dugout and also go back to your home state, and those were very important things for me... My mother and father are getting up there. Dad's 82 and Mom's 79. I've got three children up in western Maryland and I haven't seen them much. I'm 57 years old and I want to hopefully finish my career with Sam [Perlozzo] in Baltimore, put a winning team on the field and create some magic at Camden Yards.”

Mazzone and Perlozzo have known each other since they played American Legion baseball together as teens in Western Maryland back in the 1960s, and their friendship grew as both of them went on to professional careers as players and coaches while continuing to spend their winters in Cumberland. (Mazzone later moved to Atlanta, and Perlozzo recently moved into a house in Florida.) Reportedly Perlozzo was best man at Mazzone's wedding, and Mazzone has stayed at Perlozzo's Cumberland home when visiting relatives in the area.

Last week, when the Orioles signed Perlozzo to a three-year contract to manage the team through 2008, the response from the media and the fans was mostly positive based on Perlozzo's extensive coaching experience, his sturdy reputation within the industry, and his local ties. But the Orioles look doubly smart now because it turns out that Perlozzo's installation as manager paved the way for Mazzone to come to Baltimore. Mazzone could not have made it any clearer than he did Friday when he told reporters, "The main reason I am coming here is Sam Perlozzo is the manager."

In Friday's conference call, Mazzone mentioned that he was tempted by the prospect of coaching the Yankees, for whom he rooted as a youth. He also didn't totally dismiss as a factor the possibility that Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, 64, and general manager John Schuerholz, 65, may retire when their contracts expire after next season. He praised the Braves' organization and expressed sorrow at leaving after such a long tour of duty. But Mazzone made clear that in the end, the choice to join the O's wasn't too difficult. He didn't even ask the Braves to make a competitive offer.

Go down, Moises

Since Mazzone was still technically under contract to the Braves until November 15, the Orioles sent a low-level pitching prospect, 21-year-old Moises Hernández, to the Braves in return for the early dibs on Mazzone. Hernández has shown some ability—he averaged more than a strikeout per inning at Aberdeen this season—but he's not as impressive or as advanced as his younger brother, 19-year-old prodigy Félix Hernández of the Seattle Mariners. That may be an unfair comparison, though. According to editor Jim Callis of Baseball America, the elder Hernández “is not a top prospect, but he's intriguing and worth keeping an eye on.” Of course, the same could be said for dozens of 21-year-old pitchers, and most of those pitchers don't amount to much. Moises also was sidelined after August 12 this year; according to a post at the Orioles Hangout, he hurt his pitching shoulder—never a good development for pitcher. Moises is a small price to pay for Mazzone; even if the Braves had asked for the equivalent of Félix, Mazzone probably would have been worth it.

He's got arms, and he knows how to use them

Unlike a recent Supreme Court nomination, any potential allegations of cronyism for hiring a friend of the manager as pitching coach are trumped by Mazzone's considerable track record in the job. To many, he is the game's most respected pitching handler, having built a stellar reputation through the last 15½ years with the Atlanta Braves, 14 of which have resulted in division titles. (The exceptions: in 1990, Mazzone and Cox took over as pitching coach and manager in June, but could not keep the Braves from finishing last. In 1994, the Braves were in second place in August when the strike cancelled the season.) In Mazzone's fifteen full seasons as pitching coach, the Braves finished first or second in the NL in ERA twelve times. The exceptions: 1991 (3rd), 2003 (9th), and 2005 (6th).

The consistency and longevity of the Braves' (and Mazzone's) success is so rare that it is worth reiterating. While it's not unusual for a coach or manager to make an immediate impact upon joining a team due to a shift in style or emphasis, the test of a great one is the ability to reproduce those results year after year despite personnel changes and other varying conditions. So far, Mazzone has accomplished that as well as anyone ever has.

Mazzone has become renowned for saving pitchers' careers. Some of the many pitchers who thrived under Mazzone after struggling elsewhere are John Burkett, Chris Hammond, Jaret Wright, Greg McMichael, Mike Remlinger, and Jorge Sosa. He got more mileage out of Damian Moss and John Rocker than anyone else ever did. Few coaches can claim to have turned another team's trash into treasure so frequently.

The Orioles' press release refers to a recent ESPN.com story that called Mazzone the greatest assistant coach of all time. Regardless of whether that contention is true, the article is worth a look because it provides an excellent overview of the way Mazzone thinks and works. Titled “Rock of Atlanta” and compiled by Jeff Merron, it contains several direct quotes from and about Mazzone. Here's a sampling of Mazzone-isms:

You can push harder when they're going well and not when they're going bad. When they're going bad, that's when they need some support, mentally and physically....

I'm not telling them to throw every pitch down and away, but as long as you have that pitch, you're always going to be good....

[Johnny] Sain taught me that one of the worst things you can do is over-coach, especially if it's a young pitcher coming into a farm system. My feeling is you leave them alone, and you let them express themselves, and, if everything's fine, you continue to leave them alone....

