1993 NEWS

1993 News > 9/27/93

PITCHER PERFECT: BRAVES ROTATION EVERYTHING IT WAS HYPED UP TO BE

By Mark Newman, Sporting News

I was sitting in an American League ballpark when I began to truly appreciate the Atlanta Braves' starting pitchers. Games were just under way in the National League, and out of habit I looked toward the out-of-town scoreboard to determine the starting pitchers. The Giants were throwing someone with a jersey number that was vaguely familiar, like your last phone number. The Braves were throwing 29: John Smoltz.

Just then, I realized how silly it was to even wonder. It doesn't matter whom the Braves start, because they will start their best pitcher every day, and he will be better than yours. You know the numbers: 31 (Greg Maddux), 33 (Steve Avery), 47 (Tom Glavine). How comforting it must be to know you have the advantage going into every national anthem.

Last Saturday, the Toronto Blue Jays were watching the Braves on a television in the visitors' clubhouse in Minnesota and probably wondering the same thing. They beat Atlanta in the World Series last fall, and with a little more than a week left in this regular season, there is a good chance that they will see them again next month. If so, it will be a study in contrasts. While the Braves' Fab Four has lived up to just about every billing, carrying the team until Fred McGriff came along and combining for more than 800 mostly efficient innings, the Blue Jays have needed every bit of their 5.19 runs per game to make up for the injuries and inconsistencies in their five-righthander rotation. "We probably feel the opposite of the way the Braves feel," outfielder Joe Carter says, informally scouting a Maddux pitch. "They feel they can go out there and score two or three runs and win the ballgame. We're trying to survive."

The Blue Jays have been in first place since July 26, a position that will be challenged again this weekend with a series at home against the New York Yankees, and they have maintained that lead in spite of a starting rotation that has been potluck after Pat Hentgen (18-8) and Juan Guzman (13-3). The Braves have overcome a 10-game deficit in the N.L. West, and it has been mostly because of their rotation. The Blue Jays' starters have a 4.73 ERA; the Braves' starters have a 3.49 ERA. The Blue Jays' problem has been getting to closer Duane Ward. The Braves' question mark again will be their bullpen, where inexperienced Greg McMichael converted his first 15 save opportunities but last weekend blew back-to-back saves and cost Avery and Maddux shutouts and decisions.

What you won't get from these Braves are four 20-game winners, as Baltimore produced in 1971 with Dave McNally (21-5), Pat Dobson (20-8), Mike Cuellar (20-9) and Jim Palmer (20-9). You won't hear baseball historians referring to this as the best rotation ever, unless they suddenly open the floor to run-support testimony. But the rest of the hype was right. Glavine, who last Sunday night was trying to become a 20-game winner for the third consecutive year, is a Cy Young candidate. Maddux, who is 18-9 with a 2.46 ERA, is a Cy Young candidate. Avery, with a 16-5 record and 2.80 ERA, is a Cy Young candidate. Smoltz is out of the Cy Young race with a 14-10 record that reflects meager first-half run support and what some critics consider a knack for pitching just well enough to lose at times, but his contribution to the rotation has been a league-best .221 opponents-against average and 191 strikeouts. Cincinnati's Jose Rijo, the only N.L. pitcher with more strikeouts than Smoltz, is so impressed by that rotation that he left Atlanta last week with two baseballs, both signed by the fabs. "They're the big four," Rijo says. "Those guys are great."

You won't get an argument from Glavine. Signing a batch of "Armed Forces" posters and wearing a prophetic "Furious Finish" T-shirt, he sits in the Atlanta clubhouse between starts and oozes that characteristic cockiness. "I don't think I sat here and speculated about how many of us were going to win 20 games, if any of us were going to win the Cy Young or any other stuff," he says. "I just thought we were going to go out there as a group and, night in and night out, give our team a chance to win. That's what we've done. In the end, that's what separated us from a lot of the other teams. That's the big reason we've been able to do what we've done to the Giants.... You see what Dusty (Baker, the Giants' manager) is going through, trying to figure out who he's going to run out there day to day. That has to rub off on players. Those guys don't know who's pitching, who's doing what. That puts added pressure on the guys (read: Barry Bonds) who feel that they've got to carry the load. It's tough to perform under those situations."

