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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: December 3, 2021 7:04 pm PDT
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There is no excuse for bad baserunning.

None.

It’s the easiest thing to do on a baseball field, anyone can become a good baserunner. You may not be the fastest runner on the team, but you can become a good baserunner. Even if you are the slowest baserunner on a team.

Here are three of the simplest examples of becoming a good baserunner.

Study where the fielders are positioned before the pitch. Both outfield and infield, especially with the much too common shifts.

Freeze on low line drives to make sure the ball gets through.

Hustle.

It’s not that hard.

Yet the terrible baserunning in baseball has become an epidemic at the major league level. A lot of that is because no-accountability managers and coaches allow it to happen and don’t demand excellence.

All this brings us to what I saw out of the Mets this week. On Wednesday, in a dreadful 3-2 loss to the Giants at Citi Field, the Mets had runners on first and second with no outs in a scoreless game. Javier Baez was on second. He never bothered to check where any of the Giants fielders were positioned in the six-pitch at bat.

“Baserunning is the lost art in today’s game even though it is such an important part of the game. How did it happen? How did this generation of players lose their focus so badly they cannot even manage to make the most of 90-foot sprints base to base?”

Jonathan Villar, batting lefty, hit a line drive to center that Mike Yastrzemski easily closed on to his right and caught the ball, shoulder high. Baez never looked at the fielders, never looked at centerfield to see Yastrzemski had shaded to left-center and never even attempted to look for the baseball.

Running with his head down he rounded third and was stunned to see that he had been doubled off second base after Yastrzemski tossed the ball into shortstop Brandon Crawford.

All things considered it might have been one of the worst baserunning mistakes of the season and that is saying something with the mindless, T-ball-like baserunning I have watched all season long, especially since there were no outs and the Mets were batting .130 in their previous 11 games with RISP.

“It’s like the third time Baez has done that this season,’’ a top scout told BallNIne.

The camera immediately switched to manager Luis Rojas for his reaction and he had already moved on, flashing signals now that there were two outs and a runner on first base. No one said a word to Baez who went on his merry way. The message was crystal clear: Make all the mistakes you want, we will not hold you accountable.

In many ways that one play boils down the Mets season. They can’t get clutch hits. They can’t score runs and yet here was a scoring opportunity and the ball was hit hard – but the baserunner had no clue where the fielders were stationed and cluelessly ran the Mets out of an inning in a game they would eventually lose by one run as their season was destroyed over a two week stretch of terrible baseball. The Mets lost eight straight games by one run in that stretch. For the season, they have lost 25 games by one run.

You think some better baserunning would make a winning difference at times. I do.

The Mets got exactly what they deserved. Those kinds of mistakes cannot be made against other major league teams, especially the Giants who have found all kinds of magic this season. Those kinds of mistakes cannot be tolerated, but they were tolerated by the manager, who at this point, will not be coming back next season.

And as the scout noted, Baez has a history of such mistakes. Even more reason to make sure this baserunning mistake cannot be tolerated.

But that’s the Major League game these days, let the kids play.

Let the kids run you out of an inning when you can’t score runs to begin with. Let the kids run wild even though the centerfielder had an easy play. It wasn’t like Yastrzemski caught the ball at his shoe tops and then had to make a great throw. He ran over to his right and caught the ball. If Baez had merely looked where the centerfielder was playing before the pitch, or any of the six pitches, this would have never happened. The home plate camera clearly showed Baez never checked out where the fielders were playing as he got off the bag. He was probably too busy trying to steal signs and at one point Johnny Cueto stepped off the mound, suspecting Baez of stealing signs. Baez should have stolen a look at the centerfielder.

That’s on Baez. That’s a mistake.

Say what you want about Alex Rodriguez, but if you check video of A-rod taking a lead at second base you will always see him turn to his left and right to check out where fielders are positioned. Every decent baserunner makes that check from high school to the majors.

The lack of accountability said it all about the Mets and why they have failed again. This is a franchise deeply flawed and I mentioned much earlier this year at BallNine there were things I did not like about the Mets approach. Those things have only gotten worse and I will discuss more at a later date here at The Story.

For now, I want to focus on baserunning and why it is so bad in the major leagues.

“They don’t work at all,’’ the scout said. “They used to run the bases during BP and guys would work on secondary leads, reading balls that would be down in the outfield and things like that, but no more. They don’t get their bunts down. They don’t execute hit and runs because they don’t practice that. So it’s like nothing.’’

Remember, the Mets were such a bad baserunning team that a few years ago when Ruben Amaro Jr. was a coach for Mickey Callaway, that he put the team through a baserunning tutorial at Chase Field before a game. AMBS was there to see it and the players were taken base to base as if they were T-ball players.

And this had to be done – that’s how badly those Mets ran the bases.

Baserunning is the lost art in today’s game even though it is such an important part of the game. How did it happen? How did this generation of players lose their focus so badly they cannot even manage to make the most of 90-foot sprints base to base?

Why are they so clueless?

“They don’t work at it, nobody,’’ another longtime talent evaluator told me and then describing how it used to be not too long ago at spring training when it came to baserunning drills, but now teams are run by Nerds who do not value working on improving that skill. “The Gerbils have taken that element completely out of the instruction manual in spring training.’’

Why work on baserunning when you could be looking at video of your swing or working in the cage on your launch angle or even meeting with your personal artist who is going to design that season’s spikes. There are way more important things to do than work on hot and sweaty baserunning in the spring and before games during the season.

“I remember going to spring training and seeing (Mike) Scioscia spending an hour just on baserunning alone before spring training games,’’ the scout said. “(Jim) Leyland did the same thing. They don’t do any of that now.’’

