The last time lefthander Mike Hampton started a game, he buzzed
through the first inning with three strikeouts. Then, after the
batter leading off the second inning had the temerity to put the
ball in play, albeit on a harmless grounder to second base,
Hampton redlined his intensity. That's it, he told himself, I'm
going to strike out the next two guys.
And that's what he did. No matter that this happened two weeks
ago against high school kids in an otherwise friendly exhibition
game at the field named for Hampton at his alma mater, Crystal
River High, in Citrus County, Fla. Hampton had a baseball in his
hand, and somebody was keeping score. That's all he has ever
needed to make him pitch as if it were the last game of his life.
You don't have Florida State asking you to play defensive back
(coming out of Crystal River in 1990), don't become the first man
in more than a quarter of a century to win 20 games and bat .300
in the same season (with the Houston Astros in 1999) and don't
score the richest contract ever for a pitcher (eight years, $121
million from the Colorado Rockies in December 2000) without a
major attitude as your business partner, especially when you
stand only 5'10". Yet when Hampton took his trademark sinker and
intensity to Colorado--not just to pitch, mind you, but to defy
gravity--his career turned to quicksand. The more he fought, the
deeper he sank. His 6.15 ERA was the worst in the majors last
year among qualifying pitchers.
"I was going to prove it could be done," Hampton says about
pitching at an elite level in Colorado, "or I was going to die
trying right there on the mound. I almost died trying."
February 17, 2003
Hampton, 30, spoke last week in the clubhouse of the Atlanta
Braves, still smiling in wonder over the Nov. 20 trade that moved
him from the Rockies to the Braves via the Florida Marlins.
Linebackers have Penn State, pianists have Julliard and pitchers
have Atlanta. No other organization knows pitching as well as the
Braves, who have ranked first or second in the National League in
ERA for 12 years running.
The remaking of Hampton began last week at Camp Leo, the annual
weeklong, invitation-only minicamp for Braves pitchers run by
pitching coach Leo Mazzone, the Richard Feynman of the campus,
only with a cherubic face and a longshoreman's tongue. Brilliant
without airs, a disciple of like-minded pitching gurus Johnny
Sain and George Bamberger, Mazzone immediately began fixing
Hampton, just as he had Chris Hammond, John Burkett, Mike
Remlinger, Rudy Seanez, Kerry Ligtenberg, Steve Bedrosian, Jay
Howell, Mike Bielecki and the many others who found new life on
the mound under his tutelage. This year's crew at Camp Leo
included newcomers Hampton, Paul Byrd and Chris Haney as well as
several highly regarded prospects.
The first time Hampton stepped on a mound in front of Mazzone, on
Feb. 3, there was an ah-ha! moment. Mazzone immediately noticed
that Hampton threw his two-seam fastball, or sinker, differently
than his four-seam fastball. Hampton's release point (where the
ball leaves the pitcher's hand) was much lower on his sinker.
Further, as Hampton let go of the ball, he pulled his left elbow
in toward his body rather than extending his arm straight out as
if shaking someone's hand. Hampton was also rotating his wrist
slightly inward upon release rather than keeping his fingers on
the top of the ball.
Mazzone knew exactly what the diagnostic evidence was telling
him: This is a pitcher who has lost confidence in his sinker.
Instead of trusting the natural movement on the pitch, Hampton
was trying to manufacture movement.
Hampton had built his riches upon the sinker, which pitching
coach Mel Stottlemyre had shown him when they were together with
the Astros in 1994. Hampton used it only occasionally and without
confidence until 1997, when Houston manager Larry Dierker told
him, "You can continue to be a .500 pitcher, but I know how you
can become a better pitcher." He told him to feature the sinker.
"I got waffled the first half of '97," Hampton says. "But I stuck
with it and developed a real feel for it."
When Hampton took the Rockies' money as a free agent, most
baseball observers thought his style of pitching--he threw almost
2.5 ground balls for every fly ball and had that
feistiness--would be relatively unaffected by the altitude of
Denver. "It was easy to question the length of the contract and
the money," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd says. "But no one
questioned whether he was the right type of pitcher."