Braves Manager Bobby Cox says his staff "has been everything we wanted and more," and it's easy to see why others envy him. The Chicago White Sox have the next-toughest rotation among contenders, and they also have the majors' youngest, which bodes well for the future but could prove detrimental under postseason pressure. Excluding veteran Tim Belcher, a disappointment since being acquired from Cincinnati for the stretch, that rotation consists of Cy Young favorite Jack McDowell (21-10, age 27), Alex Fernandez (17-7, 24), Wilson Alvarez (13-8, 23) and Jason Bere (9-5, 22). The Yankees have seen dividends from free-agent pickup Jimmy Key (17-5, 2.98 ERA), but they were compelled last week to trade for the Mets' Frank Tanana (7-15) because of inconsistent outings by Jim Abbott (10-12), Melido Perez (6-14) and Scott Kamieniecki (9-6). Philadelphia is trying to win the N.L. East with a five-man rotation of Tommy Greene (15-3), Curt Schilling (14-6), Terry Mulholland (12-9), Danny Jackson (12-11) and Ben Rivera (12-9) - a group that seems frail at times yet has four pitchers at or near the 200-inning mark.

Of course, having the pitching and going to the playoffs are two different things. The Braves' rotation has been successful because of one all-important reason: Good health.

"That's the only goal I've ever had since I became the Braves' pitching coach in June of 1990," Leo Mazzone says. "When you make every start, the rest will take care of itself. They've accumulated a lot of quality innings, and they've done it in a very efficient manner. No one has racked up an obscene amount of pitches.

"An example was Smoltz last (Thursday): He went nine innings and threw 100 pitches. They don't rack up a lot of pitches." Smoltz went to a full count only twice in that no-decision and says he was headed for a 10th inning before Cox changed his mind.

The Braves have gone to the post for three years now, and the only basic difference is that Maddux has taken the innings previously allocated to Charlie Leibrandt (and made better use of them).

What's their secret?

Avery admits that part of it "might be luck," but most of them attribute it to Mazzone's innovative method of having pitchers throw on the side twice between starts, instead of once. "We firmly believe here that a pitcher's much better off throwing on the side for 10 minutes without maxing out his effort in shagging balls in the outfield," Mazzone says, laughing heartily at the standard procedure. Instead of throwing nonchalantly during batting practice, a starter will throw to a target, whether it's a catcher or a fellow starter, and put spin on the ball. It's a simple change, but it's one that the Braves swear by.

"There'll be some variations on that, depending on what's going on," Glavine says. "There have been some times for me where, if I'm not feeling as strong as I want to, I might take one day off. Or if I threw only one day between starts and had a particularly good outing, then you can bet I'm going to do that same routine the next start. But for the most part it's two times. Speaking for myself, I know my shoulder feels stronger than it ever has at any point in my career, and I think that's because of Leo's program."

Mets Manager Dallas Green, who originally signed Maddux while serving as the Cubs' general manager, is a proponent of Mazzone's program, even though he probably wouldn't risk it with health hazards such as Dwight Gooden, Bret Saberhagen and Sid Fernandez. "I think one of the things we've gotten so far away from in baseball is not running, fielding, hitting and throwing," Green says. "We're using all the mechanical means to prepare ourselves. We're using the bicycles, the stairmasters, the weights and all the other stuff. Leo's kind of system is kind of refreshing to all of us who have been in baseball a long time."

Blue Jays Manager Cito Gaston says he'd like to take that approach even further. "I've always wondered why, instead of throwing in between, why you can't pitch in between," he says. "I mean pitching in a game. Then you could come up with that four-man rotation. There are so many things in this game that we probably should change, but we're afraid to change. Leo has made a change there, and it seems to have worked."

