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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: September 18, 2021 12:16 pm PDT
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The Unwatchables here last week touched a nerve. Touched a lot of nerves, in fact.

So many people who love baseball reached out to me to comment on the state of the game after the column was published on BallNine. The list was long. Former players, coaches, scouts, broadcasters. They love the game – and it breaks their hearts to see what is happening to it these days.

A brief check of the current standings will show you that 14 teams are under .500, many way under .500. A lot of never-ending rebuilds continue to go on unchecked, failed GMs just going along talking nonsense and collecting a big paycheck. One team is at .500 so essentially, half of baseball is under water. A friend who has been in the game his whole life suggested a new slogan for Baseball 2021.

Look Smart. Play Dumb.

Those four words tell you exactly what is happening in the game. Baseball is trying to sell itself as some over the top intellectual affair now with its endless technology and numbers, but the players continue to play dumb and not make adjustments.

Turn on any game, any night, and you will see things like Gary Sanchez going from second to third on a ball hit directly to the shortstop and getting himself thrown out at third base by a mile for the first out of the inning late in a tie game.

Perhaps he forgot to check the cheat sheet on his wrist that tells him: “Don’t run into outs at third base on balls hit directly to the shortstop.’’

In that game Tuesday night the Yankees beat the Rays in 11 innings because Clint Frazier lined a hanging slider over the fence for the 5-3 win. A home run scored the Fake Runner because neither team could manufacture a fake run even with that Fake Runner.

The Rays were 1-for-10 with RISP. The Yankees were 2-for-11.

“I am telling you this so you understand how people who have played and coached the game their whole lives, how their real-life knowledge of the game has been swept aside for people who have no clue about how the game is played.”

Even when gifted the opportunity, hitters can’t take advantage because of their stubbornness and over-reliance on numbers.

Which brings us to what Theo Epstein said to Bob Nightengale earlier in the week about radical changes coming to the game, essentially, penalizing the pitcher, because the hitters refuse to make adjustments and take advantage of the entire field.

“We need to readjust the balance between batters and pitchers to create more opportunities for players to show their athleticism and for fans to get entertainment value again,’’ Epstein told Nightengale. “The experimental rule changes are an attempt to put the game back in the hands of the players.’’

The game remains in the hands of the players. They just don’t realize it.

Especially when they go to the plate. Their tool is the bat. How they handle it, their approach is in their hands. They’ve allowed those hands to be tied by the over-emphasis on power.

The ultimate beauty of baseball is that there are so many ways to score, so many ways to create a run… if you only try.

The players aren’t trying anymore. The Nerds have brainwashed them into believing power is the only way to score. All the little things, moving runners over, stealing a base, hit and run, run and hit, choking up, making adjustments, using a lighter bat, just making contact when all that is needed to score a run, checking where the defense is playing (Hello, Gary), all those things are in the players’ hands.

Yet the players don’t take advantage because they’ve been told it’s all about launch angle and exit velo. They have been told by Epstein and the many Ivy League educated executives that followed him this is the only way.

Now there will be a new way. More new rules under Rob Manfred.

Theo Epstein ``wants to put the game back into the players' hands``.

Baseball needs fewer new rules and more common sense. Common sense left the building when so many development people and experienced coaches were shown the door. The new breed doesn’t coach, they show numbers, examine high speed video and change a grip on occasion, but institutional knowledge has given way to technology.

Here is one of the key elements they are missing.

Players at any level, any generation, love to be coached,

Consider these words sent to me by a veteran coach who was caught in the crossfire of a new GM taking over and lost his job.

“Players love being coached up and then being allowed to play,’’ he texted me. “They love fundamentals. There is an art to coaching and leading. We have lowered the bar over and over… Discipline and coaching is love. You are loving the player. They know this.’’

The players know it but those in charge now do not allow coaching to take place, mistake after mistake is made – basic mistakes – and the player will return to the dugout and nobody will say a word to the player. It didn’t use to be that way. If a mistake was made it was immediately corrected.

Now the same mistakes you see over and over again, night after night and with some of the strikeouts you see you just have to shake your head.

Did that guy just miss the pitch by two feet?

Then there is the half-hearted swing for the strikeout, I haven’t seen anything that bad since watching JV baseball.

How does this happen?

An experienced talent evaluator told me this week why he believes you are seeing such terrible swings. The players have been sold a bill a goods that a certain pitch is coming at this point because of the numbers, the algorithms tell them the pitch is coming. As a result, the hitter buys into the over-information and sells out and when that pitch doesn’t come and suddenly another, totally different pitch arrives, they can’t adjust. C-ya.

Gary Sanchez on the base paths this season has been quite the adventure.

They are too late into their swing. It’s also why so many batters are hit by pitches that are strikes or close to being strikes. They dive into the pitch and leave themselves vulnerable. Not always, of course, some of these pitchers have absolutely no command and unleash a terror pitch, such as the one that hit the Mets’ Kevin Pillar in the face.

Another former major league player, an accomplished catcher, reached out to me and wrote about “The Unwatchables’’ after a former MLB pitcher had sent him the piece.

“I could have written it,’’ the former catcher wrote, “along with about 300 other baseball people (ex-players, scouts, front office folks) that are no longer in the game.’’

This former player, coach and manager was in the game forever but was let go when his organization went all in on analytics and he pointed out the obvious, telling me, “ex-players still in the game are afraid to speak up on how the game has evolved for fear of losing their job.’’

