Monday, October 22, 2007

Going, going... Mazzone

A few weeks ago, the Orioles released/fired famed pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who still had one year left on his original 3 year contract. This came after the Orioles finished second to last in team ERA for the second consecutive year.

Makes sense, right? Think again.

Mazzone dealt with a lot of injuries to the starting rotation this season, and at one point, 4/5 of the Opening Day starting rotation was on the disabled list. However, by the time this happened, most of the damage had already been done. The Orioles were 20+ games out of first place and getting dangerously close to the 100-loss border. So one can't blame the Orioles for letting Mazzone go.

And once Sam Perlozzo was fired, one had to immediately question Mazzone's loyalty to the team that had just fired his good friend, and lone reason for coming to Baltimore.

Also, it has been said that Mazzone picks and chooses his projects while ignoring other pitchers almost completely. The same thing happened to Rodrigo Lopez, who openly talked about Mazzone's neglect once he was traded to the Colorado Rockies.

It's also been said that he doesn't work with the bullpen very often, which may have lead to this year's pen being one of the worst overall bullpens in the history of major league baseball.

But with all that said, one still can't avoid the stale taste in their mouth after the Mazzone firing. Here's why...

Mazzone was universally known as the best pitching coach in baseball, having overseen a pitching staff in Atlanta that at one time lead the team to 14 consecutive first place finishes in the NL East. So when the Orioles fire someone of Mazzone's stature, one can't help but think that it's the Orioles who are to blame, given each of their respective reputations.

But even if the Orioles made a mistake in releasing Mazzone, at least they replaced him with another well-respected pitching coach in Rick Kranitz, the former pitching coach of the Florida Marlins, and a guy who may be better suited for the Orioles.

Kranitz is used to working with young pitching prospects, whereas Mazzone had veterans in Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz anchoring his rotation for many of his years in Atlanta. Add to that, Altanta usually brought in veteran pitchers like Mike Hampton, Paul Byrd, Jared Wright, Russ Ortiz, Jon Burkett, Andy Ashby and Tim Hudson when a spot opened up in their rotation. Not exactly spring chickens who need to be taught a lot at the major league level.

That isn't to say Mazzone had an easy job in Atlanta. He coaxed mediocre veterans like Jared Wright, Russ Ortiz and Jorge Sosa to the best seasons of their careers, something he failed miserably to do with Wright and Ortiz in Baltimore. And after Mazzone left Atlanta, Sosa reverted back to his former 5+ ERA self.

But there is a big difference between working with veteran pitchers who may just need some minor tweaking to recapture their success and working with raw pitching talent like the Orioles have.

And as we've seen time and time again, the Orioles pitching prospects have dominated the minor leagues and then come to Baltimore, leaving behind their ability to throw strikes. And while Mazzone's patience and aptitude with young pitchers may never be exactly known, at least the Orioles know exactly what kind of pitching coach they are getting in Kranitz. He's worked with young pitchers before in Florida and he'll be doing it again in Baltimore.

When it's all said and done, the biggest impact the Mazzone firing may have is with Orioles ace enigma Erik Bedard. Bedard, a man of few words, never avoiding praising Mazzone during his stay in Baltimore, and it's no coincidence that Bedard had the 2 best seasons of his career under Mazzone. And with rumors of Bedard refusing to sign an extension with Baltimore swirling around the city like an old newspaper page, the prospect of Bedard signing an extension with Mazzone gone become even more dim.

We may never know exactly what happened during Mazzone's time as pitching coach in Baltimore. But one thing is for sure...

When one looks back over Mazzone's coaching career, Baltimore will be a blip on his resume, one that most people will chalk up to Baltimore's shortcomings more than Mazzone's.

Whether they are right remains to be seen. But at the moment, I'm going to side with Mazzone on reputation alone.

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