Why Mazzone hasn't done x particularly well

While Leo Mazzone hasn't been a master at developing pitchers, he's still done plenty of good for the Braves.

Originally Published: June 20, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Wednesday, I noted that since Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone took over in 1991 -- as manager and pitching coach of the Braves, respectively -- that organization hasn't come up with even a single starting pitcher who's won at least 100 games in the major leagues.

But as Mark Armour points out, 100-game winners aren't exactly a dime a dozen. Among the many, many pitchers who've debuted since 1990, only 16 have reached 100 victories. Here's the complete list:

             Debut  Team     Wins
Mike Mussina  1991  Orioles   191
Pe. Martinez  1992  Dodgers   156
Sc. Erickson  1990  Twins     140
An. Pettitte  1995  Yankees   134
Charles Nagy  1990  Indians   129
Pat Hentgen   1991  Jays      123
Denny Neagle  1991  Twins     122
Pedro Astacio 1992  Dodgers   118
Aaron Sele    1993  Red Sox   118
Kirk Rueter   1993  Expos     116
Jeff Fassero  1991  Expos     112
Tim Wakefield 1992  Pirates   110
Dave Burba    1990  Mariners  110
Mike Hampton  1993  Mariners  109
Sh. Reynolds  1992  Astros    108
Brad Radke    1995  Twins     107

Only one team has developed three 100-game winners, and that team is the Minnesota Twins. Next up are the Mariners, the Expos and the Dodgers, with two apiece (and the M's deserve some sort of special booby prize for trading both Dave Burba and Mike Hampton before either established himself in the majors).

It's true, there's no Brave on this list. But it's also true that of the 26 teams that existed in 1990, only 11 are on this list. Which is to say, developing a 100-game winner probably isn't as easy as it looks. What's more, it's likely that Atlanta products Kevin Millwood and Jason Schmidt both will take their places on this list before too terribly long (as will a number of other pitchers).

My point in the column wasn't, "Great pitching coaches do x particularly well. Leo Mazzone has not done x particularly well, therefore he's not a great pitching coach."

Instead, my point was, "Pitching coaches are asked to do w, x, y, and z. I'm not writing about w, y or z today, but doesn't it seem like Leo Mazzone hasn't done x particularly well?"

And of course, in this case x is developing solid young starting pitchers who enjoy long and productive careers.

A number of Braves fans -- and in my experience, Braves fans are a sensitive lot, quick to assume bias -- considered Wednesday's column a general referendum on Mazzone's performance as the team's pitching coach. But that's not what it was.

And some people got it.

    Hey Rob ...

    Good article on Leo Mazzone today and the development (or lack thereof) of superstar pitching prospects for the Braves. While I don't disagree with your analysis, my question is that I'm not sure who has outshone Mazzone & Co. in terms of developing multiple All-Star pitchers. Obviously Rick Peterson and the A's have done a stellar job here, and Houston appears to be on the cusp of doing something similar (especially if you count Freddy Garcia). But beyond that, I can't see any coach/team that's developed multiple All-Star pitchers recently. While he hasn't turned every pitcher into the next coming of Catfish Hunter (or even Andy Pettitte), it doesn't look like anyone else has either.

    Also, it would seem to me that developing young pitchers really is only half (if that much) of a pitching coach's responsibilities. What Mazzone has done really well is: 1) cobbling together a bullpen out of spare parts that functions admirably well under his tutelage; and 2) getting journeymen pitchers to have above average seasons with the Braves (Charlie Liebrandt and John Burkett, to name two), and 3) keeping his pitchers, both prospects and signees, relatively injury-free. All those factors seem to have led to 11 division titles.

    Lastly, isn't it just possible that these prospects were all just overhyped (much like all Yankee prospects not named Eric Milton)?

    Thanks for your time, as always.

    Angelo

Exactly, Angelo. Except I don't know if all those prospects were overhyped. I think that David Nied and Terrell Wade really were outstanding prospects, and I also think that Steve Avery was worked too hard at a very young age.

Which is to say that while I think Mazzone is quite likely the best pitching coach of his generation and ranks among the very best ever, he's not quite perfect. Which makes him no different than the rest of us.

Further, I think part of the problem is that Mazzone hasn't been allowed to develop a number of the Braves' better prospects. Nied was exposed in the expansion draft, Jason Schmidt and Odalis Perez and others were traded ... Mazzone has, in a sense, been a victim of his own success. Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were so good that there really wasn't any apparent reason to suffer through the development process of the young guys. Still, I'd like to see what Mazzone can do with Jason Marquis and Horacio Ramirez ...

***************

Tuesday, I wrote about Albert Pujols' first three seasons. Or rather, his first two seasons and two months. In case you missed it, I suggested that Pujols will wind up with something like 90 Win Shares -- Bill James' measure of value -- over his first three seasons, which is something that very few players have done.

I was sure the column would elicit a number of complaints about players I'd missed, but that didn't happen. Instead, most responses simply manifested curiosity about a couple of recent players who started strong ...

    Hi Rob,

    I thought that maybe Big Frank Thomas may have had a pretty high Win Share his first three full seasons. Where did he come in at?

    Thanks and keep up the great work.

    Dan

Dan, you've found one of the weaknesses of my methodology. Thomas, like Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki, was a potent hitter beginning with his very first day in the major leagues. Here are Thomas's Win Shares in his first three seasons:

    14
    33
    33

Of course, what this doesn't tell us is that those 14 Win Shares came in just 60 games, as Thomas wasn't promoted to the majors until early August in his rookie season. That's not to say Thomas should have opened the season in the majors; he'd finished the previous season in the Class A Florida State League, and wasn't all that great there. So he started the next season (1990) in the Double-A Southern League, and pounded the ball for four months before the White Sox called him up, at which point he immediately became the best hitter in the American League.

Pujols romped to the National League's Rookie of the Year Award in 2001. That very same season, Ichiro was the American League's Rookie of the Year and its Most Valuable Player. But has Ichiro kept up with Albert? No, at least not when it comes to Win Shares.

      Pujols  Ichiro
2001    29      36
2002    32      25
2003    35      28
        96      89

The 2003 Win Shares are based on James' quick-and-dirty method for computing them, and are projections based on performance to this point in the season. Given those limitations, it's certainly possible that Ichiro will actually finish this season with 90-plus Win Shares, and it's also possible that he'll wind up with more Win Shares in his first three seasons than Pujols.

So yes, applying a rigorous "90 Win Shares in three seasons" test is going to result in some omissions (but not many). And Ichiro has been roughly as good as Pujols, over their first three seasons. But you know, adding Thomas and Ichiro to the group certainly doesn't make Pujols look any worse. If Pujols really is 23, he's going to be one of the best players in the game for a long time.

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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