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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: December 5, 2022 10:29 am PDT
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BY KEVIN KERNAN

Too many pop-ups are dropping on the field now. Some catchable fly balls are falling to the ground as well. All you had to do was watch the sixth inning Tuesday night of the Red Sox mangling a 2-1 lead over the Rays to understand defense is more than a lost art.

It’s a lost world.

There simply is no defense for the defense we see being played at the major league level night in and night out and from scouting reports, it’s even worse in the minors.

One scout told me he saw five pop-ups not caught in one minor league series last week, count ‘em, five.

Despite the athletes being more talented than ever – and gloves better than ever – the defense is worse than ever. In one two-day span I saw three pop-ups fall in the majors. On the third one, Toronto catcher Gabriel Moreno was twirling like a ballerina trying to locate the ball in front of the plate; yet neither the third baseman nor first baseman took control and the pitcher did nothing to direct traffic when it was clear Moreno was in trouble.

What the heck is going on?

A few days later the Blue Jays fired manager Charlie Montoyo and replaced him with interim manager John Schneider, who managed many of the Blue Jays in the minor leagues.

Most of this gets back to practice and doing drills over and over, taking balls off the bat during batting practice and recognizing the flight of the ball. No time for that anymore.

You know what’s going on?

The Nerds have destroyed another aspect of the game, another fundamental skill is down the drain simply because they don’t work at catching pop-ups like they used to work at catching pop-ups. It used to be in the minor leagues this was something that was worked on often and when a coach – or back in the day, a designated player – would hit fungoes every day for players to get better at catching pop-ups.

That is out the window now.

“You never see that anymore in the minor leagues,’’ one scout told BallNine. He said he just had that conversation with another scout. They were both amazed at the lack of fundamental work at the minor league level these days.

“Like high pop-ups,’’ he told BallNine in disbelief, “not semi-line drives, high pop-ups, five were missed. And the official scorer gave them all hits and the pitcher was kind of standing on the mound, going. ‘Are you freaking kidding me?’

“Back when I pitched it was my job to hit fungoes during infield because we didn’t have as many coaches as they have now. I question whether some of these coaches in the minors can even hit pop-ups with a fungo bat now.’’

That is a fair question.

Interesting to note that the Blue Jays also promoted AAA-manager Casey Candaele to interim bench coach. Candaele did it right at AAA and maybe the Blue Jays will focus on fundamentals. Either way management got rid of a lifelong baseball man in Montoyo. They never blame themselves of course, not in the Nerd handbook.

Manager Charlie Montoyo #25 of the Toronto Blue Jays looks on before the game against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park on July 07, 2022 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Too many minor league coaches these days don’t coach.

Those coaches can handle an iPad, though, or discuss their favorite metrics. Functional baseball work, that’s another question. And even if they could handle a fungo, are they going to be allowed to do that extra work with the players? Will the players even show up for that work and take precious time away from their loft angle practice or their time on the iPad?

How about this revealing comment to me from a former minor league manager, it says it all.

This is the crux of the problem, and this former minor league manager knows all the ins and outs of development and what has happened to development in the Nerd Age of baseball.

“You think guys have to be fundamentally sound and become baseball players before getting to the big leagues? Nope,’’ he told me. “They actually have ETA’s of prospects now that is common knowledge. Players already know. Where’s the incentive to work at becoming a fundamentally sound player when your arrival is already given? (Wade) Boggs hit .300 (five) years in a row in the minor leagues. They said he was a defensive liability so he worked and worked. Ended up a Gold Glover. Would not have happened in this world today.’’

And that is so sad for the game.

Our manager also pointed this out, a basic fundamental fact that used to be a staple in the development of players: “You think they play 27 outs in big league camps anymore? Situational defense where you have to execute 27 baseball situations/plays in a row for the drill to be over? Our (major league) manager always did. He always was interested in all of that. Counting how many balls were on the ground. Emphasis on taking care of ball and execution. Focus was very high.’’

Of course, that particular major league manager who demanded fundamental excellence and 27 outs is no longer a major league manager.

Can’t have the bar being raised not lowered.

Brett Phillips #35 and Randy Arozarena #56 of the Tampa Bay Rays misplay a fly ball in the `5i during a game at Tropicana Field on July 12, 2022 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

The Nerds need to step down from their pedestals and reevaluate what they are doing to the game. The irony here is that with all the upper cut swings and emphasis on launch angle, there are a ton of pop-ups and fly balls.

By the way, on Tuesday I also watched two different outfielders overrun fly balls that fell to the earth; and two other defensively challenged corner outfielders actually go back on fly balls, allowing the balls to drop safely on the grass.

On such plays the pitcher’s expression told you everything.

On one play Rays centerfielder Brett Phillips, who always hustles, badly overran a fly ball in left-center that should have been an out. Pitcher Corey Kluber shook his head in disbelief when Phillips bungled the play. On Tuesday, Reds centerfielder Nick Senzel was getting under a classic “can of corn’’ fly ball at Yankee Stadium to make a throw home with a runner tagging up on third base and somehow fell down, allowing the ball to land safely for another questionable “hit.’’

Most of this gets back to practice and doing drills over and over, taking balls off the bat during batting practice and recognizing the flight of the ball. No time for that anymore – like there once was time to work on fundamentals when managers demanded such attention to detail.

Most managers not named Buck Showalter don’t do that anymore. That’s a sad fact.

Compounding the problem, especially for infielders, is that shortstops are no longer shortstops, they are second baseman or short fielders. I remember when Derek Jeter as a Yankees shortstop warned me that this day would come.

