How much does a pitching coach matter?
January 1, 2006
Over the last decade or so, the Atlanta Braves have enjoyed a level of success
few teams in professional ever sports have. There are a number of factors
that have contributed to their 11 consecutive division titles – GM John Schuerholz’
shrewd acquisitions, manager Bobby Cox’s steadying hand, a spectacularly
good scouting department that has provided a wealth of talent – but the reason
most often cited is the influence of pitching coach Leo Mazzone. During
his tenure, the Braves have finished first or second in ERA nearly every
year and have had multiple Cy Young award winners. But how much of
that success was due to Mazzone?
JC Bradbury completed a study that revealed that pitchers who come to him
generally lower their ERA: starters by about a third of a run, relievers
by around seven tenths. That is a remarkable achievement by itself,
but it doesn’t really tell how significant that it really is. After
all, it doesn’t compare Mazzone to any of his contemporaries; it only looks
at one pitching coach.
So I thought I’d see how well Mazzone compares. However, I decided
a different approach was needed. Although ERA is more trustworthy than
a stat like wins, it does have a few drawbacks, especially with regard to
relievers. Relief ERA isn’t a very good indicator of how well or poorly
a pitcher did. Not only do they suffer from a small sample size – generally
40-80 innings per season – but relievers are generally used only when the
situation is ideal for their skills. For example, lefty specialist
Chris Hammonds’ good ERA is due to being used almost exclusively against
left-handed hitters. A reliever’s ERA is largely dependent on how the
manager uses him and not necessarily due to any instruction from the pitching
coach. A starter’s ERA is likewise affected as he has no control over
whether any inherited runners he leaves score or not. If he’s backed
by a good bullpen, his ERA benefits. If not, it suffers. But
the pitching coach has little or no effect in that regard.
With those concerns in mind, I decided to limit my study to just starters.
While it’s rare relievers are converted to starters, it does happen enough
to include, so I limited those cases to relievers who have made at least
10 starts under at least two different pitching coaches. I also decided
to use baserunners allowed instead of ERA. In my view it removes the
effect of the bullpen and it limits the manager’s decisions as a factor.
I also limited the study to current pitching coaches – those who held the
post as of last season - who had at least three years experience on the job.
Ultimately, three years was an arbitrary choice but it seemed like it would
be enough time to mitigate any completely terrible or totally awesome seasons
by a single pitcher.
For the study itself I compared each pitcher’s WHIP to not only what he himself
had done under other pitching coaches, but also how his performance compared
to league average. In this way, a pitching coach who benefited from
a smart GM who kept him supplied with above average talent wouldn’t have
an advantage over a pitching coach who toiled for a GM who was penurious
and/or soon to be fired.
One factor I did not include was park factor, for two reasons. The
first is that I wasn’t able to locate any reliable breakdowns of how parks
affected hits and walks before 1993. I could find the overall effect
on run scoring, but that doesn’t necessarily correspond with the hits and
walks effects. For example, Busch Stadium has played largely as a neutral
park for run scoring, but is actually one of the better parks for hits in
general. The other reason is that I’m not entirely satisfied that park
factors accurately compensate for the unbalanced schedule. The NL East
is home to three of the best pitcher’s parks – RFK, Pro Player and Shea –
so it isn’t much of a surprise that those teams fare poorly in the run scoring
breakdowns because they play a majority of their road schedule in tough places
to score. Besides, if I included them I wouldn’t have anything to work
on next offseason. Just joking, of course.
Anyway, the results were interesting. Mazzone fared very well, topping
the list of 19 coaches by improving the average starter by more than 10%,
an astounding feat. However, his charges were on average nearly 3.5%
better than the average talent before they came to the Braves, so it’s not
as if he was turning sow’s ears into silk purses. Still, his measure
of success was greater than that of any other pitching coach. Or was
There was on other factor that Mazzone had that no other pitching coach enjoyed.
