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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Monday, July 02, 2001
John Burkett: Mike Bielecki 2001
What’s up with John Burkett?
Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone have, to put it mildly, developed a reputation as one of the greatest management combinations for pitchers. Their Atlanta Braves have dominated the NL throughout the 1990’s, especially in the pitching category. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz have anchored the rotation - with Steve Avery, Kevin Millwood, and Kent Mercker as excellent support. However, the Braves have not had great success developing their young: Terrell Wade, Jason Schmidt, Bruce Chen and others have failed as Braves, and Avery succumbed to injuries at a young age.
Cox and Mazzone have had success rehabilitating older pitchers. Particularly, they seem to be able to get older hurlers to strike out batters. At the end of the 1991 season, the Braves acquired Mike Bielecki. Despite being a Cy Young contender in 1989, his performance in 1990 and 1991 (combined ERA 4.71, ERA+ 84) made the Cubs think of him as expendable.
Yet the pitching rich Braves wanted him. With the change of scenery, his strikeouts per nine innings rate (K/9 rate) jumped from 3.9 to 7.0. Bielecki’s ERA dropped to 2.57, but the following year he left Cox and Mazzone for Cleveland. In Ohio, he experienced a downturn. His K/9 rate dropped to 5.0 and his ERA skyrocketed to 5.90.
He returned to the Braves for 1994, this time as a reliever. Although he only pitched 27 innings, he struck out 18 batters: a K/9 rate of 6. His ERA was only 4.00. Based on that, albeit more limited, success, Bielecki moved on to the Angels. With California, his K/9 dropped a bit to 5.4 and his ERA again ballooned, this time to 5.97.
Although he missed out on the World Series win of 1995, Bielecki became a Brave in 1996. Again, Cox and Mazzone worked their magic. Bielecki struck out almost a batter per inning (8.5 K/9) and his ERA was a Madduxian 2.63.
Bielecki’s final season, 1997, saw him strike out 60 batters in 57.3 innings. Although his ERA did rise to 4.08, he was still better than league average. Somehow, Cox and Mazzone took a pitcher who looked washed up 3 times and each time helped him to recover into a better than average pitcher. To summarize from 1990-1997:
A couple of years later, Cox and Mazzone pulled another aging right hander from the scrap heap: John Burkett. Amazingly, Burkett is now leading the NL in ERA and is pitching better than he ever has in his career. A Cy Young contender in 1993, Burkett spent the latter half of the 90’s eating innings for the Texas Rangers. By 1998 and 1999, Burkett was ineffective. His ERAs were in the 5.60’s, but his strikeout numbers were still a decent 6.0 and 5.9 K/9 respectively.
When Cox and Mazzone picked him up, they were heavily criticized for relying on age over youth. Bruce Chen probably should have gotten the starts; however, Burkett did rebound. His K/9 rate jumped to 7.4 and his ERA dropped almost a full run to 4.89 in 2000. It seemed as though Cox and Mazzone had found themselves a decent innings eater.
This year, Burkett has gone from being a spare part to a possible all-star game starter. His league leading ERA is 2.35 and he is striking out 7.8 batters per nine innings. Since K/9 rate is one of the best predictors of future ERA, I wouldn’t be surprised if his success continues. This isn’t a flukey performance, it’s dominating pitching.
Cox’s and Mazzone’s success with Bielecki and Burkett leaves many questions to be asked. Pitchers don’t just suddenly start striking out and extra two batters per game every day. Mazzone’s pitching programme has more of a reputation for developing durability than strikeout power. Yet upon joining Atlanta, Bielecki went from a striking out 5 batters per nine innings to 8 and Burkett increased from 6 to 7.6.
How did two seemingly over-the-hill right-handers find success in their late 30’s? How were the Braves able to get Bielecki and Burkett to do it? What’s their secret, and which aging righty is going to be next?
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