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Mudville: May 22, 2024 2:17 am PDT


Accountability counts.

There are many reasons the Yankees are running away from the rest of baseball, but it all starts with accountability; and that is a testament to Aaron Judge’s all-around ability to play the game and the fact he has a leadership wingman now in Anthony Rizzo. Of course, the pitching and hitting has to be there but this is about team responsibility and Judge has taken that weight on his broad shoulders.

Step aside, Mike Trout, Aaron Judge is the AL MVP for all the right reasons.

“Judge is probably the toughest out in all of baseball right now and he’s playing centerfield,’’ one top evaluator told BallNine. “Right now, he is easily the MVP of the American League.’’

Here at BallNine, the conversation is often about the bar being lowered in MLB. Judge with the help of veteran Rizzo, raised the bar for the Yankees and the team has responded with a .742 winning percentage and a nine game lead in the stacked AL East.

As for the Rays, unless they immediately change their mindset and start working as hard as the Yankees work, and start holding themselves accountable, they will not be a problem for the Yankees this season.

Just listen to Kevin Cash, one of AMBS’ favorite managers, after the Rays lost a 2-0 game to the Yankees on Tuesday at Yankee Stadium when right-fielder Manuel Margot committed an error and then Randy Arozarena, who had a simple short throw home from left field to nail Giancarlo Stanton, overthrew everybody and the Rays messed up backing up the play as two runs scored, the only two runs of the game.

It was about as bad a play as you could make and something you see regularly in Little League; there was no sense of where he was from Arozarena to make the throw and no backing up on the play. Yikes!

This is the major leagues. These are the Rays, a team that used to represent fundamental baseball at its best. There is player development in the Rays organization, but this was one of the worst plays you will see all year.

It happens, I get it, but here is what Cash said, word for word. Warning: Baseball traditionalists you will not like what you are about to hear.

I had to listen to it three times to believe it was true.

Kevin Cash: “Look, I thought we played well. We didn’t hit and two plays that we normally convert into outs, or one for sure, and that was the outcome of the ballgame.’’

Enough with the coddling.

With that comment Kevin Cash is helping to destroy his credibility. Are his players so soft they can’t take the truth?

Will someone in that clubhouse call for accountability?

The Rays have 100 games to go and they are 11 back of the Yankees. Cash should have just taken the kids to the nearest Dairy Queen. “You guys are great. I thought we played well.’’

Just once I would love to see a Billy Martin-like explosion in these cupcake days of MLB.

Cash’s team played well. Really?

They were 1-for-6 with RISP. They made two critical physical errors in the fourth inning and one critical mental error. The Yankees scored two runs on a single to left field on a short throw after the left fielder air-mailed the ball home and the backup by Corey Kluber was not done well and the first baseman didn’t help matters either.

The inning started because of a dropped fly ball. That fourth inning gave the Rays their 19th and 20th errors in the last 23 games.

“I thought we played well.’’

Don’t tinkle on my leg and tell me it’s raining out.

Are Rays fans that dumb they will fall for that line? Are Rays players accepting this kind of play? The Yankees under Judge and Rizzo, who you will notice are always by each other in the dugout, would make sure the situation was cleaned up. Even Aaron Boone would not say his team played well after such a horrid game on such a big stage.

Maybe Cash and the Nerds in the organization are more tolerant than me. After all, the Rays have surrendered 40 unearned runs this season, the second most in the majors.

Asked about the play Arozarena gave this answer to the reporters in New York: “What happened was he got a hit, I got it and I threw it home and I didn’t make a good throw and they scored.’’

Okay. Margot had no clue what happened on the dropped fly ball.

My question is when was the last time the Rays took a spirited infield/outfield at kind of full speed? My guess is it has been a while. Taking infield is a lost basic art. Taking fly balls off the bat is a lost basic art.

Making excuses on a daily basis is what the MLB game has come down to and Kevin Cash, a good manager, got caught up in the Candyland that is MLB now, a game where it costs fans more money, especially with the price of gas, than ever to attend.

“I thought we played well.’’

Really? Might have been my reaction to that answer.

Well skip, you made two critical errors on rather simple plays, did not backup properly and were 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position.

I’d hate to see a game where you thought your team did not play well.

Don’t tinkle on my leg and tell me it’s raining out.

Aaron Judge #99 and Anthony Rizzo #48 of the New York Yankees talk in the dugout during the first inning against the Cleveland Guardians at Yankee Stadium on April 24, 2022 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Kevin Cash has been one of the more honest managers through his tenure. Maybe he just had a bad day or maybe he’s been told not to criticize the boys in any way in public. Maybe he knows he has some soft players at the first hint of criticism, even when it is due, they will shut down a bit.

That’s where clubhouse leadership takes over, managers can’t do certain things.

“There are guys who lead by example, which I think Aaron Judge is,’’ one of the top talent evaluators in the game told me. “But Anthony Rizzo is not afraid to confront a teammate when that teammate needs to be confronted.

“And he’s not afraid to meet anything head on. There is no fear. Last year when Rizzo got traded over to the Yankees, Luke Voit was still on the DL and there was that friction there. What’s the deal? I was in the ballpark when Voit came back to the club and the first thing Rizzo did was put his arm around him and talk to him when they took ground balls at first base. He met that head-on. He was able to diffuse what the organization and the manager probably couldn’t have done and that is a huge, huge thing. And Anthony Rizzo is not afraid to talk to a young pitcher when he needs it or to give him a breather.’’

