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Mudville: October 24, 2021 5:20 am PDT
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Automatic Thor, Automated Umps

Automatic Thor, Automated Umps

JUPITER, FL – Call it a full two days of fun when you get to see the new Automated Ball-Strike technology at work and see Noah Syndergaard take the first big step in his comeback from Tommy John surgery.

First things first, and Mets fans you might have something special when Syndergaard returns to action in the majors.

I’ve seen dozens and dozens of his starts, but I never saw Syndergaard under such control as he was Wednesday in his first rehab outing, a four-inning, one hit, five-strikeout performance for the St. Lucie Mets against the Palm Beach Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium.

The plan was for Syndergaard to go four innings and he did just that against the Low-A Cardinals, who never had a chance against him. But it was the way Syndergaard was performing, throwing a fastball that hit 95, a breaking ball and a changeup.

Scouts at the game noted Syndergaard was not throwing his power slider and I have maintained for a long time, that is a good thing for his elbow, not to throw too many power sliders. His fastball played up and his windup appeared a little more deceptive and a lot more together than in the past, but the best thing was that Thor was not trying to be Thor.

Noah was just being Noah and that is plenty good enough.

Syndergaard was not overthrowing or as one scout at the game told BallNine, “He wasn’t trying to throw the ball 105 miles per hour, he was just trying to throw strikes down at the bottom of the strike zone – 93-95 down in the strike zone actually looked pretty good and he had a good changeup. And the breaking ball was not as hard, not as stressful as in the past.’’

I asked a friend of Sandy Koufax how many no-hitters Sandy in his prime would have today and he just started laughing and said, “Sandy would just keep throwing the fastball higher, striking them all out.’’

That is a pleasant change for Syndergaard.

That’s a really good thing, and if Syndergaard can keep under control there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel for the Mets. “He looked very deGrom-ish, very controlled,’’ the scout added.

That is some high praise.

When Syndergaard, long hair flowing, took the mound Wednesday on this steamy 84-degree day, the PA system at Roger Dean Stadium played “Dancing With Myself’’ by Generation X. And that was pretty much the story of his performance. No one could dance with Thor. His fastball was in the 93-95 range as Syndergaard focused on command and not just throwing thunder bolts as hard as he could throw them.

There was art to his work.

There is still a long way to go, this was the first step and I get it, these were only totally undisciplined Low-A hitters but Syndergaard could not have gotten off to a better start. We will have to see how he comes through the start physically but immediately after retiring his last batter Syndergaard was all smiles.

He should have been, too.

This version of Thor was automatic. He last appeared in a major league game way back on September, 29, 2019 against the Braves. He last pitched in a spring training game on March 8, 2020. By the end of that month last year he was having Tommy John surgery and his future was up in the air.

What’s most interesting is that Syndergaard is a free agent after this season so if he comes through all of this healthy he might be doing some of his best work for a new team down the road. It will be fascinating to see what Syndergaard will get on the open market so essentially he has to prove himself to his future employer and of course that could be the Mets. After all, Sandy Alderson traded for Syndergaard so you can be sure he wants to keep him around for the future.

But you never know when a player hits free agency.

It could be someone else needs a more disciplined pitcher than the one he was in the past. Being healthy will make all the difference in the world for Syndergaard and his numbers from 2018 to 2019 were shocking.

In 2018 he was 13-4 with a 3.03 ERA over 25 starts. In 2019 he was 10-8 with a 4.28 ERA over 32 starts so perhaps the elbow problems were creeping in back then. Over his career, Syndergaard is 47-30 with a 3.31 ERA over 118 starts. The injury-wracked Mets went into action on Wednesday in first place in the highly mediocre NL East, a division that was severely overrated to start the year.

Sure, the Mets have been hit hard by injuries, but they have been playing hard and they make more contact than most teams. They have struck out 303 times, only the Astros (295) have fewer Ks. The Mets have some holes in their lineup, but the rest of the competition in the division is pretty much a joke. They should easily run away with this division. The Braves’ home run or nothing approach is blowing up in their face after winning the division in 2020. The Phillies have all kinds of depth and pitching issues. The Marlins own good young pitching but have no offense and the Nationals are a shell of the team that won the World Series a few years ago.

This was only the first step for Syndergaard but it was a big first step.

As for the Automated Ball-Strike technology or ABS as it is known, ABS was something AMBS had to see firsthand before writing about it and evaluating where baseball goes from here in the pursuit to make umpires replay robots and just another thing that is less human about the game.

I interviewed 10 people who have seen the system in action this year and they all pretty much said the same thing, at this point the system favors the hitters. No shock there.

Close pitches seem to go the hitters’ way. Essentially this is based off the Hawk-Eye camera system set up in all the Low-A Southeast League ballparks, except for Daytona, which does not have the system.

Essentially, the home plate umpire has an iPhone wired across his back and wears an AirPod. The operator of the system relays the ball-strike information to the umpire and the umpire is merely the announcer of whether the pitch was a ball or a strike. He doesn’t judge the pitch. Hawk-Eye is the judge and jury and the umpire merely announces the verdict, the ump is the bailiff.

Naturally, there is a bit of a delay in the system so sometime with a 3-2 count after the pitch the hitter would just stand there not knowing he took a strike or a ball and would have to wait for a final verdict. Early in the game on Tuesday, a high strike was not called for strike three and the batter was about to make his way back to the dugout when he got the last second reprieve from the governor, so to speak, and wound up walking to first base for the base on balls.