I got a thing that I keep in my pitching book. And it says, "If you don't care who gets the credit, you'll be successful."

That last quote, about not caring about the credit, sounds similar to what Mike Flanagan has said repeatedly over the past few years, so it appears that Mazzone will fit in just fine in Baltimore.

References to Johnny Sain are not unusual from Mazzone. Mazzone was a disciple of Sain in the Braves' organization and served alongside Sain as co-pitching coach of Atlanta in 1985, although he later said the purpose of the arrangement was for Mazzone to "keep peace" between Sain and manager Eddie Haas. Sain, one of the distinguished pitching coaches of his era, was Mazzone's chief influence in the art of coaching pitchers. He was the source of many of Mazzone's core pitching principles, such as throwing twice between starts, commanding the outside corner with the fastball, changing speeds, and staying composed and confident on the mound. But Sain's willful iconoclasm prevented him from staying with the same team for long during his coaching career, while Mazzone's egoless drive and tight relationship with Cox have been instrumental to Atlanta's enduring success.

The ESPN.com article suggests that much of Mazzone's effectiveness comes from his ability to communicate his ideas to his pitchers in combination with his constant reinforcement of those ideas through supervised practice and repetition. Mazzone keeps a close watch on his pitchers both during practice and during games, and that vigilance probably is a major reason for the relatively good health of the Braves' arms in his tenure. Another likely reason is his teaching his pitchers to change speeds liberally so that they end up throwing at less than maximum effort a significant portion of the time.

In many respects Mazzone is similar to Miller, whose old-school, keep-it-simple approach was summed up in the triune mantra “Throw strikes, work fast, change speeds.” Like Miller, Mazzone knows not to overload his pupils with too much information at once, but tries to feed them one pearl at a time. Mazzone is keenly aware of the importance of the mental aspect of pitching and takes care to observe and cultivate that in his pitchers. He is also sensitive enough to adapt his approach to each individual's personality.

On the other hand, Mazzone doesn't emphasize running as much as Miller did, preferring instead that his pupils practice throwing as much as possible to maintain arm strength and the feel of their pitches.

A second serving of Mazzo ball

Will Mazzone replicate his Braves success with the Orioles? It's not a given. He will be without bedfellows Cox and Schuerholz, who provided stable and excellent leadership during their shared run with Atlanta. Barring a major trade or free-agent signing, he won't have an elite starter on the level of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, or John Smoltz to anchor the rotation—let alone three of them. He will have to adapt to a new organization after being with the Braves for 26 years. And he may have to adjust his expectations to accommodate the slightly higher-powered offenses of the American League and the Orioles' perennially strong rivals in the AL East.

Yet Mazzone has overcome changes and challenges many times before, so it would be foolish to say he can't do it again. Nevertheless, it may be a few years before his impact is fully realized with the Orioles, as the scale of this transition dwarfs that of any circumstance he faced with the Braves. Fortunately for the O's, Mazzone expressed a hope to finish his career with Perlozzo, so it looks like he's committed to see his next project through.

But at 57, he only has so many years of coaching in him. How long will Mazzone continue to coach? Will he be able to pass his knowledge down throughout the organization? Can he develop an in-house successor to continue his legacy?

The Orioles have lacked stability at pitching coach for the last two decades. But it wasn't always that way. Miller, after serving an apprenticeship as the Orioles' minor-league pitching coach in the 1970s, in 1977 was promoted to replace his predecessor and mentor, George Bamberger, who in turn learned from his predecessor, Harry Brecheen, in the '60s. Those three men were the Orioles' only pitching coaches during the franchise's first 31 years in Baltimore, and the organization's pitchers benefited from a uniform and proven pitching philosophy.

But that lineage began to erode in the mid-1980s. After Miller left Baltimore to manage the Minnesota Twins in 1985, he was replaced by minor-league pitching coach Ken Rowe, but Rowe lasted just one more year before being fired. That started a run of dominoes that has continued to this day: since Miller's first term ended, the Orioles' pitching-coach position has suffered turnover at a rate of about twice every three years (Mazzone's signing marks the fourteenth time the position has changed hands in twenty-one years). Even in the age of free agency, such repeated discontinuity has made it difficult to sustain a stout big-league pitching staff, and it made developing a coherent, organization-wide approach to pitching almost impossible.

Bringing Mazzone into the fold is the most significant event of the year for the Orioles. Already it has the potential to rival the signing of Miguel Tejada as the team's biggest acquisition of this decade. But Mazzone alone cannot transform a culture of turnover and—let's face it—mediocrity that has pervaded the organization for most of the past twenty years. That kind of turnaround will take the cooperation and diligence of people in a host of important positions, from the owner to the front office to the manager and coaches on down to the minor-league staff and the lowliest scouts. That's not to diminish Mazzone's hiring, however, which is a major step that promises to propel the organization back toward pitching prosperity.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 23, 2005 1:20 AM.

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