Braves' pitching in arrested development

Some suggest Leo Mazzone should be a Hall of Famer. But are the Braves really that good at developing pitchers?

Originally Published: June 18, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

I have, in this space, suggested that Leo Mazzone should be measured for a Hall of Fame plaque (and there shouldn't be much argument about which cap he'll be wearing). The argument goes something like ... The Braves won 11 division titles (and counting) mostly on the strength of their pitching, and Mazzone was the pitching coach for all 11 division titles (and counting). What's more, almost everybody regards Mazzone as some sort of genius. So if the Braves have been incredibly successful and their pitching coach has played a significant role in that success, shouldn't he be seriously considered for the Hall of Fame?

Leo Mazzone
Leo Mazzone has had great talent, like Tom Glavine, during his tenure with the Braves.

I buy the argument.

Then again, maybe Larry Dierker's on to something when he writes in his just-published book, "Perhaps Mazzone gets too much credit and perhaps his pitchers deserve more: As I recall, Greg Maddux was a pretty good pitcher before he signed with Atlanta, and strong-armed closer Mark Wohlers had to go to another team to conquer the Steve Blass scattershot syndrome."

Indeed, Maddux was the National League's Cy Young Award winner the season before he signed with the Braves. That said, nobody considered Tom Glavine and John Smoltz can't-miss prospects, yet both became superstars under Mazzone's tutelage.

But what strikes me, on the day of Kevin Millwood's first start against the Braves, is how few great pitchers the Braves have developed since Glavine and Smoltz established themselves as major-leaguers way back in 1989 (before Mazzone took over as the Braves' pitching coach).

And since then? Two great pitchers. Or rather, two pitchers who were briefly great.

Steve Avery was supposed to be the next great pitcher, and for a while it looked like he might be just that. As a 20-year-old rookie in 1990, Avery went 3-11 with a 5.64 ERA (reminiscent of Glavine's struggles as a rookie in 1988). But the very next season -- Mazzone's first full season -- Avery won 18 games, and then he won 18 again in 1993. He was still only 23 years old, and he'd just posted a 2.94 ERA and finished sixth in the Cy Young balloting.

And that was as good as it got. Avery would pitch three more seasons for the Braves, but he just wasn't the same pitcher. In Avery's three good seasons (1991-1993) he went 47-30 with a 3.17 ERA. Over the next three seasons, plagued by arm problems, he went 22-26 with a 4.40 ERA. Since 1996, Avery has pitched for the Red Sox, the Reds, and now the Tigers. Thirteen years after making his major-league debut, the next great pitcher has exactly 96 major-league victories to his credit.

And 96 victories is more victories than any other post-Glavine/Smoltz Braves pitching prospect has recorded.

No. 2 on the list is Millwood, with 83 wins (and counting). Millwood didn't arrive in the majors with the same credentials as Avery. Where Avery was the third player chosen in the 1988 draft, Millwood wasn't selected until the 11th round in 1993. And it wasn't until 1997, his fifth season as a pro, that Millwood established himself as a hot prospect, going 7-0 with a 1.93 ERA in nine starts after getting promoted to Triple-A Richmond.

Millwood finished the 1997 season with the big club, and then he made a big splash on April 14, 1998. In his second start of the season and his 10th in the major leagues, Millwood threw a one-hitter at the Pirates, recording 13 strikeouts without allowing even a single walk.

Millwood won 17 games that season and 18 the next, but slumped in 2000 and spent nearly half of the 2001 season on the disabled list. He did come back with an excellent 2002 season, after which the Braves traded him to the Phillies for a Triple-A catcher with a great future as a Triple-A catcher.

After Avery and Millwood, neither of whom has yet totaled 100 major-league victories, the list of successful ex-Braves prospects isn't particularly long.

  • David Nied was considered a brilliant prospect, but hurt his arm after being selected by the Rockies in the expansion draft. He finished his career with 17 major-league victories.

  • The next great Braves pitching prospect was Terrell Wade. He pitched decently enough for the Braves, but never could lock down a regular job and finished his career with only eight major-league victories.

  • Most recently, Bruce Chen, Odalis Perez, and Jason Marquis were all highly regarded, coming up through Atlanta's organization. All three are still young, but Chen's already with his sixth organization and Marquis has been something of a disappointment, unable to hold down the No. 5 starter spot. Perez has been effective ... but for the Dodgers, after pitching poorly for the Braves.

    Aside from Millwood, probably the best hope for one-time Braves prospects is now Jason Schmidt. He pitched 84 innings for the Braves in 1995 and '96, and racked up a 6.45 ERA. He later became a pretty good pitcher with the Pirates, and now ranks as one of the Giants' best starters. Still, at 30 years old and with only 74 major-league wins on his resume, Schmidt's not exactly headed for Cooperstown.

    Developing All-Star caliber major-league starting pitchers isn't easy, for anybody. But the Braves have featured a number of great pitching prospects since Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone took the reins in 1990. And it's at least a bit surprising that not even one of those prospects has, in the years since, totaled even 100 victories in the major leagues.

    Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information, visit Rob's Web site.

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