On Opening Day 2001 at Coors Field, Hampton debuted with 8 1/3
shutout innings. When he woke up the next morning, however, he
began to understand the enormity of what he was trying to do.
Though he had thrown only 98 pitches the day before, "I felt like
I had been hit by a truck when I got up," Hampton says. "When I
got to the park, I asked the strength trainer [Brad Andress],
'What's going on?'"
Andress explained that the reduced oxygen level at altitude taxed
the body more than at sea level. Hampton also began to understand
that because pitches don't break as sharply at altitude, he had
to strain more to impart the precise snap and follow-through in
finishing a pitch. (In two years with the Rockies, Hampton would
win only six of the 26 starts he made following a Coors Field
start; he lost half of them.)
By mid-June, Hampton was 9-2 with a 2.98 ERA, but like a virus
whose symptoms were not yet in evidence, Coors Field was wearing
him down. "You'd make a great pitch on the outside corner,
knee-high, and the guy would hit a double off the wall," Hampton
says. "So you'd go, Oh, man, let me make the next one a little
Every pitch was nitroglycerine, every rally a riot. Because
Hampton had been so successful--he won 22 games in 1999 and won
15 and led the Mets to the World Series in 2000--he could not
stomach the idea of lowering his standards. "People would say I
had to swallow my pride, that six innings and four runs was good
enough," Hampton says. "I couldn't do that. I never wanted to do
anything but put up zeroes for as long as I could. If there were
guys on second and third, most pitchers would give up the run to
get an out. I tried to throw a shutout every time. You're beat if
you accept an ERA in the high fives. You're trying to be among
In the quicksand he flailed. The more he tried to make his ball
sink, the less it did, and the less it sank, the less he threw
it. At his best in Houston and New York, 85% of his fastballs
were sinkers, 15% four-seamers. In Colorado those proportions
were reversed. With the Rockies his ratio of grounders to fly
balls fell by almost 30%. Hampton threw his sinker so
infrequently that one day he was shocked to look down and see
that he was gripping the ball with two fingers and his thumb on
the seams; he had always thrown it with his fingers and thumb
inside the horseshoe of the seams. He had literally lost the feel
for the pitch. Hampton became a grunt, a maximum-effort pitcher
who would hit 95 mph on the radar gun, a robust number that
assured the team he was healthy but confused those who knew him
Brad Ausmus, his former catcher in Houston, told him last season,
"Mike, you're changing so many things, you don't even look like
the same person out there."
What confounded the Rockies was that Hampton would often look
sharp during his bullpen sessions between starts. But nobody kept
score in the bullpen. He was so bad last season that his father,
Mike Sr., greeted him in his home after one game by saying, "Son,
you ready to quit?"
"Quit," Hampton snapped, "ain't in my vocabulary. I'll never
The Rockies did quit, at least on the idea that a star pitcher
can come to Colorado and accept that his ERA will be blown to
bits. "I don't think we'll ever chase that type of free agent
again," O'Dowd says. "We have to develop our own or get the free
agent who is a one-year guy with a lot to prove. I have to say
I'm more encouraged by having the rookie of the year, Jason
Jennings, a guy who we developed, than I am discouraged about
Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz says he pursued Hampton
without reservation because the late Darryl Kile was a 20-game
winner the first year he escaped Colorado. "And Darryl Kile
didn't have the same track record before going to Colorado as
Mike did," Schuerholz says.
Further, Schuerholz says, the Braves foster great pitching
because of four components: their trainers; their medical
professionals; manager Bobby Cox, who "handles pitchers better
than anybody I've ever seen in the game," says Schuerholz; and
Mazzone, whose imprint on the organization is unmistakable.
Atlanta's pitchers, for instance, throw twice between starts
rather than once, as virtually every other staff in the majors
does. They zealously adhere to Mazzone's first commandment:
Master the down-and-away fastball. They also pitch with an ease
of motion, cruising at about 80% to 90% of available effort.
Under Mazzone pitchers also get special attention. While many
clubs, for example, have three, four or even five pitchers
throwing off mounds at the same time during spring training,
Mazzone has only one pitcher throwing at a time except for the
first week of camp, when a second pitcher is within his sight.
