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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: May 18, 2021 10:21 am PDT
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The best thing about spring training is the optimism. There is renewal in the air. The hope of success for your team. The dream of tomorrow.

That is, until the vampires of baseball sink their fangs into the game you used to love.

It happens in the most insidious of ways. The general managers of today tear down the game in every way possible by limiting expectations and results of their players, especially pitchers.

Eventually, that negative mindset combined with a lack of “learn as you go’’ teaching and coaching leaks down to performance.

The perfect example of a self-fulfilling prophecy is the state of starting pitching today as teams gather for the start of 2021 Spring Training in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, yes my favorite time of year.

Innings have been curtailed from the time pitchers enter an organization these days, yet injuries continue to rise. Funny how that is a reality no one really addresses.

Owners I’m talking to you, you’ve fallen for a bunch of garbage.

Instead of renewal this spring, in a spring where we desperately need renewal, the thoughts and concerns of these GMs who created this mess are repeated time and again.

I call it The Great Workload Woe. It’s everywhere.

Team presidents, GMs, and their pitching gurus all howl: “How in the world are we going to manage the increased innings workload of pitchers coming off a 60-game season?’’

I think it’s more like the Great BS Load.

Again, it’s everywhere. You can’t read a team preview without this being given spotlight attention by media. The great reality is that by limiting innings throughout the pitcher’s formative years in the minors and majors, the people in charge have created their own problems, starting pitchers who don’t pitch like starting pitchers anymore.

Pitch limits have not proven to save pitcher’s arms. I maintain it has done just the opposite. It has created generations of pitchers who have the lost the ability to push themselves to heights unknown because of the easy out given to them by management.

In the minors they no longer learn how to pitch through difficulty, it’s just about getting their work in. Pathetic. And it is not that much work.

Save your whining about workload woes. Save your terminology about how “elite’’ this pitcher’s weapons are and we just have to find a way to manage those “elite’’ weapons. We know you come from the “elite’’ Ivy Leagues, but cool it with all the eliteness. Please.

Get these youngsters to learn to pitch out of trouble from an early age, build up their arm strength along with their strength of purpose.

How about just letting guys pitch more and learn more?

Stop making it about you, managing and controlling every situation in the game.

Stop trying to play baseball god.

And you know what, with fewer innings pitched last year, the goal this spring should be let’s build them up so they can be strong from the outset. Now, please don’t interpret any of this to mean that I am calling for the overworking of pitchers early. It has to be a progression and that goes for the early season starts as well but these pitchers need to be challenged this spring.

You have kept them in bubble wrap much too long and as a result you have bubble wrap pitching staffs throughout the game.

That is just one of my many questions heading into spring training. More will be asked here later like how about not being so cheap from an ownership standpoint that MLB stops finding work for proven veteran pieces, and not just drop in a cheaper alternative.

Don’t squeeze out veteran players.

Yes,  you’ve entered my No Excuse Zone. My advice is simple this spring: Wear your hard hat. Let’s get back to the work of baseball.

Along those lines, here is little story Dwight Gooden told me this week.

On Sunday I will go into detail on what Black History Month means to Gooden and how it hits home in a much different way for him. The Story is something you won’t want to miss, but for now in Baseball or Bust just hear what Gooden told me about his amazing 1983 season in Class A Lynchburg, something you never probably realized and how under today’s bubble wrap conditions for pitchers, Gooden never would have gotten to the success level he achieved.

In that 1983 season for the Class A Mets, one of the most dominating seasons for a minor league pitcher ever, Gooden struck out 300 minor league hitters over 191 innings. Nothing like that would happen today. “And I was 18 years old doing that,’’ Gooden proudly told BallNine.

Doc Gooden's 1983 Lynchburg Mets card

Gooden finished that year at 19-4 with a 2.50 ERA. Here is how that happened. Baseball execs, I know you know it all, but you might learn something from Doc’s words of baseball wisdom.

“I started out 0-3 that year,’’ Gooden said, “and John Cumberland was my pitching coach. The Mets were getting ready to send me down to Lower A and he said, “No, we are not going to send him down. Let skip a start and I will work with him.’ ’’

Imagine a Class A minor league pitching coach making such a decision today? Cumberland pitched six years in the majors and finished with a 15-16 record. The lefty knew Gooden had super talent (today they would describe him as “elite’’) and Cumberland also knew Gooden had what it takes to succeed, but also knew Gooden had to make a major adjustment. It’s called learning your craft. It’s called coaching.

That is a lost art these days except for a select few pitchers in the major leagues.

“We just talked about pitching inside because I had never pitched inside,’’ Gooden said of his key conversation with Cumberland. “He challenged me about pitching inside to guys. He told me if you don’t pitch inside to these guys I am going to send you down to Lower A.’’

That got Doc’s attention.

That would never happen today either. Today, that poor Class A pitching coach would have to bring the Mental Skills Coach to such a meeting as well as the Director of Minor League Pitching Strategy and a team of Nerds to discuss spin rate, plus some assistant GM to let the GM know what was going on, you know, a spy.

Players need to take the game back and that means bringing your hard hat.

And, of course, despite Gooden’s outrageous velocity, he would probably have to be sent to a Velocity Trainer as well, that’s after a few hours in the weight room with the Strength and Conditioning Squadron.

So, man to man, Gooden and Cumberland, talked and worked out his issues in a lengthy bullpen session. Gooden listened to the advice and immediately put it in practice and pitched inside and more importantly pitched the innings to make all that practice work. He brought his hard hat to the mound.

“I ended up going 19-1 the rest of the year with 300 strikeouts after starting 0-3,’’ Gooden said.

Gooden pitched 191 innings that year.

You could say John Cumberland managed Gooden’s workload okay.