Watch the recent collision between Padres young shortstop C.J. Abrams and left-fielder Jurickson Profar. Profar suffered a concussion and neck sprain in the scary collision chasing a pop-up off the bat off the Giants Tommy La Stella.

C.J. Abrams #77 of the San Diego Padres (R) collides with Jurickson Profar #10 as he makes a catch on a ball hit by Tommy La Stella #8 of the San Francisco Giants during the fifth inning of a baseball game July 7, 2022 at Petco Park in San Diego, California. Profar was injured on the play. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)

Yes, yet another dangerous pop-up.

The easiest out in the game for more than a century now has become a problem in 2022 because ballplayers don’t take the time to practice the play.

On the replay you will see that shortstop Abrams was playing second base on the play and had to take off like a bat outta hell to get near the pop-up that he could have easily caught if he were at shortstop. Profar paid the price. Abrams looked like Jeter diving into the stands to make that miraculous catch so many years ago but instead was sprinting into left field because of his starting point.

Another great shift move.

Of course, you will never hear that the shift caused this and caused Profar to miss games because the shift is blameless. The shift is also the reason you see something you never used to see in Major League Baseball, foul pops harmlessly dropping in foul territory.  “Even dropping in the third base coaching box because there is no one in the area that can get to that ball in the extreme shift,’’ noted one scout.

How do you think the pitcher feels when in a tough situation, he gets a pop-up, lets out a sigh of relief, and then that pop-up is not caught? That is the definition of frustration.

The best (or should I say the worst) highlight of the week goes to the Red Sox, who under new chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom have decided defense is really not that important, and that any position player can play anywhere for the Bloom Sawx.

As for the difference between the Red Sox and the Yankees, who have a two-touchdown lead in games over the Bloom Sawx, look no further than first base. The Yankees have Anthony Rizzo at first base, a free agent the Bloom Sawx could have signed, while Boston has Franchy Cordero who makes every play an adventure.

The Yankees wisely emphasized defense this season in making up the club and are benefitting from that decision acquiring shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa and catcher Jose Trevino.

Franchy Cordero hilariously overran a pop-up this past week against the Yankees and then the next game a simple fly ball to right field was lost and landed well beyond the right-fielder, another frightful ball-in-the-air experience for the Red Sox. The right-fielder though was really not an outfielder. He was infielder Christian Arroyo, but remember the Red Sox believe defense is not that important and anyone can play anywhere – so they moved the infielder to spacious right field at Fenway Park.

Franchy Cordero #16 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after missing a fly ball in the fifth inning of a game against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on July 7, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Arroyo was not exactly eight-time Gold Glove winner Dwight Evans out there.

The Red Sox, though, topped all of that on Tuesday in a 3-2 loss to the Rays at the Trop. Leading 2-1 in the sixth, with two Rays runners on base, a line drive was hit back up the middle that nailed lefty Matt Strahm. Strahm picked up the ball and made a horrible throw to first. He should have ate it. The ball got past Cordero, you wouldn’t expect him to get off the bag and make the stop with runners wheeling around the bases. One run scored.

Then as catcher Christian Vazquez was signaling for time and looking in the umpire’s direction, with the ball still in play … he wanted to check on the injured Strahm, Cordero lofted a throw home with no one going home … until the throw got away, two errors for the Red Sox on the play and two gift runs for the Rays.

Next time Franchy, you might want to run that ball back into the infield to keep the runners plastered to the bag with one run in on the first throwing error and the game tied, 2-2. Shocked that the throw came home, Vazquez muffed the hop and the ball got away allowing that go-ahead run to score.

This was your standard Little League disaster play you see often but this is the Major Leagues.

Just for fun, the next inning, the Red Sox put runners on first and third with no outs and with Cordero at the plate the Red Sox twice tried a safety squeeze. With third baseman Issac Paredes practically on the bag, Alex Verdugo, representing the tying run, could have reached out and touched the Rays third baseman, but Verdugo went down the line too far on the second try and catcher Francisco Mejia simply played catch with Paredes and picked off a head-first diving Verdugo.

You are never supposed to make the first or third out at third base and you are really never supposed to make the first out of an inning going back to third base.

Again, welcome to Little League, and it wasn’t that the Rays made a great play. Mejia caught the outside pitch and threw to Paredes with a left-handed batter in the box, so it was a piece of cake. Verdugo never should have been that far off the bag.

Another horrible basic fundamental mistake made by the Red Sox. After the game Alex Cora fell on his sword saying he was doing something the Red Sox normally don’t do there and to blame him. “We played a little bit different today and that’s on me,’’ Cora said.

No, it’s on the players.

Verdugo got caught taking too big a lead and much like the Yankees Gleyber Torres who was picked off third in a similar play not too long ago, at least Verdugo did not turn his ankle like Torres did.

A hard lead down the third base line and then getting back to the bag is not practiced anymore like it once was practiced. I remember during batting practice as runners would get to third on their trip around the bases they would often do just that, practice a hard lead and getting back to the bag.

No more. Not with that kind of intensity past generations of ballplayers practiced.

There is no time for practice now. No time to work on fundamentals.

Got to get back in the cage and work on loft angle. Or got to check out the iPad. Or go to the majestic pre-game spread in the clubhouse dining room. And more importantly, not many managers demand such work anymore.

It’s a clown show, and the clowns are allowed to call their own shots: Let the kids have fun!

I know some of you are saying: Why do you insist on yelling at clouds? Chaim Bloom is a genius and Alex Cora is asking too much of his players to actually ask them to play, you know, baseball.

Give me more metrics, not more baseball!

Yeah right, in the end there is no defense for the type of defense we are seeing and the terrible base-running that is common practice these days in the Major Leagues.

No defense at all.

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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