Why Isn’t Leo Mazzone In The Braves Hall of Fame?


Leo and Bobby In there usual spot when the Braves were in the field. Bobby’s in the Braves Hall, why isn’t Leo? Photo Credit USA Today Sports

As Brandon noted earlier, today the Braves announced that Javy Lopez, Rabbit Maranville and David Pursely will be inducted into the Braves Hall Of Fame on May 25th.  I don’t know how the names are chosen and I have no quarrel with any of them but one name is conspicuously missing from the list of current and selected members. Since I haven’t seen anyone else doing this I submit to you my nomination for next year’s induction, one of the most successful pitching coaches in major league history; Leo Mazzone.

The Case For Leo Mazzone

Members of the nominating committee, I’m here today to nominate Leo Mazzone for induction into the Braves Hall of Fame. I’m sure most of you know the story but for those who don’t let me reflect briefly on the man who sat at Bobby Cox’s right hand from midway through 1990 until the end of the 2005  season earning a reputation as one of the best pitching coaches in the modern era.

Leo Mazzone was a Brave for a long time before most folks knew who he was. In 1996 Mark Kriegel put it like this.

. . .(Mazzone) spent 18 seasons in the minors. He played for the Amarillo Braves, the Decatur Braves, the Medford Braves, the Monte Braves, the Birmingham Braves and the Tucson Braves. Just never with the Atlanta Braves. Never in the bigs

During his time in the minors he learned pitching from Johnny Sain and George Bamberger and while he never got to use the knowledge at the highest levels on the mound, he developed a way of coaching that guided the Atlanta Braves – mostly injury free- through “the streak.”   In Pitching Like A Pro Mazzone says this about Sain.

"“I came under [Sain’s] wing in 1979; we stayed together in spring training and would go over to his trailer and talk for hours about pitching … I listened and learned from Sain — he was my guru when it came to understanding the nature of pitching and formulating pitching programs that would enhance performance and protect arms from injuries.”"

After managing the Kinston Eagles of the Carolina League in 1978 their owner recommended him to the Braves.  From 79-82 he was a pitching instructor in the Braves’ farm system. From 83 until July 21st of 84 he was  Durham’s pitching coach and from there he took over as Greenville’s manager, leading the club to a 23-17 mark over the second half of the season.
Atlanta made him  co-pitching coach in 1985 but as most will remember, the Braves not a good team and the next season found him back in the farm system at all levels of the minors as a pitching coach. On June 22, 1990, he joined the Braves permanently when Bobby Cox took over as manager. The rest as they say is history. From 1992 through 2002 Braves pitchers led MLB in ERA nine times and second the other two seasons. In the same period they led MLB in Win Probability Added (WPA) six times and were second three times. In 1998 the Braves rotation of  Tom Glavine (20), Greg Maddux (18), Kevin Millwood (17), Denny Neagle (16) and John Smoltz (17) became only the third in history to have five pitchers win 16 or more games. In his 15 years as Braves pitching coach three pitchers had TJ surgery and Smoltz’ injury came after 2000+ innings.  No one else has a record like that; no one.

Many suggested it was easy to do that with three future Hall of Fame pitchers on the staff. They forget that the staff was made up of twelve pitchers many of whom came in as under performers and under Mazzone’s guidance became better than they had ever been. I’ve already mentioned Neagle but names such as John Burkett, Russ Ortiz and Jaret Wright were also resurrected while working with Leo and declined significantly after they left. We may have forgotten as well that during “the Streak” 14 pitchers recorded 5 or more saves in a season including seasons of 19 and 21 saves from Greg McMichael.  This isn’t a look backward through rose colored glasses nor based just on how we remember it. In 2004 and again in 2005, J.C. Bradbury burrowed through the record books to determine whether it was fact or fond memory.

"With the exception of the “Big-3” . . . the Braves pitching staff is always in motion. .  . And much of the success has come from players not deemed worthy of roster spots on other big league clubs. The Braves have made a habit of turning cast-off non-roster invites into big-name free agents. Clearly, the Braves are doing something right, and much of the credit has gone to pitching coach Leo Mazzone."

The details of his report are available via the link so I won’t beat anyone to death with numbers – for a bit anyway.. Bradbury’s conclusion was pretty unequivocal.

When looking at all of the pitchers in the sample, Leo Mazzone’s presence lowered a pitcher’s ERA by about 0.63 ERA points. To put the effect in perspective, for the average 2004 National League pitcher (4.31 ERA) Leo’s impact on earned runs was about the same as Coors Field in the opposite direction. Note to Dan O’Dowd: take the balls out of the humidor and hire Leo Mazzone.. . . For starters, having Leo Mazzone as a pitching coach was worth about 0.41 earned runs per 9 innings or 1 earned run per 22 innings. For relievers, Mazzone was good for about a 0.68 reduction in earned runs per 9 innings, or 1 run per 13 innings.

He also found that once they left Leo the success did not continue. He concluded that”. . .Starters and relievers pitched worse both before and after playing for Mazzone. . .” He found that this partly due to the way pitchers were handled during the game and that “. . .The larger ERA gains for relievers over starters are consistent with this hypothesis. “

Bradbury concluded his piece like this.

"If the powers that be ever decide to open the Hall doors to pitching coaches, Leo Mazzone has a very strong case."

Rob Neyer has on multiple occasions suggested that if the Hall of Fame ever decided to add pitching coaches, He narrowed it down to three categories to help him decide who was Hall of Fame worthy:

  • He must have been a pitching coach for 15 or more seasons (based on the time the average HoF manager actively managed)
  • How did his pitchers ERA+ compare
  • How many big seasons di the staff have. Big is simply the number of seasons with pitchers who had big win totals. For Sain and his four man rotation big equaled 20 or more, for Mazzone and the five man rotation the number he decided on was 18.

When all was said and done Johnny Sain was the top man on the list and right behind or beside him was his disciple Leo Mazzone.  He compared the two back in 2004. I updated Mazzone’s numbers to the end of his years in Atlanta.

Sain Mazzone Years 17 17 AERA 103 113 "Big" 16 19

His conclusion: “. . .without micro-examining the qualifications of all the long-term pitching coaches, it seems reasonable to start with Johnny Sain and his No. 1 pupil, Leo Mazzone. If not necessarily in that order.”

Ladies and gentlemen I’m aware that Leo’s departure for Baltimore upset a few folks in Atlanta at that time.  But his departure for any reason does nothing to lessen the impact he had on a Braves team that made history in a streak that will likely never be repeated.  Glavine left, Maddux left, Smoltz left, Murphy left and they’re already inducted.  If there’s a case for him as a Cooperstown pitching coach – and I think others demonstrated that there is – he’s certainly worthy of a spot in the Braves Museum at Turner Field. It’s time to put Leo Mazzone where he was for 15 years, alongside Bobby Cox, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and soon Javy Lopez in the Braves Hall  Of Fame.

That’s A Wrap

I think it’s pretty clear that Mazzone belongs in the Braves Hall of Fame. What’s not clear is why they’re inducting a trainer and a player from the dead ball era and can’t find room for Leo. Leo made the pitching staff better and kept them healthy. At their inductions into the Braves Hall Maddux Glavine and Smoltz all acknowledged what Leo did for them. It’s time past time for the Braves to do the right thing and induct Leo Mazzone in 2015.