Then this compliment, which means so much in today’s leaderless game.

“He understands what is going on in the game and that’s a huge, huge value on a team,’’ the evaluator said.

There is a fine line.

Also in the Yankees 2-0 victory over the Rays there was play at second that was overturned by the MLB replay center with Yandy Diaz being called out after being called safe on the field, that didn’t help the Rays. In one of the better comments of the year, Diaz said, “I think a 5-year-old would have been able to see that I was safe at second.’’

MLB lowers the bar across the board these days. Fantastic.

Manuel Margot #13 of the Tampa Bay Rays on first base after hitting a single during the sixth inning of the game against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on June 14, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)

Judge in center seems to have upped his game across the board and with his large frame he covers a lot of ground. The scout did offer this caution: “After a while, playing in the middle of the field does wear your body down,’’ he said.

Judge seems to have a good handle on it though and the bet he made on himself is a winner. The Yankees will have to sign him to whatever he demands, if not, clubs are lined up to go after Judge, something I have been saying for years.

Judge does what other players don’t do. He makes adjustments.

As for the rest of MLB for the most part,”There are no adjustments,’’ the evaluator said. He really sees that on the pitching mound where pitchers have gotten totally away from commanding their fastball. It is velo over command and you see the terrible results all the time.

Just look at the Washington Nationals.

Here is the best advice from the evaluator: “Work fast, throw strikes, change speeds. A well located fastball is the best pitch in baseball.’’

Too simple for the Nerds to embrace.

A well-located fastball and key leadership go hand in hand.

“You have to have guys who are not afraid and come to compete every day,’’ the evaluator said. “The Yankees do have that right now and Anthony Rizzo is a big freaking part of that. He ain’t afraid.  If he has to tell Stanton to run a ball out, he will.’’

Jason Giambi was such a leader for the Yankees and also when he went to the Rockies and Cleveland.

Rizzo was out there for anybody to sign. Eventually the Yankees got around to signing him.

The evaluator then made this comp. Nerds, if you are going to learn anything about the game, please hear this story out.

Scouts are gold in making such comparisons and this time the Scout Time Machine took us back to the Marlins in 1997 when Jim Leyland was the manager. The Marlins traded for catcher Darren Daulton.

Aaron Judge #99 (L) and Anthony Rizzo #48 of the New York Yankees look on against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on April 08, 2022 in New York City. The Yankees defeated the Red Sox 6-5 in eleven innings. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

“Daulton told Gary Sheffield that he would fight him every day,’’ the scout said, “and that Sheffield would have to kick his ass because Daulton was going to let Shefffield know when he didn’t hustle. ‘This might be my last chance to win a World Series ring,’ Daulton told Sheffield, ‘and if you play the game the right way, we are going to win a World Series.’

“It was a shouting match in the clubhouse and Sheffield said, ‘F— you!’ Daulton responded ‘F— you!’ Leyland was in the office, going, ‘Yes! Yes!’ ’’

“Because the manager can’t do that with millionaire player. A teammate can, and you know what, from that point on in Gary Sheffield’s career after he won that World Series, he was a different player. Watch games from that Series and watch Sheffield get hits the other way with two strikes, watch him run out balls and break up double plays and steal a base.’ ’’

That’s what it takes to win a championship. The superstars have to deliver and everyone has to play hard. This is not rocket science. This is baseball. Never forget that.

The Mets, the evaluator said, have such a leader in Eduardo Escobar. “He’s funny as anything and is not afraid to say shit.’’

I covered Sheffield in San Diego and was so impressed with him at the time, along with Fred McGriff and, of course, Tony Gwynn.

Sheffield was only 28 in 1997 and Daulton was 35. He came over from the Phillies on July 21st of that season, specifically for clubhouse leadership in a trade for Billy McMillon. That was a great deal made by Dave Dombrowski in many ways and that team was set up for years of success after winning the World Series. But the Marlins being the Marlins tore it all down.

Rightfielder Gary Sheffield of the Florida Marlins hugs teammate Darren Daulton as other teammates celebrate around them in the locker room after 11 innings of the 7th game of the1997 World Series against the Cleveland Indians at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, Florida. The Marlins won the game 3-2 and took the series. Mandatory Credit: Jed Jacobsohn /Allsport

By the time the postseason rolled around the Marlins and Sheffield were at their best. Daulton, in his last season in the majors, got the job done and to Sheffield’s credit he set the tone against the Giants in the NLDS, batting .556 with a 1.714 OPS and even did steal a base.

In the NLCS he produced an .870 OPS and then in the World Series seven-game win over the Indians he batted .292 with a .943 OPS.

The Marlins wrote a wonderful story of success but there was much more to success than the numbers. There was key leadership which led to key plays and key hits.

Success is unlocked in many ways in the major leagues and to make it all happen, a team not only has to be really, really good, it needs leadership on several levels, the front office, the manager and that key leader in the clubhouse. Rizzo won a World Championship with the Cubs, beating those Indians again in seven games in 2016, maybe he will help Aaron Judge win his first World Championship this year.

There is much more to the game than numbers. And that is what is so great about baseball, there are many components to victory.

“Those leaders are out there,’’ the evaluator said. “And nothing in analytics tells you where that value is.’’

Some people, when they see a leader, they know a leader.

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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