BY KEVIN KERNAN
Pitching season is finally here. Thank goodness.
That’s what I call October baseball. After a full season of taking a back seat, starting pitching is suddenly important again.
Doing the little things is important again.
Playing good defense is important again. Base running is important again.
Baseball itself is important again.
Another Nerd science experiment of a regular season will soon come to an end and the things that make baseball fun to watch will be back in vogue once the expanded playoffs begin October 7th, when the AL and NL Wild Card series begin.
This year, of course, there’s another layer of postseason as MLB owners in the never-ending greedy search for more money continue to turn the postseason into a basketball tournament. A little pro tip here: beware of baseball people who refer to the postseason as a “dance.’’
The baseball postseason was always so different than other sports because the regular season used to mean so much more and teams that won the marathon were situated in a place of high honor.
A lot of teams get invited to the MLB postseason, but the beauty of it all is that the team that’s left standing at the end will not be a fluke team. It starts and ends with starting pitching to win the World Series and that “piece of metal.’’
Pitch shaping has always been around and pitching coaches who could fix a pitcher mechanically also had him shaping his pitches. Real fans know that.
“Piece of metal,” of course, was what Rob Manfred called the World Series trophy. For a brief moment the curtain was opened and we got to see what Manfred really thinks of his sport’s championship; what used to be the most revered of championships.
It’s old news, but it needs to be mentioned every year just so Manfred knows we know what he thinks of the game he’s supposed to be leading.
That game will change even more next season with the advent of more stupid rules concocted by Manfred and his Merry Men, who really don’t know much about baseball.
At least in postseason play, the Fake Runner will disappear.
I had to laugh Saturday because Yankee analyst Paul O’Neill said what we all know to be true – but baseball has been hiding. He casually mentioned that a base hit against the shift is pretty easy to do if you pull your hands in and shoot the ball to the vacant area.
Baseball didn’t need to create four infielders on dirt rules if they wanted to get rid of the shift. All they had to do was get .217 hitters like this particular Yankee, Kyle Higashioka, who chopped a two-strike pitch to right field, past where there used to be a second baseman.
Piece of cake, but the stubbornness of hitters and the Nerds littered throughout the front offices have not allowed this happen.
Again, we got another baseball behind the curtain moment, courtesy of O’Neill.
O’Neill’s exact comment was this: “Well, if you’re wondering how you hit against the shift, you just watch what happens, you pull your hands in and you just guide the ball the other way, it’s not really as hard as it seems.’’
There it is, another dirty little Nerd secret exposed. One of the game’s better hitters from its recent past told the truth, and thank goodness for that.
Pitcher Luis Tiant #23 of the Boston Red Sox throws a pitch during a circa late 1970's Major League Baseball game. Tiant played for the Red Sox from 1971-78. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
All this brings us to pitching in October, here at The Story.
The Yankees are extremely lucky that Nestor Cortes decided to pitch his way and not the way the nibbling Nerds want every starting pitcher to pitch as he bounced from team to team; and on this rebound with the Yankees he became true to himself as he finished the season 12-4 with a 2.44 ERA with an 8-0 victory over the Orioles.
You’ve seen the standard pitching act many times, make the hitters chase something out of the strike zone. Don’t attack the hitters and also don’t show much individualism in your windup, be like every other velocity seeking thrower, don’t dare try to pitch.
Nestor Cortes pitches. He attacks hitters in his unique way and is not afraid to come up with new pitching angles and new windups.
I bring this up because I reached out to Dan Tiant on Saturday, Luis’ kid, and I asked Dan what his father, the great Luis Tiant, thinks of Cortes.
“Loves him!’’ came back the text from Dan Tiant within 30 seconds of me sending my text.
What’s not to love?
Cortes reads swings and gets the batter out; but usually the batter gets himself out and that is the essential genius of pitching, especially starting pitching.
