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    Mudville: November 29, 2021 2:11 pm PDT
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    Go The Distance

    Thank goodness for the Astros.

    You heard that right.

    Thank goodness for Dusty Baker who has turned the Astros into a full-fledged World Series team again with starting pitching, even when they lose their best starting pitcher to start the ALCS, Lance McCullers Jr.

    Baker has the best pitching coach in the game at his side in Brent Strom and that deeply helps. Baker had the good sense to hang with his two young starters: Luis Garcia in the clinching 5-0 win over the Red Sox in Game 6 at Minute Maid Park and before that in Game 5 with Framber Valdez at Fenway Park and that completely turned the ALCS around.

    It took a 72-year-old guy to show the kid evaluators how it is really done. Winning Baseball starts with starting pitcher.

    Trends come and go, bullpenning will come and go.

    Bulk guys will come and go, it’s always going to matter about starting pitcher, no matter how much they tell you it is not about starting pitchers.

    They can say they can bridge the gap with relievers and overuse the great starting pitchers like Max Scherzer in relief roles and before you know it, they will lose a strong arm like Scherzer’s because in baseball, like life, you can’t burn the candle at both ends.

    Starters are starters and relievers are relievers. Once in a great while you can get away with using your starters out of the bullpen, but sooner or later it will catch up to you.

    And way back when, it used to be done in the World Series but that was before there were layers and layers of playoffs to get a team to the World Series.

    But what is the message they are telling the pitcher now? At its damaging core the message is: “Don’t worry about finishing what you started.’’

    For the most part throughout the game, the snake oil salesman have won, but it was Dusty Baker who brought the game back to reality sticking with Valdez for eight innings in a 9-1 win over the Red Sox in Game 5 at Fenway Park on Wednesday night. In the fifth inning with the Astros leading 1-0, Baker could have pulled the emergency chord and pulled Valdez out of the game. Rafael Devers led off the bottom of the fifth with a single to right. J.D. Martinez was then hit by a pitch.

    Trouble in River City.

    Most puppets, er managers, would have gone to the bullpen right then and there but Baker hung tough with Valdez. Baker went to the mound to pump up Valdez with Hunter Renfroe coming to the plate. Valdez fell behind 2-0 and got the ground ball on a sinker for the DP.

    The Red Sox lost Game 4, 5 and 6 by a combined score of 23-3.

    In those three games the Red Sox were a combined 0-for-17 with RISP. The Astros pitchers did their jobs, starting with the starting pitching.

    Baker would not allow his starting pitchers to disappear. He bucked the trend and is going to the World Series as a result. I praised Baker in this space a few weeks ago and he once again showed why he has earned praise even though he has yet to win a World Series.

    The disappearing starting pitcher has been happening in baseball for quite some time.

    We’ve warned you that the Nerds have been hard at work destroying another central part of the game, starting pitching. First they went after the hitters, turning launch angle into the end all be all in with the media lapping up every degree of launch angle it could find.

    The line drive hitter was essentially eliminated. Bunting? Forget about it.

    Then the Nerds came for the defense.

    Remember when shortstops were actual shortstops? The lynchpin of the defense.

    They turned this into a zone defense, sticking shortstops all over the place in the shift, something that has gotten totally out of control. Brian Cashman admitted as much this week about the Gleyber Torres experiment.

    The Astros have a great shortstop in Carlos Correa, and he is heading back to the World Series with his Astros for the third time in five years. You can call them out for cheating, but they are back in the Fall Classic.

    Someone will sign Correa as a free agent to big-time money and it is because of his ability to play shortstop and get big hits. Certain truths of the game are just that, true, no matter how much they try to change the game.

    Going all the way back to Moneyball – fun book and movie – but dude, you forgot about Hudson, Zito and Mulder. They were all drafted by the A’s and performed. The A’s, by the way, are still looking to make it back to the World Series for the first time since 1990.

    If hitters would still go up to the plate with the line drive mentality they could take full advantage of these shifts, but launch angle plays right into the hands of the shift – and also into games like ALCS 4-5-6 and a combined 0-for-17 with RISP for the Red Sox.

    As for outfield play, I used to love to watch Roberto Clemente patrol right field and the throws he made from the corner were a work of art for the Pirates.

    There was nothing cooler.

    Yet, on Friday, in an elimination game, I watched the Red Sox defend against Houston’s lefty hitter Yordan Alvarez, pitching him inside yet not really having a right fielder in right field. Of course, Alvarez (ALCS MVP) lashed the ball into the right field corner and was easily able to get a triple.

    What’s going on here?

    The Nerds strike again. Yet they are given one pass after another. Not here.

    Then they came for the catchers.

    Remember the great catchers like Johnny Bench and Thurman Munson, imagine if the Nerds took away their ability to block a pitch or make a strong, quick throw to second, by over-emphasizing framing, but that essentially is what they have done.

    Stealing bases has never been easier and teams are just starting to figure that out because catchers are constantly off balance in the Nerd World Order of catching with one knee down.

    I would never defend Gary Sanchez because of his approach to the game, but what he has gone through on the catching coaching carousel the Yankees have thrown at him, it is easy to see how he has lost his way behind the plate.

    Astros Celebrate 2021

    The Houston Astros' Carlos Correa celebrates a home run against the Boston Red Sox during the seventh inning in Game 1 of the MLB American League Championship Series Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, in Houston. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

    Now it is the starting pitcher who is obsolete, at least according to the Nerds.

    And like always, before I react to something that is going on in the major leagues, I check it out in the minor leagues. AMBS does his baseball homework.