Gaston has paid close attention to the team he stood over one night last October. "I'm sure Cox would tell you this - your pitching and defense is the key to winning," Gaston says. "You can only score so many runs each night. You can't ask your offense to put up five or six runs every time. Bobby has the best rotation in baseball. We've had a couple of guys pitch well this year. Jack (Morris) and Dave (Stewart) and Todd (Stottlemyre) have had some good outings, but certainly have not pitched as well the way they'd like to pitch."

Last year, Gaston had Guzman, Morris, Key and David Cone. "All the years that we didn't win, it was mainly because we didn't have all the pitching we needed," Gaston says. "Once we got Cone last year, that solidified the pitching staff and certainly gave us a chance to do what we did." Then the Blue Jays let Key get away, and rent-a-pitcher Cone returned to Kansas City. Stewart was signed as a free agent.

Without Key, the Blue Jays have no lefthanders. The Braves can go lefty-righty-lefty-righty, in addition to their difference in pitching styles. "I would like to have, ideally, at least two lefthanders in the rotation," Toronto pitching coach Galen Cisco says. "But two lefthanders in the rotation is not my priority if the two lefthanders aren't two of your best five."

The righthander to watch is Stewart. While Morris continues to struggle with a tender elbow, Stewart is recovering from a groin injury that has nagged him in the second half. He threw 6 2/3 strong innings last Saturday against the Twins to improve to 10-8. This is Stewart's time of year, and he says he can do for Toronto what he usually did for Oakland. "It's instinctive," he says. "Things just start to happen good for me this time of year. It's just been one of those things that from year to year carries over, and after a while you start to expect to do well at this time of year. I expect it."

Carter expects it, calling Stewart "a money pitcher." But Carter also feels pressure to bear a lot of burden, and he accepts the role. "We know we don't have the starters that Atlanta has, but we have some quality guys and we feel that for what we lack as far as pitching depth, we can make up by scoring that extra two or three runs a game," Carter says. "That's the whole idea about being a team. If the pitching staff is having a down year, you pick them up. It's the opposite of 1991, when I first came here. We had the top three hitters - Devon (White), (Roberto) Alomar and myself. After that, it was, |Wait for two or three innings and we'll get back in there.' So the pitching staff carried us that year."

David Justice, the Braves' right fielder, says he can't imagine what it's like to try to carry a pitching staff. "I feel like we're getting quality starts every night," he says. "But I don't know how to compare. You'd have to put me on a sorry team and then I can answer that."

It has been the kind of year that Justice and everyone else expected out of the Braves' starting pitchers, except that it quickly went from Fab Five to Fab Four when Pete Smith, who finished last season going 7-0, was shelled from the rotation. The aces handled the hype remarkably well.

Cox says they have "great makeup," and Avery says they simply had no alternative. "If one of us started to get a little bit of a big head," Avery says, "the other guy would slug him. We don't need that kind of attitude. You look at each other, and there's each other to keep you down, really. You think you do something good, and then the next night someone else goes out and does something better, and you think, |It can't be that hard if they're doing it that much better than I did it.'"

"I just don't think any of us has the personality that we were too worried about those comparisons to the '71 Orioles," Glavine says. "You can say what you want about us, you can compare us to whoever you want to compare us to, but I don't think any of us thought that was fair. We hadn't done anything together. Individually, we've all had our good seasons, but as a group we hadn't done anything yet. We felt like, |Reserve all your judgments until after we pitch the season together, and then you can do whatever you want.'

"We weren't pitching to prove people right or prove people wrong, We were pitching to help this team win. That was the main objective we've had, and I think that's the reason we've been able to keep things in focus and be successful."

While other teams rework their rotations, the Braves expect this luxury to go on and on. Maddux, 27, is signed through 1997. Glavine, 27, and Smoltz, 26, are signed through 1996. Avery, 23, is ineligible free agency until after the 1996 season. "You can almost took at this starting rotation before the year starts and pencil everybody in for 200-plus innings," Glavine says. "If you're out there that many innings, chances are you're doing your job, and if you're doing your job, you're going to win your share of ball games. That's what we're trying to do really, as a pitching staff. Our only goal is to stay healthy and go out there and pitch every time it's our turn to pitch."

And it won't matter who.