Meanwhile, teams like the Yankees have greatly improved their baserunning recently and it has helped make a difference – and they are stealing more bases, too. That kind of baserunning energy pays off in the field, in the dugout and in the clubhouse because … it’s baseball.

Most teams could not care less, and it shows itself in many ways that just make someone who has seen how important the small things are to the game shake their head in disgust.

The great Jim Leyland.

“They don’t work on relays, nobody takes infield and outfield, so nobody can throw the ball accurately,’’ the scout added. “If I’m a third base coach I’m sending almost everybody home for this reason: Maybe the ball will get there but the ball will be 10 feet up the line.’’

Safe, unless the replay in New York blatantly blows the call and calls you out like with the Braves Freddie Freeman the other night.

Perhaps Baez was so focused on scoring, he neglected to realize the ball must hit the ground on an RBI single to actually score on a single.

Yes, it is that bad and with media no longer allowed into major league clubhouses to ask those, “What happened?’’ questions you are not getting a lot of answers from those who make these mindless mistakes.

The Mets have fallen into third place well behind the Braves. And while the Mets added Baez and Rich Hill at the trade deadline, the Braves rebuilt their team even with true superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. lost for the season. The trades that added Jorge Soler, Joc Pederson and brought back Braves killer Adam Duvall from the Marlins all made by Alex Anthopoulos made a difference.

The Braves also had the steadying influence of Freeman, who keeps the clubhouse in order, got ex-Met catcher Travis d’Arnaud back from injury and, yes, they still have their secret coaching weapon at third base coach in the Great Ron Washington.

Washington works diligently every day with Braves infielders like Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson as well as third baseman Austin Riley and Freeman – and it shows.

Washington recently told Steve Hummer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution of the Braves’ infield, “They have grown tremendously, not only physically, but mentally. That’s the joy, when the game starts, to sit back and watch ‘em play. They make mistakes like anybody else, but I tell you what, they get after it. They believe in defense. It’s a part of them. It’s so much a part of them. That’s what you try to build, and that’s the joy I get just watching them play.’’

At the age of 69, Washington gets after it every day as well and whenever I was at a Braves game, it was so much fun to watch the one-on-one drills he would do on the grass in front of the Braves dugout every day during the season and in spring training.

Ron Washington.

Players need guidance. And being the third base coach, he also offers that baserunning guidance. Players need that as well.

“Ron Washington is probably the most valuable coach in baseball,’’ the scout said. “Because of what he does to their infield defense. He has made those kids, the Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swansons and Riley and Freeman, because Wash works every day. That is why Eric Chavez gave Wash one of his Gold Gloves (in Oakland).’’

It takes work. It takes drills. To succeed at baseball, it takes the little things done right. Same for baserunning.

The scout then told me something that should be written on every clubhouse wall and more importantly in the owner’s box above the wine bar, because he is the one hiring the people in charge and they all need to be reminded of this:

“There are skills in our game that need to be worked on every day,’’ the scout said.

Hallelujah!

And there is only one way to work at them on the field even if it is in front of the dugout for a brief time every day.

They are not learned by looking at a tablet or studying numbers. They are learned by doing, over and over and over again. “And,’’ the scout added, “that ethic has been demolished.’’

It sure has – and from what I’ve been hearing some of the things going on in minor league parks now when it comes to work ethic are even more pathetic. Teams lazily taking BP like it’s a day at the beach, even shirts off and all on occasion, “and they don’t shag fly balls that much anymore,’’ another scout told me. “They just wait for the ball to stop rolling and then they pick it up.’’

I asked if the teams work on baserunning drills.

The scout laughed.

The joke is on baseball, of course, and the fans. Mets fans thought this would be their year. New owner, weak division. Superstar player of chief rival is injured and out for the year. So what happens? The Mets go into another one of their classic NL East tailspins, the Braves rebuild on the run and now the Mets find themselves again staring up at the Braves and even the Phillies, who pretty much can’t do anything right. The Phillies are so bad, Dave Dombrowski recently got rid of much of the player development staff because of the lack of organizational progress.

It was so bad that Dombrowski who is never shy when it comes to trading prospects, didn’t really have any prospects to trade.

But that Phillies team still has a better record than the Mets. The more things change.

Baserunning by Mookie Betts helped the Dodgers beat the Braves last October and then win their first World Series since 1988. Betts is back healthy again making the Dodgers that much more dangerous. The Mets have the ninth best record in the National League. All teams make baserunning blunders, so I am not just singling out the Mets here but that ridiculously poor and lazy read by Baez had to be noted.

Everybody knows about the Mets lack of hitting, their lack of clutch hitting and their flat-out dreadful hitting with runners in scoring position. Overall, the Mets .234 average is 26th in the majors. The interim GM Zack Scott fired Chili Davis and Tom Slater, thinking he had all the answers. He didn’t.

Here is another simple number you need to know. The Nerds want to give you complicated numbers in an effort to make the game seem complex. It’s not complex. It’s a simple game. A hard game, but a simple game.

This season the Mets have scored 474 runs going into Saturday’s action. Only one team, the Pirates are worse, and the Pirates aren’t really a major league team, they are like the Orioles, a major league team in name only. The Pirates have scored 466 runs.

Baserunning is not the Mets only woe, by far, but such a terrible baserunning blunder by Baez typifies the issues surrounding this team. You might score more runs and win more one-run games if you run the bases properly and with intelligent aggression.

The No. 1 rule of baseball is simple: Keep your eye on the ball. I will add, when you are on base, take a peek at where the fielders are playing, too.

Can’t get more basic baseball than that.

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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