If anyone can turn Hampton around, it's Mazzone

Rob says if anyone will be able to turn Mike Hampton around, Leo Mazzone is certainly the man.

Originally Published: November 19, 2002
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

I'd like to break down the Hampton-Wilson-Johnson-Spooneybarger (maybe)-Pierre-Darensbourg-Ozuna deal, but since nobody seems to know exactly what the deal is, we can't break.

But while there are a lot of things we don't know yet, there's one thing we do know: If the Braves wind up with Mike Hampton and Mike Hampton re-establishes himself as one of the best pitchers in the National League, then the good folks in Cooperstown should reserve a space in the Hall of Fame for Leo Mazzone's plaque. Because for the last couple of seasons, Hampton's pitched more like he should be playing in Atlantic City than Atlanta.

Until the cows come home, John Schuerholz can say, "Our scouts all say that he's as good as he was before he went to Coors Field. We believe he'll regain some of the pitching excellence he enjoyed before these last two years."

Leo Mazzone's been the Braves pitching coach for each of their 11 division titles since 1991, and you'd have a tough time convincing me that the Braves would have those 11 division titles without Mazzone. I believe that it's Mazzone who is most responsible for the amazing health of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, and for the wonderful bullpens the Braves have cobbled together, year after year.

But we don't have to believe it. There are two pretty scary things that you can find without much trouble in Hampton's recent record. Scary if you're a Braves fan (or John Schuerholz), I mean.

The first scary thing is that Hampton isn't striking out nearly as many hitters as he used to strike out. In 1999, Hampton struck out 6.7 hitters per nine innings. In 2000, Hampton struck out 6.2 hitters per nine innings. In 2001, Hampton struck out 5.4 hitters per nine innings. And in 2002, Hampton struck out 3.7 hitters per nine innings.

That figure -- 3.7 per nine innings -- is scary. Scarier than a good Stephen King novel. Like It, or Bag of Bones. Scarier than thinking of what happens to everybody if the globe really is warming.

Well, maybe not that scary. Unless you're a Braves fan. Or John Schuerholz.

Also scary, if perhaps slightly less so, is Hampton's road ERA lately.

His home ERA isn't much to look at: 5.73. But that's to be expected, right? Considering his home ballpark in 2001 and 2002? But then there's Hampton's road ERA, which was higher than his Coors ERA. Not a lot higher -- 5.77, if you or Schuerholz cares -- but isn't that a little strange?

Hampton looks, to me at least, like a pitcher who's hurt. Everybody says he isn't hurt, though, so maybe he's just a pitcher who's forgotten how to pitch. If Hampton's hurt, then there's probably not a lot that Mazzone can do to help him. But if Hampton's forgotten how to pitch, and Mazzone helps him remember, then by golly let's put the guy in the Hall of Fame.

Actually, I would argue that Mazzone's already got a claim on a spot in the Hall. Let's look at the individuals most responsible for the Braves' success over the last dozen (!) seasons ...

Ted Turner owned the Braves for a quarter of a century and pioneered the "superstation."

John Schuerholz presided over World Series-winning teams in Kansas City and Atlanta, and his Braves have enjoyed a singular run of success within their division.

Bobby Cox has to rank as the greatest manager since Earl Weaver, at least.

Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine ... well, I guess you know plenty about them.

There was a time, not really so long ago, when five of these men would have been considered outstanding candidates for the Hall of Fame. At this moment, it's unlikely that either Turner or Schuerholz will gain entry into the Hall of Fame, because the current rules make it extremely difficult for owners and executives.

But I left somebody off that list, didn't I? Leo Mazzone's been the Braves pitching coach for each of their 11 division titles since 1991, and you'd have a tough time convincing me that the Braves would have those 11 division titles without Mazzone. I believe that it's Mazzone who is most responsible for the amazing health of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, and for the wonderful bullpens the Braves have cobbled together, year after year.

Yet nobody talks about putting Leo Mazzone into the Hall of Fame, for the reasonable reason that coaches simply aren't considered. There are 16 Hall of Famers elected as managers, and zero Hall of Famers elected as coaches. Let's assume that Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox are both elected. That makes 18 Hall of Famers elected as managers ... and still zero Hall of Famers elected as coaches.

I'm not going to argue that pitching coaches are as important as managers. But considering the importance of a good pitching staff, and the apparent influence that a pitching coach can have on a pitching staff, don't you think there's room in the Hall for at least a couple of pitching coaches? Would it kill anybody to figure out a way to get Leo Mazzone and Johnny Sain into the Hall of Fame?

I don't think that it would, and I do think that both men deserve the game's highest honor.

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What to make of the deal?

Before I offer my take on this odd amalgamations of trades and cash payments, let me mention just how much my job has changed since I started doing this, way back in the spring of 1995 when, I suspect, at least a few of you were just finishing the fifth grade.

Way back then, I did something that we imaginatively titled "Transaction Analysis," in which I analyzed transactions.

Of course, analyzing transactions wasn't anything new, but I analyzed the transactions with a viewpoint informed by sabermetrics, which was at least somewhat new. We stopped publishing my little comments after a couple of years -- I can't remember if it was because I got tired of writing them, or people got tired of reading them -- but of course I still do occasionally write about transactions, when I want to or when I'm supposed to.

But just as the BBWAA's awards are quickly becoming irrelevant because everybody's getting smarter, my silly little opinions about transactions are becoming irrelevant because everybody's getting smarter ... and they're all over the Internet.

Long before I started punching the keys for this particular column, I'd received Joe Sheehan's e-mail column on the big trade. Though some of Joe's conclusions were based on the faulty information that we all had until Monday afternoon, his analysis was generally spot-on (as it usually is). Also Monday, a variety of contributors over at Baseball Primer's Clutch Hits analyzed the deal every which way, to lengths that some might consider absurd but that I consider just about right. Oh, and of course my friends at Baseball Prospectus had something intelligent to say, too.

Still, this time I'd like to give it a shot, too.

The Rockies are better off, because they dumped at least some of Hampton's monstrous contract, they've dumped all of Juan Pierre's kooky contract, and they're better at two positions next season (center field and catcher).

The Marlins are better off because they also shed some salary, and they've got a couple of hot prospects who can take over in center field and behind the plate. (On the other hand, they're going to take yet another public-relations hit, and it's likely that attendance will drop even lower. Maybe a lot lower, if that's possible).

And the Braves? They'll be better off if The Incredible Mister Mazzone reminds Mike Hampton how to pitch. The Braves have Hampton "locked up" (lucky them!) for the next six seasons, over which span they'll pay him $43.5 million, or roughly $8 million per season (including meal money and laundry detergent). For those of you who just arrived in a time machine from the distant future, $8 million is a significant amount of money in the early 21st century, but it's not completely out of line for a major-league baseball pitcher who can throw more than 200 innings every season and post an ERA better than the league average.

Of course, the smart money is on Hampton falling far short of those marks. And the smart money is also on Leo Mazzone falling far short of getting his very own plaque in Cooperstown.

But you know, stranger things have happened.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published next spring by Fireside, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.

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