They were the greatest pitching coaches in history, according to a 2004 ESPN survey. There’s no arguing with their track record.
In 17 seasons, Sain coached 16 20-game winners. And beginning in 1961, Sain had a 13-season streak with at least one 20-game winner in each season. Whitey Ford won 20 games only twice, both times while pitching for Sain. Denny McLain’s two big seasons came while pitching for Sain. Jim Kaat’s three biggest seasons came while pitching for Sain, first with the Twins and later with the White Sox. Knuckleballer Wilbur Wood won 20 games four times; all four times, Sain was his pitching coach.
Sain was hired by the Braves in 1977, where he served the first of two tenures as Atlanta’s pitching coach. Most of his work came with Braves farmhands, though his prized pupil was a young coach named Leo Mazzone.
“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,” Mazzone said. “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.”
Sain’s system, implemented by Leo, was responsible for an unprecedented run of pitching dominance. Mad Dog, Glavine and Smoltz didn’t require much tutelage, but think of all the reclamation projects who found success with the Braves.
John Burkett was 35 when he came to Atlanta, fresh off a 5.66 ERA the previous two seasons in Texas. One year later, he was representing the Braves in the All-Star game. Jaret Wright, career 5.09 ERA, was rescued off the scrap heap and in 2004 became the team’s ace, posting a 3.23 ERA in 195 innings as a Brave. A bag of balls brought Kerry Ligtenberg, acquired for a bag of balls, to the Braves, where he emerged as a solid reliever in five seasons, including one year where he saved 30 games.
And those are just a few examples.
But it all goes back to Sain.
“Johnny Sain is the greatest pitching coach — ever. I admire him more than any man I’ve ever met. All players like him: white, black, conservative, liberal, loud, quiet, they all do. Johnny Sain gets a pitcher’s allegiance before any manager.” — Jim Bouton