Brave's Nation
September 11, 2005

You probably didn't realize this, but the US is a nation of Atlanta Braves fans.  There are other teams that often get the nod in the press - the Yankees are the most popular team in America, Notre Dame is College Football University, the Dallas Cowboys are America's team... but the reality is that almost everyone in the US is a Braves fan.  They'd have to be.  There's no other way to explain how they get so much leeway.   I'm not trying to take away anything from what they've accomplished, but the myths that surround the Braves are as familiar in the American psyche as the presence of the Church of Scientology and they have nearly as many holes.  Seriously.

For example, they've won 13 straight division titles.  You hear that all the time.  Except that it's not true.  They didn't win their division in 1994, nor would they have.  They were six and a half games behind the Expos that year and losing ground when the work stoppage halted the season.  It's not like the year before when they were gaining on the Giants while making their famous mid-July trade for Fred McGriff.  They were losing ground on the Expos in mid-August.  While they didn't play the final 50 games that season, it still counts as a full season.  They actually played more games in 1994 than they did in another strike year (1981) yet they still count it.  It counted enough that the baseball writers felt they had enough data to hand out the post season awards.  It was a real season in every way except that it didn't actually have a post season.  Yet still almost all of America believes either that 1994 didn't count, or that the Braves could have won that year.  Neither is true.

They also believe that Bobby Cox is one of the greatest managers in history.  This is the same manager who has been to the postseason more than a dozen times, yet only has one championship to show for it.  Why is that?  Bad luck?  Maybe.  Or maybe it's because he makes decisions like choosing the .199 hitting Jorge Fabregas to be his team's third catcher for the 1999 postseason, as opposed to taking the .317 hitting Randall Simon as a left-handed bat off the bench.  Which happens more frequently in the post-season: losing your primary and secondary catchers for the series or using a left-handed pinch hitter?   Seriously.  That's like bringing shark repellant instead of paddles on a white-water rafting trip. 

Sunday's game with the Nationals further illustrates Cox' "brilliance".

John Smoltz started the game and by the time he finished the 7th inning he had thrown all of 74 pitches.  The only marks against him were solo homers by Rick Short and Nick Johnson and a double by Ryan Zimmerman.  Starting in the third inning, Smoltz retired the entire Nationals order with 14 pitches.  Yes, he retired 9 consecutive batters with a total of 14 pitches.  He had a 6-2 lead when he finshed the 7th inning and was cruising to a 3-hit win.  Yet Cox thought it'd be a good idea to take him out of the game.  One of the sportswriters commented that it was a good decision because Smoltz was coming off surgery this past offseason and had a history of arm troubles.  Well, at east the latter part was true; he has had a history of arm troubles.  But Smoltz hasn't had surgery for two years.  Did it take Cox until the middle of September to finally realize he might need to be careful with his injury-prone ace?  Because in 22 of Smoltz 31 previous starts he had thrown at least 100 pitches, including a high of 123.  Smoltz had some recent troubles with a stiff neck, but that didn't stop him from throwing 109 pitches in his previous start.  No, this one was all Bobby Cox' decision.

Regardless, he turned it over to his bullpen, which other than Kyle Farnsworth, has been disastrous.  Their ERA in September is nearly 6.00 (5.955 to be exact) and three times in the past two weeks they've given up at least 4 runs in an inning.  On Friday they combined to surrender 6 runs in a span of three innings to turn a Horacio Ramirez win into a 8-6 loss.  Smoltz has a 4-run lead and thrown only 74 pitches but to Cox, this seemed like the perfect time to bring in the bombed squad.  True to form, they surrendered the lead, giving up 5 runs in the bottom of the eighth.  But that's not where it ended.  In the top of the ninth, Chipper and Andruw Jones hit back-to-back homers to re-take the lead and save Cox from interrogation.  Cox' decisions cost the Braves the lead, yet his great players bailed him out once again.  It's a catch-22.  When they don't bail him out it's because of bad luck, but when they do it's because he's a genius and a great manager.  But he's the reason the Braves win all those division titles, isn't he?

The same is true of Leo Mazzone.  He has the reputation as the greatest pitching coach ever.  I won't debate that he's a fine pitching coach, but he's not the miracle worker everyone seems to think he is.  Who is the only pitching prospect he ever developed?  Kevin Millwood.  Despite having Jason Marquis, Jason Schmidt, Bruce Chen, Paul Byrd, Steve Avery, Terrell Wade, Odalis Perez and Darrell May come through the Braves system, the only starter in the last 10 years he successfully developed was Millwood.  All of them were highly regarded as prospects, yet the others either flamed out or blossomed only after they left Atlanta.  Even so, Millwood finished with an ERA over 4.00 in four of his first 6 seasons.  This year Millwood has a 3.11 ERA, which would qualify as his second best ever despite switching to a league where he doesn't get to face pitchers and a park that is more hitter-friendly than Atlanta.   This is arguably Millwood's finest season, yet Mazzone will somehow get some credit for it despite being three years removed from any regular contact with him.