"How the hell can you watch five guys warm up?" Mazzone says.
"And if I'm watching one guy, what are the other guys I'm not
watching supposed to think?"
That's how Camp Leo ran too, with more than a dozen pitchers each
day--many of them new to the Braves--waiting like acolytes for
their mound time with Mazzone. Atlanta must replace eight
pitchers who accounted for 66% of the team's wins and 64% of its
innings last year, including Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood. On
Wednesday of last week, the third straight day Hampton threw,
Mazzone showed him how he could change the location of a pitch by
simply moving his position on the rubber by an inch or so. About
an hour later on the same mound Mazzone was prodding Rule 5 draft
pick Chris Spurling. "Lock in on his crotch!" he yelled, giving
Spurling a target on the catcher for that down-and-away fastball.
Says Hampton, "I'm putting my faith in Leo." Each day after camp
Hampton would return to his hotel room, stand before a mirror and
repeat what he had learned that day. And when he looked into the
glass, he saw something else newly gained: a smile. Here was one
"You know what?" Hampton says. "I'm going to enjoy every win I
have for the rest of my career. If I pitched a good game before,
well, that's what I was supposed to do. You won? Big deal. I took
everything for granted. Not anymore. I'm going to have fun. I'm
going to enjoy this game."
CAMP LEO'S CLASS of 2003
As he has done for the past 12 years, coach Leo Mazzone invited a
group of pitchers from the Braves organization to join him in
Atlanta for a winter workout and a few pointers that should put
them ahead of the pack when spring training begins this week
2002 stats: 12 6, 4.43 ERA with Triple A Omaha Royals
From 1998 through 2000 went 5 9 in 19 starts with Orioles and
Royals; will compete for fifth spot in Atlanta rotation.
2002 stats: 4 3, 20 saves, 2.19 ERA with Double A Altoona Curve
Power pitcher picked up in Rule 5 draft from Pirates; expected to
be a middle reliever this season.
2002 stats: 9 9, 4.18 ERA with Double A Greenville Braves
Will likely return to Double A for start of season; could jump to
big leagues late this year or in '04.
2002 stats: 15 9, 3.19 ERA with Triple A Richmond Braves
Finesse pitcher is in the mix of candidates for No. 5 spot in
2002 stats: 4-9, 4.26 ERA with Double A Greenville; 4-2, 3.10
ERA with Triple A Richmond
Power pitcher will compete for bullpen spot.
BULLPEN CATCHER, 45
In first year with Atlanta; former high school coach was Indians
minor league bullpen coach for 10 years.
2002 stats: 2-0, 4 saves, 2.79 ERA with Triple A Pawtucket Red
Sox; 0-0, 1 save, 4.20 ERA with Boston
Situational pitcher will vie for job in bullpen.
2002 stats: 0-0, 1 save, 3.86 ERA with Triple A Richmond; 2-3,
25 saves, 3.47 ERA with Double A Greenville
Will likely remain Greenville's closer; may join Atlanta late
this season or in '04.
2002 stats: 7-15, 6.15 ERA with Rockies
Former 20-game winner with lifetime 3.44 ERA before joining
Rockies; escapes from Coors to replace departed free agent Tom
Glavine as No. 2 starter.
2002 stats: 17-11, 3.90 ERA with Royals
Projected No. 4 starter had seven complete games last season,
second only to Randy Johnson.
PITCHING COACH, 54
Has spent 24 years with Braves organization, the past 13 as
Atlanta's pitching coach.
BULLPEN CATCHER, 27
Signed in 1997 and played in Atlanta organization until 2001;
started warming up pitchers last year.
MINOR LEAGUE PITCHING COORDINATOR, 45
Fifth year with Braves; spent three years as Tigers pitching
BULLPEN COACH, 63
Entering 29th season with Atlanta organization, fifth in present
2002 stats: 8-9, 5.04 ERA with Atlanta
Went 2-5 with 6.97 ERA after All-Star break; needs strong spring
to keep his spot in rotation.
Hampton was so bad last season that his father greeted him after
one game by saying, "Son, you ready to quit?"