Mazzone follows Sain advice
Leo Mazzone faces the biggest challenge of his Braves tenure with the latest remake of their pitching staff.
In baseball's Hall of Fame of fateful conversations, this one belongs with Roger Clemens reaming the young Curt Schilling, and Sandy Alderson indoctrinating Billy Beane. It was 1979. A mobile home parked on some camping ground outside West Palm Beach, Fla. Johnny Sain, the longtime pitching coach then with the Atlanta Braves, talked into the evening with his club's new minor league pitching coordinator, an anonymous West Virginian named Leo Mazzone. "Sain was the first guy I'd been around," Mazzone recalls today, "who didn't just have the same old clichés."
Between bites of barbecue and gulps of iced tea, Mazzone sat in that RV utterly rapt, soaking in as much as he could from the man who had coached the most 20-game winners (Ford, McLain, Wood ...) of all time. Some of his precepts:
Mazzone listened well. So well, in fact, that 25 years after those sessions in Sain's spring-training trailer park, he has emerged as the greatest pitching coach of his era, his mentor's legitimate heir. Since 1991, Mazzone's first full season as Bobby Cox's major league pitching coach, his staffs have annually been among the most effective in baseball.
No one has kept his pitchers more healthy. No one has been better at breaking down and imparting the basics of getting hitters out. And, more recently, no one has more skillfully stitched together rotations and bullpens with new personnel every year.
"It's not magic," says closer John Smoltz, who has been around for it all. "It's the product of staying with a program and believing in it."
In 2002, Mazzone took a pitcher so unpromising he was released by Tampa Bay -- John Burkett -- and helped him become an All-Star, while weaving spare parts like Chris Hammond into one of the most remarkable bullpens of all time. Last year, having to rebuild the rotation with the losses of Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood to division rivals, he wrung 21 wins from Russ Ortiz, exorcised the demons from Mike Hampton, and brought out a promising future from Horacio Ramirez.
The task is even tougher in 2004. John Thomson and Jaret Wright have joined the rotation, while a virtually brand-new bullpen sets up Smoltz: Antonio Alfonseca, Juan Cruz, C.J. Nitkowski, Chris Reitsma and more. Every year people wonder if the Braves can withstand their staff being reworked like a map of Eastern Europe. And every year they manage to. Too many pitchers have their best years in Atlanta for Mazzone and his program not to rise up as responsible.
In an age when pitchers "are more protected than the manatees in Florida," as Lou Piniella once put it, Mazzone has thrived by following Sain's advice and having pitchers throw as often as possible. Not all arms follow the same plan -- Tom Glavine always worked off the mound on the second and third days after starts, Burkett threw on the first and fourth, and Greg Maddux only worked twice if he needed to refine some pitches -- but they have managed to throw a ton and stay effective.
"The thing that I'm most proud of over all these years," says Mazzone, 55, "is the track record of health and the innings pitched by our rotations, and the appearances made by our key relievers. Because then the rest takes care of itself. That allows the talent to come forth.
"It is our philosophy that the more often you throw, and the more you can make your pitch do something without maxing out your effort, that raises your longevity. The less you throw, but when you do you throw it's as hard as you can, lowers longevity."
This year's success story looks to be Nitkowski, a self-described "underachiever" whose major league career six months ago looked just about over. The left-handed reliever attended Camp Leo -- a two-week Atlanta minicamp Mazzone has run since 1991 to get pitchers in better shape entering spring training -- and quickly incorporated many of Mazzone's teachings, specifically the importance of working down and away. (The general rule in Atlanta is you can pitch in, but don't dare get beat in.) Nitkowski learned to throw his two-seam fastball outside to lefties, something he'd never done before. He emphasized his changeup (a favorite of Mazzone followers) from his fourth pitch to third and occasionally second. A non-roster invitee to spring training, Nitkowski so impressed Braves brass that he made the Opening Day roster.
"I'm a better pitcher for being here, no doubt about it," Nitkowski raves. "There's no doubt in my mind that this is the place I needed to be. The track record is so good here, expectations are really high."
So high that it's plausible to see Wright regaining some of the dominant stuff that made him a rookie sensation in 1997. So high that the idea of Cruz blossoming in Atlanta might make Cubs fans wonder why they have Maddux instead of him.
So high that if the Braves win yet another division title, riding a pitching staff pieced together once again, most of the credit will have to go to Mazzone, his generation's Johnny Sain. "I'm still a few 20-game winners behind him," Mazzone jokes. Just give him time.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His first book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," will be published by St. Martin's Press in July.
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