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Albert Chen
July 24, 2006
Losing Touch?
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July 24, 2006

Baseball

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PITCHER 2006 ERA 2005 ERA INCREASE
Chris Reitsma 8.68 3.93 4.75
Jorge Sosa 5.60 2.55 3.05
Tim Hudson (right) 4.81 3.52 1.29
Kyle Davies 6.12 4.93 1.19
Entire staff 4.68 3.98 0.70

Losing Touch?

After half a season in a new league, pitching guru Leo Mazzone has yet to work his magic on the woeful Orioles

In 2004 economist and 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 to transform journeyman pitchers into All-Stars and routinely roll out some of the best staffs in baseball. Seeking to use empirical evidence to prove that Mazzone's success in 15 years with the Braves was merely anecdotal, Bradbury ran a study of every pitcher who worked with Mazzone in Atlanta. He was astonished by his findings: Working with Mazzone shaved .60 points off a pitcher's projected ERA for that season.

Mazzone's reputation may have withstood Bradbury's analysis, but this season it has taken a statistical bruising in Baltimore, where the 57-year-old pitching guru relocated last winter to work alongside his best friend since childhood, Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo. At week's end Baltimore's staff was performing worse than it had last year: The team's 5.24 ERA was up from 4.56 in 2005 and ranked 29th in the majors, and the Orioles were on pace to allow 894 runs, their most since 2000.

The low point came last Friday, when 25-year-old righthanded starter Daniel Cabrera--who in spring training Mazzone had said "could be as good as anyone in baseball"--was demoted to the minors after a 15--1 loss to the Rangers that dropped his record to 4--7 and raised his ERA to 5.25. Cabrera, who led the majors with 13 wild pitches, was shipped to Triple A Ottawa to regain control over his 97-mph fastball. Righthander Rodrigo Lopez (6--10, 6.44 through Sunday) and lefty Bruce Chen (0--6, 7.38), both counted on before the season to anchor the rotation, also have been ineffective in locating their fastballs.

Mazzone revealed his frustration with biting criticism of his pitchers, saying they showed "an overall lack of passion" and that he was "surprised by the lack of know-how," but last weekend he was more optimistic. "Passion is no longer 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 as one 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], is getting stronger. With the guys struggling, it was about fixing their mechanics; now it's about getting their confidence up after they'd been banged around so much. Things are coming around. The guys are buying into the message."

That message is simple: master the down-and-away fastball and throw at 80% effort. Mazzone also has his players throw twice between starts rather than once, as most other staffs do. Privately, some Orioles say it has taken time for Mazzone's churlish personality--catcher Javy Lopez compares him to caustic American Idol judge Simon Cowell--to mesh with a new group of players. "People expected him to change things overnight, but we all knew that wasn't going to happen," says Bedard, 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 second half."

Says an American League team executive, "Leo's had to adjust to a completely new cast of guys, but he's also finding out how much tougher the AL is. The hitters are better, the lineups are deeper [than in the NL]. It's harder here to make an average pitcher an above-average pitcher."

The pitching staff's performance has been the biggest letdown in yet another dismal summer in Baltimore, where the Orioles (43--51) were headed for their ninth straight losing season, and average attendance at Camden Yards was down by 19% from last season. Also, the team's franchise player, shortstop Miguel Tejada, has been criticized for getting to the ballpark late and has been the subject of trade rumors.

While he has no intention of letting Perlozzo down, Mazzone acknowledges that he underestimated how large a task he faces in Baltimore. The Orioles will need more than his golden touch to reverse their fortunes.

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