He knew things were bad when he looked up from the dugout one day at the scoreboard and the screen did not show RBIs, runs scored, stolen bases or what those players hit with RISP.

He asked about the RBIs, “Yo, where are the RBIs?’’

He was told by the NIC (Nerd In Charge) my term, not his, “They’re not important. It’s arbitrary that he happens to come up with men on base.’’

And you wonder how there are so many games night in and night out where teams are 1-for-10 with RISP or the winning team is 2-for-11 with RISP.

I am telling you this not to show that real baseball people read BallNine or send me texts and emails, I am telling you this so you understand how people who have played and coached the game their whole lives, how their real-life knowledge of the game has been swept aside for people who have no clue about how the game is played. And how they are treated like garbage.

Epstein can say they want to put the game back in the players’ hands, as it should be, but this is how it was taken out of their hands. This is how this style of bad baseball, Unwatchable Baseball has come to pass.

Rob Manfred's imaginary friend on second base, Mr. Snuffleupagus.

It did not just happen overnight. It took years to get to this point and it is not going to change overnight with a rule change or two. If anything, Manfred’s Imaginary Friend at second base in extra innings, Mr. Snuffleupagus, has shown that these players still can’t get the runner home even when they are given a 180-foot head start. It’s damning in so many ways.

Yeah, but RBIs are arbitrary, RBI heroes like Frank Robinson back in the day were nothing special. He was just luckier than the other hitters, that is the garbage they are selling to this generation of players and this generation of fans. That is where Nerd Ball has taken us all.

Wrote one former front office executive, “It is difficult to sit back and watch this methodical dismantling of the game we love and we can’t do a damn thing about it… Your article is a great start.’’

Offered another former player, now a coach, “Your depiction couldn’t have been more precise. It has been shared by many of my friends in the game.’’

I give all these baseball people credit for speaking up. And again, I am including their words to show how much they love the game. This is not done for me. It’s done for them to show how much they still care even if they are separated from the game or continue to hang in there to try to do what they can do to best help players.

I laugh when I am accused of being an “old man yelling at clouds.’’

I am old, but I stay young talking to players and coaches. You hang around them for 45 years and the calendar moves on, but you look around and the guys on the field are the same 20-some-year-old personalities that were on the fields in 1988. The names change, but players don’t. Ballplayers remain ballplayers. And I have an answer for those accusing me of being that old man yelling at clouds.

You are correct, I am old and I am yelling at clouds, but I am yelling at the thunder storm that is all around us today in baseball. I am yelling to point out where the game has gone wrong and how a small piece of the game, analytics, is now the Baseball Bible.

Lou Brock running free.

The pendulum has swung much too far in the favor of the numbers and not the action. That is one of the reasons I re-read “October 1964” by the late David Halberstam. I was 11 then, October 1964, the time I really fell in love with the game, a game that was undergoing some important changes. In 1964 the “sit back and wait for a home run” Yankees were beaten by the speed and athleticism, and defense, of the Cardinals, led by Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Lou Brock.

Brock changed the team after coming over from the Cubs to the Cardinals in a trade. His ability to run, combined with his baseball talents and his incredible knowledge of the game made all the difference in the world.

I believe that if a player like Brock was allowed to do those things again today, you would see the same results. Hitting for average, scoring runs are a big part of the game, not just waiting back for a home run and swinging for the fences on every pitch. If a team figures that out today, they will have such an advantage over all the same type of teams. Mookie Betts, in some ways, supplied that kind of baseball to the Dodgers last year and it helped bring the Dodgers their first World Series title since 1988.

Brock played in three World Series over his career and won two, losing in seven games to the Tigers in 1968. The following year they lowered the mound, and tightened the strike zone, the last major change to the game. Brock batted .391 in those 21 World Series games he played with a 1.079 OPS.

It’s interesting to note that Brock excelled when he got to the Cardinals after GM Bing Devine made the trade and Brock was told to just be yourself. Over at the Cubs they were running a weird system where nine coaches acted as rotating managers for the Cubs.

Call it Early Analytics, and that is what is in a way happening today, sure only one person is officially the manager now but there is a battalion of nerds feeding information to that one manager and the players.

That is what is going on throughout baseball, it is information overload, too many people are running the on-field show and confused players who are not being coached properly are paying the price.

Batting averages are a joke because these players have been told by the rotating “experts’’ batting average is not important.

In 1964, the Cardinal manager Johnny Keane, told Brock, “We don’t care how you hit the ball as long as you hit. Be as natural as you can.’’

When the subject of stealing bases came up, Keane said, “Since you’ve got the speed for it, I guess you are going to want to try stealing bases.’’

Brock replied: “Hell, yes.’’

Keane responded, “Go for it when it strikes you as right. You make the call.’’

Halberstam goes on to write: “For Brock it was a stunning moment. On the Cubs there had been all kinds of rules about when he could go and under what conditions he could go, all of them in some way inhibiting him, and all of them in some way making him go against his instincts and limiting his natural ability … had he been thrown out there would have been endless recriminations after the game in which his mistake would have been scrutinized and corrected.

“Now Johnny Keane was telling him what he needed to hear more than anything else – just trust his instincts.’’

Trust your instincts. That is putting the game in the hands of the players.

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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