Leo Mazzone, Orioles pitching coach and assumed pitching genius, was fired by the team last week after two years in charge of the team's staff.
In terms of raw numbers, Mazzone failed as a pitching coaching here in the Charm City. After so many great staffs working under Bobby Cox with the Braves, Mazzone came back to his home state to work with long-time friend and manager Sam Perlozzo as the Orioles' Pitching Coach, succeeding Ray Miller in 2006. Mazzone's first O's staff in 2006 finished with a 5.35 ERA (ERA+ of 84), bad enough to finish 13th in the 14 team American League. This year's team improved to a 5.19 ERA (86 ERA+), but still did no better than 13th in the AL.
2006 was written off by many, including myself, as an adjustment period for Mazzone as well as the staff. 2007, if was hoped, was the year that the vaunted Mazzone Effect came to bear on the team's results. But it was not to be, at least superficially.
What isn't shown in the numbers is that the staff put together an outstanding (or at least very good) 4.13 ERA through the end of July. Erik Bedard had fully realized his potential and might have been the best pitcher in the AL. Former top prospect Jeremy Guthrie had been outstanding in what was a classic case of a pitcher turning it around under Mazzone's tutelage (ignoring cause and effect for a moment). The bullpen was solid, even with Danys Baez combusting from the start.
But then things fell apart. Bedard and Guthrie were both injured in the last two months. The formerly nifty Brian Burres imploded upon being sent to the bullpen. Steve Trachsel, who had inexplicably defied his peripherals all season, was traded to the Cubs. Chris Ray was lost for the year. Danys Baez never improved back to previous seasons' form.
And the Orioles kept plowing through arms in trying to find a working combination. Prospects James Hoey, Garrett Olson, and Radhames Liz flopped upon extended auditions in the bigs. Sub-replacement level veterans like Paul Shuey and Rob Bell had places in the bullpen for what seemed like years. And by September the Orioles were giving starts to the likes of Jon Leicester, Kurt Birkins, and the Brothers Victor (Santos and Zambrano).
However, simply blaming the talent collection is somewhat insufficient. The job of the coaches is to improve the talent. It's clear that some of the poor performance was the result of poor talent evaluation by the front office as well as a desperation to find warm bodies and functioning arms as well as plain old bad luck. But Mazzone's deft touch didn't help highly rated Orioles prospects like Olson or Hoey adjust to the majors. Daniel Cabrera, a centerpiece of the team's youth movement on the pitching staff, regressed strongly in 2007, posting perhaps his worst season yet.
In the end, the last two years are not a damning statement against Mazzone by any stretch, though it has certainly shown that enough credit for the Atlanta staffs has not been given to the manager/general manager team of Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz. When Mazzone's old Atlanta reclamation projects (Jaret Wright, Russ Ortiz, Jim Brower), results were ugly.
The Orioles are not likely to find a better pitching coach, but at the same time, the staff is unlikely to get appreciably worse next season. Dave Trembley will have significant input on his coaching staff, one which won't include Mazzone or Tom Treblehorn. It's hard to be excited about seeing the most ballyhooed coach in recent baseball history leave the bench, but perhaps it won't be so bad after all. We'll find out soon enough.