After half aseason in a new league, pitching guru Leo Mazzone has yet to work his magic onthe woeful Orioles
In 2004 economistand sabermetrician J.C. Bradbury set out to dispel the legend of Leo Mazzone,the pitching coach hailed by many as baseball's King Midas for his ability totransform journeyman pitchers into All-Stars and routinely roll out some of thebest staffs in baseball. Seeking to use empirical evidence to prove thatMazzone's success in 15 years with the Braves was merely anecdotal, Bradburyran a study of every pitcher who worked with Mazzone in Atlanta. He wasastonished by his findings: Working with Mazzone shaved .60 points off apitcher's projected ERA for that season.
Mazzone'sreputation may have withstood Bradbury's analysis, but this season it has takena statistical bruising in Baltimore, where the 57-year-old pitching gururelocated last winter to work alongside his best friend since childhood,Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo. At week's end Baltimore's staff was performingworse than it had last year: The team's 5.24 ERA was up from 4.56 in 2005 andranked 29th in the majors, and the Orioles were on pace to allow 894 runs,their most since 2000.
The low pointcame last Friday, when 25-year-old righthanded starter Daniel Cabrera--who inspring training Mazzone had said "could be as good as anyone inbaseball"--was demoted to the minors after a 15--1 loss to the Rangers thatdropped his record to 4--7 and raised his ERA to 5.25. Cabrera, who led themajors with 13 wild pitches, was shipped to Triple A Ottawa to regain controlover his 97-mph fastball. Righthander Rodrigo Lopez (6--10, 6.44 throughSunday) and lefty Bruce Chen (0--6, 7.38), both counted on before the season toanchor the rotation, also have been ineffective in locating theirfastballs.
Mazzone revealedhis frustration with biting criticism of his pitchers, saying they showed"an overall lack of passion" and that he was "surprised by the lackof know-how," but last weekend he was more optimistic. "Passion is nolonger an issue. I see passion with everyone on this staff now," he said."The overall numbers don't tell the whole story. I see a lot of positives.Erik Bedard [11--6, 4.02] has turned things around and established himself asone of the best lefthanders in the American League. Kris Benson [9--8, 4.59]has been good. The bullpen, led by [closer] Chris Ray [22 saves, 3.03 ERA], isgetting stronger. With the guys struggling, it was about fixing theirmechanics; now it's about getting their confidence up after they'd been bangedaround so much. Things are coming around. The guys are buying into themessage."
That message issimple: master the down-and-away fastball and throw at 80% effort. Mazzone alsohas his players throw twice between starts rather than once, as most otherstaffs do. Privately, some Orioles say it has taken time for Mazzone's churlishpersonality--catcher Javy Lopez compares him to caustic American Idol judgeSimon Cowell--to mesh with a new group of players. "People expected him tochange things overnight, but we all knew that wasn't going to happen," saysBedard, 27. "When somebody is asking people to do things a different way,it takes time, and I think you'll start to see the results in the secondhalf."
Says an AmericanLeague team executive, "Leo's had to adjust to a completely new cast ofguys, but he's also finding out how much tougher the AL is. The hitters arebetter, the lineups are deeper [than in the NL]. It's harder here to make anaverage pitcher an above-average pitcher."
The pitchingstaff's performance has been the biggest letdown in yet another dismal summerin Baltimore, where the Orioles (43--51) were headed for their ninth straightlosing season, and average attendance at Camden Yards was down by 19% from lastseason. Also, the team's franchise player, shortstop Miguel Tejada, has beencriticized for getting to the ballpark late and has been the subject of traderumors.
While he has nointention of letting Perlozzo down, Mazzone acknowledges that he underestimatedhow large a task he faces in Baltimore. The Orioles will need more than hisgolden touch to reverse their fortunes.
Meanwhile inAtlanta ...
The Braves'record streak of division titles was on life support--at week's end, despite a9--2 run, they were 12 games out of first in the NL East--and the pitchingstaff was having its worst season since 1977. Here are the returning Atlantapitchers who have struggled the most without Leo Mazzone.
[This file contains a table. Please see hard copy or pdf.]
|PITCHER||2006 ERA||2005 ERA||INCREASE|
|Tim Hudson (right)||4.81||3.52||1.29|
Surprise SparkFor Texas
Former All-Staroutfielder Gary Matthews was an instant success in the majors, becoming the1973 NL Rookie of the Year with the Giants. His son Gary Jr. took a morecircuitous route to stardom. After stints with eight teams in sevenyears--during which he batted .249--the Rangers centerfielder, in his firstseason as an every-day player, has suddenly become one of the league's tophitters. "Everyone knows how talented he is: That's why so many teams havetaken a chance on him," says Texas hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. "[But]he wasn't making the mental commitment to succeed. Last off-season he finallydecided to work hard."
In January,Matthews made three three-day trips to Arlington, Texas, from his off-seasonhome in Houston for private sessions with Jaramillo at Ameriquest Field. "Idid worry that time was running out in my career," says Matthews, 31."I needed to do something about it." Jaramillo focused on making the6'3" switch-hitter's swing more consistent, and Matthews's hard work paidoff: At week's end, after going 1 for 1 in his first All-Star Game, Matthewswas fifth in the American League in batting (.329), fourth in doubles (30) andseventh in extra-base hits (44). What's more, he had played Gold Glove defense;on July 1 he made arguably the most spectacular play of the season--a running,leaping catch in which he reached over the centerfield wall to rob the Astros'Mike Lamb of a home run.
With Matthews inthe leadoff spot, the Rangers are second in the AL West, a game behind the A's.Says Jaramillo, whose hitters were on pace to break the major league teamrecord for doubles in a season, "He makes this lineup go."
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