And how about this for a Jeopardy category: Things that will never happen in baseball again for $800.

“In the minor leagues, doubleheaders are only seven innings and in my last start,’’ Gooden told me with a laugh, “I got 17 strikeouts in seven innings to make it to 300.’’

That pitching coach and that manager probably would have been fired on the spot today.

The next year, Gooden was in the majors with the Mets winning Rookie of the Year honors.

Over those next 10 years for the Mets, by the way, before the strike shortened ’94 season, Gooden went 154-81, pitching 2128 innings, striking out 1835 batters while posting a 3.04 ERA.

Not bad for a kid who was 0-3 at Class A until learning how to pitch inside from the pitching coach.

So many pitchers I have talked to have so many stories just like this. They did not have Gooden’s fastball or curve ball, but they made everything work that they did have. They found a way. They said pitching the innings needed in minor league ball and not being put in bubble wrap made all the difference. Learning how to get out of trouble.

The Red Sox ``Killer B's`` outfield is no more. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Managing the workload with work actually made the difference.

The next year after that season in Class A Lynchburg, Gooden was NL Rookie of the Year. In 1985 he won the Cy Young Award. In 1986 the Mets won the World Series.

How about baseball go back to the hard hat approach?

You would think owners would recognize that the new system of building pitchers isn’t working and they they are losing millions to injuries.

Speaking of money, have you checked out some of the “major league’’ outfields being put together? The Red Sox have gone from the Killer B’s outfield that produced a World Series victory in 2018 of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi to Franchy Cordero, Alex Verdugo and Hunter Renfroe. Renfroe hit .156 in small sample 2020 with a .290 on base percentage, while Cordero hit .211 with a .286 on base percentage.

In February of 2018, I wrote about proven veterans being forced out of the game, caught in the financial squeeze of free agency and I highlighted Melky Cabrera, who could not get a job at the time. A switch-hitting outfielder who now has 15 major league seasons under his belt, Cabrera is a lifetime .285 hitter. That June, Cabrera signed with the Indians and hit .280 over 78 games. In 2019 he played for the Pirates and hit .280 over 133 games. One of his former managers Robin Ventura always raved about Cabrera as a good player and personality to have on the team and in the clubhouse. The Mets wound up signing him last June.

Cabrera is again looking for a job at the age of 36 and is caught in another free agent squeeze. He owns 1962 hits, 38 short of 2,000. He is the type of proven player, a switch-hitter, that could still help and should be signed by some team that needs a veteran outfielder. In Winter Ball this year he played 30 games, hit .308 with three home runs, 18 RBI and a .344 on base percentage.

Melky Cabrera with the Pirates.(Photo Credit: Dave Arrigo)

Not many 15-year MLB veterans go out and play Winter Ball, but that shows how much Melky still wants to play in the majors.

It is such a strange MLB world we are living these days. I remain hopeful that Kevin Cash’s removal of Blake Snell while he was pitching a shutout in Game 6 of the World Series is a tipping point and could bring a little common sense back to the game.

Not a lot. I am not asking for miracles here and the Ivy League GMs are here to stay, but how about just a wee bit of common sense. Is that too much to ask?

Nearly every day I hear about frustrations of this game and the way it is played today. A Division 1 baseball coach I know said this week he is frustrated beyond belief with the game and how baseball is not being taught the way it should be – putting the ball in play, making the routine play, you know, baseball.

Also this past week David Ortiz put out his frustrations about the game, telling my friend Pete Abraham from the Boston Globe that the game is “messed up.’’

Ortiz added: “We used to want to develop great hitters. Now it’s all strikeouts with some home runs and it’s straight up fucking boring. If you could bet in Vegas that the next hitter was going to strike out, you’d take it every time.’’

That is such a great comment. Get some betting action on there being no action.

That’s where the game is at right now.

Love him or hate him, and yes BallNine founder Chris Vitali, and a legion of Yankees fans – I am talking to you – Ortiz nailed it. The game is boring. The shame of it all is we know there is so much more to this game.

Too many elbows are being blown out by the max velocity game of today.

Spring training should be the time to highlight what is good in the game, what can be taught, what needs to be learned. Stop with the constant whining about how you handle the increased workload after a 60-game season. Of course the whining is done so these executives look like heroes if a pitcher gets through a season without having to have his first Tommy John surgery or his second.

They are setting themselves up as heroes. Players need to take the game back and that means bringing your hard hat.

The goal for all starting pitchers is to get to six or seven innings by the last outing in spring training. Don’t let them change your goal. Come into spring training ready to be good. Don’t let all the excuses of today get in your head.

“What really pisses me off,’’ says a longtime baseball man, a former pitcher, “is that when big league pitchers do rehabs and they have horrible outings and they brush it aside saying, ‘He was just getting his work.’ I never went on the mound to just get my work. And spring training the same thing. I wasn’t just seeing hitters. I was trying to get hitters out every time I took the mound.

“‘He was just getting his work. It’s okay.’ No it’s not okay. It’s horrible.’’

Another cushion of excuse supplied by GMs.

Mets ace Jacob deGrom is always fun to watch in spring training because he is not just getting his work in, he has a purpose to every outing. That’s the beauty of spring training. It’s not about bouncing back from a strange season that created a smaller workload. It’s about putting that crazy season in the rear-view mirror and making 2021 a great season.

“Since they started making that an issue, it’s become a bigger issue,’’  the former pitcher said of the Workload World. “How is all that MLB Protectionism working? Because our injuries are at an all-time high. It’s not working and it’s counterproductive to us developing pitchers.’’

It sure is. Enough with the Echo Chamber excuses from club executives.

Use analytics as a tool, pitchers – but make sure to bring your hard hat to the mound. That’s how you get better. That’s what spring training is about.

44+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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