Commentary

After sitting out '08 season, Mazzone seeks to work again

Originally Published: October 15, 2008
By Bob Klapisch | Special to ESPN.com

It wasn't so long ago that Leo Mazzone was the world's master pitching guru, but if you ask him, he says it feels like a million years ago.

Mazzone has gone from the Braves to the Orioles to that wide-open space called job-hunting -- a harsh reality for the man who guided John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine to a combined six Cy Young Awards.

[+] EnlargeLeo Mazzone
G. Newman Lowrance/Getty ImagesLeo Mazzone was fired by the Orioles after last season, two years into a three-year contract.
Mazzone is a free agent: His contract with the Orioles has now expired, although he was dismissed after the 2007 season. Mazzone sat out the summer of '08, missing the game he loved, wondering why no one called for his services.

"Sometimes it's hard to understand," Mazzone said by telephone this week.

"I've let other teams know I'm available. Money and contract are not an issue. I wasn't in spring training for the first time in 42 years and it really bothered me. This has been my life since I graduated high school."

Mazzone may be paying the price for his difficulties in Baltimore. In 2006, his first season in Camden Yards, the O's ranked 13th in the American League with a 5.35 ERA. In June 2007, Mazzone lost a key ally when manager and longtime friend Sam Perlozzo was fired. Although he finished out the year under Dave Trembley, Mazzone's pitchers posted a 5.17 ERA and issued a major league-high 696 walks.

The expectations weren't just formidable; they were close to impossible. As Perlozzo subsequently told reporters, "Leo didn't have much to work with."

Mazzone says the three-year, $450,000 contract he was offered by the Orioles was "very generous," but he now admits: "It was not a real good experience. I tried to get people to take more responsibility and be accountable to create a winning atmosphere. That wasn't very well received.

"I'd been with an [Atlanta] organization that was top-shelf, so I was in culture shock."

Mazzone was indeed a long way from the promised land -- Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine -- where the Braves led the National League in ERA in 12 of his final 14 seasons.

Yet, Mazzone points to his successful relationships with the O's Erik Bedard and Jeremy Guthrie as proof of his ability to tutor young pitchers and not just future Hall of Famers. But Mazzone understands the role of the pitching coach has changed since his golden era in Atlanta, just as the industry as a whole has morphed.

The emphasis today is on youth, and starting pitchers in particular are coddled by technology-savvy coaches who trust video more than their instincts.

That's one trend that Mazzone had to live with. The other is the growing obsession with pitch counts -- which, as any old-school preacher will tell you, reveals only half the story of a pitcher's fatigue level.

"There's nothing wrong with pitch counts as long as it's not the determining factor in taking [a pitcher] out," Mazzone said. "You have to do more than count; you have to look at the pitcher's face, his mechanics, his body language, to know how he's feeling. And the hitters will tell you, too, by the way they're swinging.

"Different pitchers react differently. Maddux used to go deep into every count with every hitter, so he'd get to 120 a lot faster than someone like Glavine. Tommy could get to 120 in seven innings and he wouldn't even be tired."

As for video, Mazzone agrees it can play an important role in breaking bad habits. But too much time in front of a computer can be damaging to a pitcher's confidence, as well.

I'm a starting pitchers' guy. … I still feel starters can go deeper into games -- that can be accomplished. That can be done and still keep pitchers healthy. I'll put my track record keeping pitchers healthy against
anyone's.

--Leo Mazzone

"I've seen guys look at video and say, 'Oh, my, I didn't know I did that.' They would find something that pertains to nothing," Mazzone said. "Personally, I don't have to break down video because I can usually see with my own eyes what needs to be fixed.

"Sometimes the best thing you can do with video is have a pitcher watch a great game that he'd thrown. That's more important to the psyche than to break something down."

Admittedly, that's an old-fashioned mentoring trick: Build up the mind and the arm will follow. But some of Mazzone's other rules have withstood the test of time. He's a strict believer in the importance of strike one, which he explained in his book, "Tales From The Mound."

The way to gain the advantage, Mazzone wrote, is to "throw a fastball on the first pitch, down and away. If he takes it, it's strike one. If he hits it, it's a ground ball out."

Mazzone also believed in having his starters work two side-sessions between starts -- another example of his ties to a previous era.

Mazzone believes in arm strength and rues the current trend that has de-emphasized starting pitching.

Mazzone can only shake his head at the growing number of five-inning stints and the reliance on three or four relievers in every game. He thinks this is a flawed strategy in both the short and long term.

"I'm a starting pitchers' guy," Mazzone admitted. "I still think the bullpen is only as good as your starting pitching; the starters take care of the relievers. I still feel starters can go deeper into games -- that can be accomplished. That can be done and still keep pitchers healthy. I'll put my track record keeping pitchers healthy against anyone's."

Given the depth of his résumé and his convictions, what's keeping Mazzone in limbo? He wishes he knew. But this much is certain: The great guru is just one phone call away.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.