    So, I talked with one of the game’s top evaluators of talent and this season in the minor leagues has been one eye-opening experience. Better yet, call it what it is, an eye-opening experiment by the Nerds.

    Simply put, starting pitchers are not allowed to go deep into games anymore.

    How in the world can you learn to be a starting pitcher if you can’t test yourself when you must dig deeper to get through the lineup? It’s incredibly stupid what all the nerd pitching gurus are doing to the kids, not teaching them how to pitch, basically.

    So here is what the evaluator told BallNine about the state of starting pitching in minor league baseball.

    It’s baseball. Follow the money.

    “One of the things is that because starting pitchers make so much money they want to do away with the starting pitcher,’’ he said. “If everybody throws three innings, you don’t have that value of the guy who gets you into the seventh inning even though that value is incredible for your team’s success and guys staying healthy and guys staying fresh all year long.

    “The more guys you got getting you into the seventh inning, the better off you are.’’

    Valdez pitched eight innings in Game 5 for Houston, giving the bullpen a much-needed rest and in Game 6, Garcia, made a key mechanical adjustment with Strom’s guidance, went two outs into the sixth and the bullpen cleaned it up from there, including using Kendall Graveman for an inning. It was Graveman who was traded by the Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto, a deal that deeply upset the Mariners clubhouse at the time. Well, once again the Mariners miss out on the postseason and the Astros, who made the deal for Graveman are going to the World Series.

    In the minor leagues, starters are not going deep into games like in the past.

    “I don’t think I saw three kids go more than seven innings all year,’’ the top evaluator told me.

    That’s all the teams he watched play on many different levels. Three pitchers going more than seven innings. But wait, it gets worse. It always gets worse with the Nerds.

    “I saw five guys taken out with no-hitters after five innings,’’ he said.\

    Not one, not two, five.

    “Which is disgraceful,’’ he added.

    It is disgraceful on so many levels, including my most basic level. Back in the day of going to the corner store in Kenilworth, N.J., I used to love to buy my pack of cards, rip them open and come across the occasional back of the card where it said that pitcher had thrown a no-hitter in some minor league town I never heard of, until I started learning my minor league towns through my baseball cards.

    But what is the message they are telling the pitcher now? At its damaging core the message is: “Don’t worry about finishing what you started.’’

    “Just get your work in.’’

    “Hey, I gave my team some quality innings,’’ you hear over and over again during the season. Did you win?

    Pitchers should be learning:

    “Go the distance.’’

    After all, that was good enough for The Voice in Field of Dreams. Both Ray Kinsella and Terrance Mann heard the voice say: “Go the distance’’ at Fenway Park.

    Now, with the Nerds in charge, it would be something like: “Find the bulk guy.’’

    The message should be finding a way to get out of jams, mix it up, learn to pitch to contact to get outs, don’t just go for the strike out. Learn the art of the craft.

    Starters can finish too.

    All that used to be on the table. I’ve told the story before. Back in Missoula, Montana in 1958, a 19-year-old Jim Kaat loads the bases with no outs. Manager Jack McKeon comes out, spits some tobacco juice and says, “Kid, you got yourself into this mess, figure out how to get out of it.’’

    And walks off.

    Jim Kaat figured it out all right, he threw 15 complete games that season in the Pioneer League. He went on to pitch 25 years in the majors with 180 complete games.

    I realize this is a much different time, but you can still push your starters in the minor leagues. It’s not like the Nerd Fraternity has figured out the magic answer on how to avoid pitching injuries. Pitchers seem to be getting hurt more than ever and one or more Tommy John surgeries could be in their future.

    If this new way proved a way to avoid serious pitching injuries, I would be all for it, but it hasn’t. Injuries still happen, so at least get these starting pitchers to learn how to go deeper in games. In Instructional League now there are so many pitchers per team, pitchers don’t get enough work.

    First things first, get rid of the term “bulk guy.’’

    You are a starting pitcher; you are not a bulk guy.

    “I get it,’’ the evaluator said. “You created the monster by overpaying starting pitching, so you want to do away with it by making that no longer a position? As opposed to realizing what the importance is of having good starting pitching… It’s such a broken problem.’’

    For all they do right, the Rays got this one wrong and did not have the starters they could lean on against the Red Sox, despite winning the AL East by eight games and having plenty of time to set up their starters in the ALDS. In their three losses in Games 2, 3 and 4, the Rays got a total of 6 1-3 innings from their starters: Shane Baz went 2 1/3, Drew Rasmussen went 2 innings and Collin McHugh went 2 innings.

    All that adds up to too many bulk innings for your bullpen.

    “You got Swing Reconstruction and Pitch Design at (Instructional Camps), what about the common sense stuff, keep it simple that we are missing out on,’’ one scout said. “Everybody is on the fringe looking for some analytic thing. Nobody is talking about something simple like let’s see how many three-pitch outs you can get, have a plan to get a guy out in three pitches.’’

    If the plan works, pitchers will stay healthier, they will not be overthrowing, they will work deeper into the games.

    And then you don’t need a bullpen of 11 guys.

    Pitching is a craft. It’s not toilet paper you buy in bulk at Costco.

    “Start teaching kids how to read swings, how to read hitters,’’ the evaluator said. “Teach catchers how to do that, too. Make your guys passionate about making a plan of how to get hitters out.’’

    Focus on where you are throwing the pitch, not the spin rate. It’s about command.

    Maybe to get on the proper page, the Nerds should start thinking of starting pitching as a craft brewery. Make this the best craft pitcher you can.

    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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