A secret weapon, if you will: Greg Maddux. No other pitching coach
had the benefit of having a Hall of Fame star for as long or under the ideal
circumstances that Mazzone did. Maddux came to the Braves after winning
his first Cy Young award just as he was entering his prime years and stayed
in Atlanta for 11 seasons. When he started to show signs of decline,
the Braves let him walk via free agency. Mazzone was the beneficiary
of Maddux’s best years and endured none of his growing pains or decline.
If there’s any pitching coach that deserves credit for what Maddux developed
into, it’s probably his Cubs pitching coach, Billy Connors.
Not since Casey Stengel and Whitey Ford has a pitcher of Maddux’ caliber
spent as much time with one pitching coach. Most of the time it was
due to the manager and his staff being fired due to the team’s poor performance.
But it’s also not uncommon for pitchers like Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson
and Pedro Martinez to get traded or allowed to go to another team on their
own. Mazzone had Maddux for 73.3% of his 15-year tenure in Atlanta.
The closest any other coach came was Ray Miller, who had Jim Palmer for seven
of his 19 years (37%) but Palmer was clearly in decline for three of them.
Neutralizing the Maddux effect by removing him from the equation yields a
more accurate picture of Mazzone’s ability. He’s still one of the best
pitching coaches in baseball but it’s clear that we don’t have to open a
new wing at the Hall of Fame just for him any time soon. What is most
surprising is how well some lesser known pitching coaches like Bryan Price,
Mike Maddux and Jim Colborn compare.
Pitching Coach coached
Leo Mazzone 1.107
Bryan Price 1.055
Mike Maddux 1.026
Jim Colborn 1.074
Dave Righetti 1.018
Randy St. Clair 1.032
Dave Duncan 1.026
Mazzone (w/o Maddux) 1.054 1.027
Rick Anderson 1.072
Rick Peterson 1.071
Don Gullett 1.020
Don Cooper 1.069
Ray Miller 1.053
Dave Wallace 1.088
Mark Connor 1.071
Vern Ruhle 1.036
Larry Rothchild 1.046 1.040
Mel Stottlemyre 1.070 1.071
Bud Black 1.019
Bob Apodaca 0.939
Before anyone gets their panties in a wad I want to emphasize that this is
looking at only one aspect of what a pitching coach does. In my view,
there are three things a pitching coach is charged with. The first
is keeping his pitchers healthy. The second is developing the prospects
from his own organization and the third is getting the most out of the pitchers
his team acquires. So it’d be a mistake to look at this breakdown and
conclude that Bud Black isn’t a good pitching coach. One only needs
to look at the development of John Lackey and Ervin Santana to understand
where his strengths lie. Conversely, Dave Duncan hasn’t done such a
great job of developing talent in Oakland or St. Louis.
Looking at Mazzone, his record for keeping pitchers healthy is probably no
better than average. Remember, John Smoltz has had three arm surgeries,
and both Odalis Perez and Mike Hampton have had reconstructive surgery after
pitching for him. His reputation for keeping pitchers healthy appears
to be based largely on two extraordinary starters, Maddux and Tom Glavine.
His record with young pitchers isn’t as good. Steve Avery was never
the same after a huge number of innings at an early age, and Jason Schmidt,
Jason Marquis, Odalis Perez, Paul Byrd and Bruce Chen have all blossomed
only after leaving Mazzone.
So what does this mean from a fantasy perspective? First it means that
we shouldn’t necessarily jump on the Baltimore bandwagon now that Leo is
there. Ray Miller was a pretty good pitching coach and Mazzone’s record
with young pitchers isn’t all that great. If the Orioles do enjoy a
renaissance this year, it could be as much due to replacing Javy Lopez behind
the plate with Ramon Hernandez as anything Mazzone does.
The second thing to take away is that it wouldn’t be surprising to see the
Diamondbacks and Pirates enjoy strong performances from their pitching staffs
because Bryan Price and Jim Colborn are very good pitching coaches.