Pitching the Hall

There has been a movement afoot in the last decade to induct more people into the Hall of Fame.  No, not more players, or managers or even GMs.  People who have had less visible impacts on the game - scouts and more recently, coaches.

One the whole, I'm in favor of inducting scouts and coaches.  These folks have been laboring far too long in obscurity while their contributions to the game, too great to ignore.  Induction would be a much-deserved reward for people like Clyde Sukeforth (scout), Bill Clark (scout), Johnny Sain (pitching coach) and George Bamberger (pitching coach).

One of the current discussions posits that the Braves' Leo Mazzone deserves enshrinement as the best pitching coach ever.  Look at the success the Braves have had; it's due in large part to the success of their pitching staffs.  They've had 7 Cy Young award winners, more than a few 20 game winners and some historically effective bullpens.  And more importantly, the Braves have been the healthiest pitching staff in baseball for more than a decade, right?  The credit has to go to Mazzone, yes?

Sort of.

First, I'm not sure Tom Glavine deserved the Cy Young the last time he won it.  Kevin Brown was better in just about every category in 1998 - more innings, more strikeouts, lower ERA, fewer baserunners, more complete games... he was even a better fielder.  Glavine had 2 more wins.  That was pretty much his only advantage.  An argument could also be made for Trevor Hoffman that year as well, who had a year similar to Gagne's last year - saving 53 of 54 opportunities and posting a 1.48 ERA.  A strong argument could be made for Greg Maddux in 1998 as well, but the reason Glavine won was because he had more wins than any of the others. 

And as anyone who's followed baseball more than a year or two knows (or at least should know), wins are one of the least representative stats of a pitcher's effectiveness.  To get a win, you not only need enough offensive support to leave with the lead, but you also need the bullpen to hold it for the rest of the game.  Wins are a team effort, not a measure of individual success, or of a coaches effectiveness with a starting pitcher.  Do we really want to credit Mazzone for Russ Ortiz' 21-win season when he was the beneficiary of the best run support in the NL?  Was Leo's strategy all along for Ortiz' to lead the league in walks?

Which is another reason why using winning pitchers as a primary measure of a pitching coach's effectiveness seems kind of silly.  Yes, he plays a role in the effectiveness of his pitchers, but a better measure would be using the pitcher's ERA.  It does a much better job of measuring how well a pitcher performed than his wins total.  Better yet, why not compare a pitcher's ERA before and after he worked for a particular pitching coach?  If a guy is much better with a particular pitching coach than he was at any other time, then an argument could be made that the coach made a difference.

Take Greg Maddux for example.  Here's a guy who won 20 games, posted an ERA of 2.18 and won the NL Cy Young award before he came to Atlanta.  And he was only 26 years old.  With a reasonable expectation that Maddux would get even better as he entered his peak years, why would anyone credit Leo Mazzone for Maddux winning more Cy Young awards?   It's not like Mazzone had to tell him very much.

How about the guys who left the Braves (or at least the ones who were healthy when they left)?  How have they done?  Kevin Millwood as a Brave - 3.86 ERA; as a Phillie - 4.01 ERA, although it should be noted that in only two of Millwood's six years as a Brave did he post an ERA under 4.00.  Odalis Perez as a Brave - 5.38; as a Dodger - 3.68.  John Burkett's ERA in Atlanta - 3.74; elsewhere 4.39.  Mike Hampton's Atlanta ERA is 4.26, elsewhere it was 3.97.  Park effects even these numbers out a little: Perez benefits from pitching in LA, Burkett took some extra beatings in Texas and Boston, Hampton benefited from pitching in the Astrodome and Shea Stadium, but then was mercilessly punished in Coors.  The point is that there probably isn't a great deal of difference in ERAs whether the guy was pitching for Leo or not. 

And what of the purported health of the Braves... what about that?  Well, to be sure they were healthier than the staffs of Dallas Green, Bob Boone, Dusty Baker and other arm-wreckers.  But it's not like the Braves have been the picture of health and vigor.  John Smoltz has had at least 3 surgeries on his arm including Tommy John surgery, Steve Avery was burned out before he was 24 years old, Odalis Perez lost a season to surgery, Pete Smith was done by age 27, Kent Mercker was traded with arm problems at age 27 (although he has managed to come back and carve out a nice career as a reliever) and Mark Wohlers has never recovered from a strained pectoral muscle he suffered in Atlanta. 

What most of Mazzone's reputation for healthy pitchers is based on is what Maddux and Glavine have done.  The rest of the staff has had a pretty spotty record of health and endurance since 1991.  It's not at all clear that the Braves have been any healthier than average.  They've just been blessed with two workhorses (who also happen to be two of the most efficient when it comes to pitch counts) who make it look like they have.

One other issue that has not been addressed with Mazzone, is his success rate with young pitchers.  The Braves have had numerous top pitching prospects come through their system, yet very few have turned out well.  Damian Moss, Jason Marquis, Jung Bong, Steve Avery, Odalis Perez, Paul Byrd, Kent Mercker... there have been more than a couple.  And very few - Kevin Millwood is the only one I can think of that Mazzone has had from the start - have turned out as well as anticipated under Mazzone.  The others have either been injured, or enjoyed their first taste of success after leaving Atlanta. 

This is not to say that Mazzone hasn't done a remarkable job with his pitchers.  Reviving the careers of John Burkett, Andy Ashby and Mike Hampton (although it's yet to be determined if he has really been revived), as well as his cobbling together good bullpens from other people's chaff are both incredible achievements.  But I thought in the interest of truth that the whole picture should be painted.

So is he the best ever?  I'm not sure he's even the best in the game right now.

I have incredible respect for Don Gullett.  Here's a guy who has not had a decent starting pitching prospect since Jose Rijo (well OK, one - Bret Tomko), yet has made a career of taking other people's cast-offs (Pete Schourek, Dave Burba, Pete Harnisch, Ron Villone, Steve Parris, Elmer Dessens) and turning them into serviceable, occasionally very good starters.  He may do it again with Paul Wilson this year.  No thoroughbreds in that group.  And like Mazzone, he has also put together some very effective bullpens, topping the NL in bullpen ERA several times from 1994-2001.

While he doesn't have the string of Cy Young winners and 20-game winners that Mazzone has, Gullett has had far less talent to work with.  So who has done the better job?  Well, I would go with Gullett, for two reasons.  He's done a better job with retreads than Mazzone:

Pete Schourek with Gullett - 4.27 ERA, without - 4.77 ERA
Dave Burba with Gullett - 4.06 ERA, without - 4.69 ERA
Pete Harnisch with Gullett - 3.89 ERA, without - 3.89 ERA
Ron Villone with Gullett - 4.82 ERA, without - 4.96 ERA
Steve Parris with Gullett - 4.15 ERA, without - 5.51 ERA
Elmer Dessens with Gullett - 3.93 ERA, without - 5.46 ERA

And secondly, he has never allowed a pitcher under age 27 to throw more than 120 pitches in a game.  His own career was cut short in part to overuse at a young age and he simply won't make the same mistake with his charges. He's maintained this credo despite coaching under two of the worst arm abusers in recent memory - Lou Pinella and Bob Boone.  And as a result, the only significant youngster who has missed time to surgery is Scott Williamson.

Simply put, he's done very well with a whole lot less and doesn't get the credit for doing what everyone else says Mazzone does but really doesn't: keeping his pitchers healthy.

So if we're going to start putting coaches in the Hall of Fame, let's start with the guys who are most deserving before inducting the one who is simply the most famous.