Umpires have missed ball-strike calls forever and this system misses them too. A cross-section of scouts told Baseball or Bust that about 20 pitches are missed a game.

That may be a high number or it may not, but imagine a major league game or a postseason game turning on such a decision.

This is one of those Pandora Box moments that Rob Manfred loves to open as MLB commissioner in his need to add more offense to the game. It certainly slows down a game. The bugs have to be worked out. Baseball people wondered to me why such a system is starting out at the Low-A level where the pitchers have so much to learn and do not command like say AAA pitchers.

The Umpire all wired up.

That is one fine question and my best guess is instead of having veteran players beefing about the system, no one in Low-A ball is going to put up a stink if some pitches are missed during a game.

I put some thought into this and since most of these players at this level are about four years away from making the majors, maybe MLB is thinking let’s get this group used to the system and eventually we can put this into play in the majors with these players. Essentially they are climbing the ladder to the majors together.

Baseball now is all about measureables. Not the teaching of the game but the categorizing of the game. At the start of the season the system measured each hitter’s batting stance, now that is used as a base for calling balls and strikes on each player.

“What happens if a player spreads out and goes to a two-strike approach during his at-bat,’’ a couple of baseball lifers wondered aloud to me.

Good question.

The answer is pretty simple. None of the players I saw over the last two days showed any kind of two-strike approach. It’s the same swing from your ass approach you see in the majors, only worse because these hitters are so inexperienced.

The same approach that has already produced seven no hitters this early in the MLB season, including Corey Kluber’s no-hitter against the Rangers in Texas Wednesday night.

No one can hit in Generation Launch Angle.

The Indians, Mariners and Rangers have already been no-hit twice. I am so tired every winter hearing about how the Mariners have improved and then the season starts and it is the same old problem for that team.

Going into action on Tuesday the Mariners were hitting .199. The team is hitting below the Mendoza Line. This is supposed to be entertainment?

Not to mention the Mariners have been no-hit twice, they also have been one hit three times they have been two-hit and three times they have been three hit. This is not a baseball team. It’s a no-hit team.

I asked a friend of Sandy Koufax how many no-hitters Sandy in his prime would have today and he just started laughing and said, “Sandy would just keep throwing the fastball higher, striking them all out.’’

Here are the list of no-hit pitchers this season: Joe Musgrove, Carlos Rodon, John Means, Wade Miley, Spencer Turnbull and Madison Bumgarner for his seven-inning no hitter. I’m sorry, if an official game in Manfred’s World can be seven innings, and pitcher does not allow any hits in that game, it’s a no-hitter. You can’t have it both ways.

And now Kluber.

Scouts also told me another trend they are keeping an eye on – and this is totally anecdotal – but they insist in games they have seen this year, especially in the minors, checked swings seem to be called in favor of the hitter.

“No, he did not go,’’ is what you are hearing from the base umps.

This has been a strange start to the former Florida State League with the league, just like the majors, focusing on Launch Angle and little else. Defense has been shaky to say the least and the baserunning has been worse. The Clearwater Threshers, a Phillies farm team, had a five-run inning the other day but somehow made all three outs in the inning on the base paths.

“What we are seeing,’’ noted one scout “is a baseball culture filled with data.’’

That is not just at the minor league level, that’s happening throughout the majors as well. Learning how to do something the proper way has been replaced by measureables and the game is suffering. “It’s a non-work culture,’’ the scout said.

Now they still work on their swings, that never stops, but it is working on all the little baseball things that has stopped and the injuries continue to go through the roof, especially soft-tissue injuries.

Why is that?

Could it be something as simple as players not sprinting on the field as much as they did in the past or not having the proper running technique? Think of it. In past generations, running was a staple in every player’s daily workout routine. Now players rarely sprint and when they do, that seems to be when they are most vulnerable to injury.

They sniff a hit, they put in an extra burst down the line and all of a sudden they are injured. It happened to Ronald Acuna Jr. last week, it also happened to Michael Conforto.

There just are not that many talented ballplayers where baseball can afford to lose such stars and the biggest star of all Mike Trout went down with a calf injury earlier this week on a simple run from second to third base on a pop up.

Players from past generations have told me that they worked so hard on the every day skills of the game like running, throwing, defense, and yes hitting, that by the end of the night and the end of the game they were exhausted.

Generation Launch Angle always has time for more swings, though.

Just take a look at the shortstop position. The Strikeout Twins: Javier Baez and Dansby Swanson each have 55 Ks respectively. These are shortstops, not power-hitting corner outfielders. At least Baez is hitting .263. Swanson is hitting .209. That kind of makes you really appreciate what the White Sox Tim Anderson has done. He is hitting .307 with 37 strikeouts.

Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. averaged 70 Ks per 162-game season, by the way. There is something to be said for putting the ball in play. Every day, teams are reminded of that, the Rockies lost, 2-1 the other day to the Padres, striking out 18 times.

That must change.

Perhaps the Automated Ball-Strike technology will someday help the hitters so they don’t strike out quite as much. Maybe they will get the benefit of the Hawk-Eye in the sky. Hawk-Eye, by the way, is used in tennis, but that is a definitive line. Strike zones are not as definitive. They can change from hitter to hitter.

The Low-A Southeast is changing with ABS technology. Who knows if that will be a good thing or not in the long run, but I would like to see some old-fashioned hard work technology being put in by the teams to get better at pitching, fielding, hitting and base-running. It’s not too late yet.

But as Yogi Berra once said: “It’s getting late early.’’

Yogi averaged 32 strikeouts for every 162 games played but he believed in contact, not Launch Angle.

45+ 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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