He also gets the reputation as a pitching coach who keeps his pitchers healthy.  Yet Smoltz has undergone three surgeries on his arm, Odalis Perez underwent surgery before he was traded away as have several other pitchers under Mazzone's care.  This year the Braves have had starts from 9 different pitchers.  Why?  Because Mike Hampton, John Thomson and Tim Hudson haven't been able to stay healthy.  

He has the reputation as a pitching coach who makes pitchers better, but that's as unsupported by facts as the other myths.  John Burkett had turned the corner in winter ball in 1999 before the Braves signed him, as had Jaret Wright in AAA in 2003 before the Braves acquired him.  Jorge Sosa was looking like a nice sleeper last fall before the Braves traded for him and Kyle Farnsworth had been dominating all season before the Braves acquired him this year at the deadline.  The fact is that Mazzone has had very little impact on how well his pitchers have fared.  How much better did Mike Hampton do in Atlanta after he left Colorado?  Was it significantly better than what Darryl Kile did in St. Louis after he left the high altitude?  Shouldn't it have been expected that John Thomson's numbers would improve across the board in Atlanta after leaving both the American League and one of the most hitter friendly parks in baseball?  Or Andy Ashby after leaving a stadium where groundballs scoot through the astroturf infield to a park with infield grass?  Is there anyone that it can be shown conclusively that Mazzone helped?  Seriously.

If Mazzone does indeed have magical powers, why aren't they working on Chris Reitsma or Danny Kolb?  Kolb was one of the NLs most effective closers last year, yet under Mazzone he not only lost his job as the closer, but he's not even in set-up anymore.  Reitsma was set-up in Cincinnati, but as with Kolb he's been relegated to more of a mop-up role.  Magic doesn't discriminate; if Mazzone had it shouldn't every Brave's pitcher be better?  Could it be that much of Mazzone's reputation can be summed up in two words: Greg Maddux? 

The fact is, and this is the solution both the Mazzone and the Bobby Cox riddles, is that the Braves do a tremendous job of scouting both in the minors and the majors, and developing their own talent.  That farm system churns out decent players to fill in during the season when the regulars go down, which is why the team wins so many regular season games.  Their replacements are usually better than their opponents' replacements, an advantage, I might add, that's not available to them in the postseason.  It's their scouting department that targets improving talent on other teams and foreign places like Curacao that makes it easy for John Schuerholz to replenish his team cheaply and make the Braves what they are. 

Want proof of good scouting?  Every single player in the Braves' starting line-up on Sunday came through the Braves farm system.  Rafael Furcal, Marcus Giles, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Adam LaRoche, Jeff Francouer, Ryan Langerhans and Brian McCann all were products of the Braves minor leagues.  Every single one of them was either drafted or signed as a international free agent, then developed by the Braves.  How many other teams can say that?  How many in the last 20 years can say that?  Not even the Twins, who also have a tremendous scouting department, can match that although they come very close. 

Here's another interesting myth, although this one is the opposite of the others in that it's downplaying Atlanta's success.  It's perpetuated ironically enough, by the local Atlanta media and echoed today by a writer with before this year, Andruw Jones wasn't a great player.  Perhaps he still isn't.  It'd be interesting to find out what they think a great player is, because in the history of the game there have only been three centerfielders who have hit 250 home runs before they turned 28: Ken Griffey Jr, Mickey Mantle and Andruw Jones.  Willie Mays could have been another had he not lost two years to service in Korea.  Only 10 players in the history of the game accomplished the feat.  The other guys are Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Matthews, Frank Robinson, Mel Ott, Hank Aaron and Juan Gonzales.  Of those, only Gonzales is not considered one of the 50 greatest players ever but he's a special case.  And Jones is arguably the best fielder in center ever.  With his next home run, he'll become one of eight players to hit 300 home runs before turning 29.  If he is not a first ballot Hall of Fame lock, then there shouldn't be a Hall of Fame.  Shoulnd't that make him great?

Given the general apathy regarding the current political climate, it's not surprising that myths like these have such a long shelf life.  But once they have been exposed, shouldn't it be time to put an end to their silliness?  Seriously.