Coach has touch, Braves say

THE BALTIMORE SUN

His professional memories have been turned into a book. His rocking mannerism is familiar to millions of baseball enthusiasts. His arrival in Baltimore has brought hope to a moribund fan base.

Leo Mazzone is, unquestionably, a famous man.

This wouldn't seem so remarkable if Mazzone weren't a pitching coach. From sluggers to closers to managers to broadcasters, those associated with baseball grow used to fame. But if there's a perpetually anonymous species in the game, it may be the coach.

You could name on two hands the men who became household names just by teaching hitting or pitching. Mazzone ranks near the top of that list because during the 15 years he coached in Atlanta, the Braves routinely had the best pitching in baseball.

The Mazzone miracles are legion. John Burkett, Jaret Wright, Jorge Sosa. All had career seasons under his tutelage. Economist J.C. Bradbury studied the pitchers who worked under Mazzone and found that they posted ERAs .63 better in Atlanta than elsewhere.

But a practical question looms for Orioles fans: Can Mazzone transfer his success to a new town?

It's hard to isolate his impact, at least in part because he worked with manager Bobby Cox and general manager John Schuerholz in baseball's most stable hierarchy.

Maybe Schuerholz simply had an unmatched eye for pitchers who were ready to come off the scrap heap. Or maybe Cox was so good at keeping the team on an even keel that Mazzone's work was but the cherry on the sundae.

This year will be an initial test, with Mazzone handling new pitchers in Baltimore and Cox and Schuerholz overseeing a largely unchanged staff in Atlanta.

Baseball analysts are as intrigued as anyone to see how Mazzone performs without his longtime cohorts and without Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz as raw material.

"I would be shocked if he didn't help the Orioles," said ESPN.com baseball analyst Rob Neyer. "I think the question is to what degree. But I think he had a track record in Atlanta that was too strong to just ignore."

Neyer said that even if Mazzone is assigned only 20 percent of the credit for Atlanta's success, he'd be valuable.

Some baseball observers - Orioles officials among them - have downplayed Mazzone's impact because he's replacing Ray Miller, a highly regarded coach who shared many of the same philosophies.

"I think that he'll be an extension of Ray," said Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan, who once pitched under Miller. "I think if you sat us all in a room to talk about pitching, some things may be said a little bit differently, but the message would be very much the same."

Work quickly, throw strikes, change speeds, keep the ball down, throw between starts. These are the tenets of each man's faith.

Miller, recovering from surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm, said he encouraged manager Sam Perlozzo to get his longtime friend, Mazzone.

"I told him, 'My God, it would be the greatest thing in the world for you to get this guy who's like your brother and is one of the best in the game,' " Miller recalled.

Questions of a coach's potential impact would never have arisen for most of baseball history. Coaches first appeared in the earliest years of the 20th century. Some achieved prominence. But they rarely took on more defined roles (pitching coach, hitting coach, bullpen coach, bench coach) until the 1960s.

Those who excelled and yearned for fame became managers. There was no thought that you could become rich and famous just by tinkering with pitching motions.

Major league pitching coaches have a lot in common with thoroughbred trainers. They work on technique, sure, but their jobs are more about keeping emotionally and physically fragile creatures balanced on a tightrope of excellence.

Pitchers lose it - through injury, a shift in mechanics, the loss of a little arm strength - more quickly and unpredictably than their hitting colleagues.

Those who've watched the best coaches say they are masters at seeing through a swarm of physical and emotional mechanics to the pieces that work.

"The common ground is probably that they make the game as simple as possible," Flanagan said.

Miller said the best coaches are great therapists.

"Probably the most important thing of all is reading people," he said. "The guy who needs a father figure, the guy who needs a pat on the back, the guy who's religious and doesn't like it when you cuss around him too much. You end up like a priest, hearing everything about their wives, their sisters, their brothers, financial problems."

One of the first to achieve prominence purely as a pitching coach was the Orioles' George Bamberger. The team's starters not only won 20 games like clockwork under Bamberger, but they also stayed remarkably healthy.

Earl Weaver viewed his pitching coaches, Bamberger and Miller, as mechanical experts. He explained in his book Weaver on Strategy:

"OK, though I can't throw a curve, I know what a good one looks like. But knowing the mechanics of a pitcher's motion is a whole different matter. I also may know when a pitcher should use a curve or a slider to help him win. But that doesn't mean I can teach him how to throw one. ...

"The coach does the actual instruction. He will spend hours with a pitcher in the bullpen, perfecting one thing or seeking to iron out a little flaw."

Ron Perranoski with the Dodgers and Johnny Sain with seven different franchises also supervised their share of 20-game winners. Mazzone learned many of his theories from Sain, a proponent of throwing between starts.

The three most successful managers of the past 15 years - Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre - all have had trusted pitching coaches at their sides.

La Russa hired Dave Duncan in 1983 when he managed the White Sox, and brought the coach to subsequent stops in Oakland and St. Louis.

Author Buzz Bissinger detailed in Three Nights in August why Duncan is the only person La Russa approaches during a game: "Over the years, La Russa has found that a lot of hitting and pitching coaches are ineffective because they refuse to put themselves on the line. ...

"But that's not Duncan: the brevity of a news bulletin, maybe, but never reticent. He has the laser eye for mechanical flaws and where to make adjustments. He has given performance makeovers to dozens of pitchers over the years by adding a pitch to the repertoire or modifying one.

"Just as important, he bases his ideas not on ethereal wisdom, but on hard data that he continually examines."

Torre had a similar rapport with Mel Stottlemyre until the coach resigned last fall after 10 years.

But no manager/coach duo thrived like Cox and Mazzone. The Braves led the league in ERA 10 times during their 15 seasons together.

Braves players long praised Mazzone's ability to read their moods and talents. He never worried about what a pitcher couldn't do, said catcher Johnny Estrada during an interview last fall. He figured out what the guy could do and told him to do it a lot.

With Burkett, for example, Mazzone discouraged use of an ineffective slider and told the veteran to hit the outside corner with his pinpoint fastballs. He let experienced aces like Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine set their own programs.

"He's done a great job of not screwing it up," Smoltz once told ESPN.com.

Mazzone's touch didn't work with everyone. Youngsters Jason Schmidt and Odalis Perez pitched unsteadily under Mazzone, but emerged as top starters once they moved to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively.

Flanagan and Miller said Mazzone's success in Atlanta will grant him instant credibility with Baltimore's less-heralded starters. "You say, 'Hey, this guy's getting 90-plus wins every year, so he must know what he's doing,' " Miller said.

Orioles watchers will cast particularly close eyes on Mazzone's work with Daniel Cabrera and Erik Bedard, young starters who flashed ace-level talent at times last season.

Neyer noted that in Atlanta, Mazzone had more success rehabilitating veterans than developing youngsters. Thus, he might help Kris Benson or Rodrigo Lopez more than Cabrera or Bedard, the analyst speculated.

Miller said Cabrera remains raw and Bedard gets too down on himself. "But," he predicted, "Leo will definitely help their careers."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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