This weekend I also spoke to Rick Peterson, one of the best pitching coaches in the majors back in the day. There would be no “Moneyball’’ without Peterson and his pitching staff in Oakland, that ironically did not gain much attention in Moneyball because Michael Lewis wanted to tell the story his way, and he told an interesting story – that’s for sure.
Behind the scenes though, Lewis spent much of his time with Peterson picking his brain to come up with his game-changing book and movie.
Considering all that I asked Peterson what makes a pitcher, just part of our 90-minute conversation Friday night. Yes, here at BallNine, AMBS is seeking truth no matter how long it takes.
Peterson’s answer is the shortest Rick Peterson quote you will ever read – but Peterson nailed it. A pitcher, he told me, “is a professional glove hitter.’’
Pitching coach Rick Peterson inspects Al Leiter's grip on the ball at the New York Mets' spring training camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (Photo by Keith Torrie/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
There you have it, a professional glove hitter.
That is the art of pitching. Young pitchers, learn to be a “glove hitter’’ and you will have success. Peterson then went into a dissertation on the art of throwing the fastball low and away on the corner. We will get to that some other time; but the point is, hit the glove and you will have success.
Notice Peterson did not tell me a pitcher is a “professional velocity thrower.’’
That is today’s standard which has seen so many real pitching coaches replaced by data readers and those who spout on about pitch shaping. Pitch shaping has always been around and pitching coaches who could fix a pitcher mechanically also had him shaping his pitches. Real fans know that. I am just letting the Nerds in charge know that the game did not begin and end with them, but I will say they are doing a decent job of trying to put an end to the game of baseball as we know it.
By the way, professional velocity throwers all seem to have the same windup.
That’s yet another reason to love Cortes. For Yankee fans, if Cortes could impart some of his pitching wisdom to Gerrit Cole, that would be a win-win heading into the postseason. The Yankees, who won the AL East, will have plenty of rest before they start their portion of the postseason, and they do have a guy named Aaron Judge, so this postseason there are no excuses for the Yankees.
They are the AL version of the Dodgers and if they don’t make the World Series, the year will be a disappointment.
But let’s get back to starting pitching because that is the tale of October. As luck would have it, as I was doing my patio workout on Saturday, grabbing as much sunshine as I could on an 80-degree day, I happened to be listening to my old friend Ed Randall’s weekend show he does with another friend Kevin Kennedy.
I like their show because they have interesting guests and they let their guests tell their story. On Saturday Dave Stewart was the guest. Dave Stewart was always one of the more interesting baseball people to talk to through his Oakland years; and, of course, he did not disappoint.
Pitcher Dave Stewart #34 of the Oakland Athletics delivers a pitch during a game against the New York Yankees in the 1990 season at Oakland Alameda County Stadium in Oakland, California. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Stewart said baseball has become its own worst enemy when it comes to starting pitching, because they don’t develop starting pitching and they don’t let pitchers pitch enough in the minor leagues, especially when they are really young pitchers.
Again, the curtain was pulled back.
“When you come to the big leagues you are only projected to throw 120 innings,’’ Stewart said. “That to me is not what this game is meant to be, that’s not what it is about. Not only that, but when you have a starting rotation as a whole that is only capable of throwing five innings a start, I think eventually it ruins your bullpen and you end up having relievers with very short careers at the major league levels,’’ Stewart said.
We see that over and over with relievers going down with injuries.
Starters are also going down. It’s not like the one size fits all pitch limits have done anything to keep pitchers from getting hurt and it seems like every starter at some point is coming back from Tommy John surgery.
Stewart, who was a 16th round draft pick of the Dodgers in 1975, learned from the likes of Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, and Sandy Koufax.
“The mentality I always carried, and once again this is Bob Gibson,’’ Stewart said, “is your best possible chance to win a baseball game is you. You eliminate the bullpen, you pitch as many innings as you can to win a baseball game. It’s only selfish in the sense that you want to finish the game but pitching is not a selfish position. When we do well, the team does well. As a starter, when you pitch well, the team has an opportunity to win a baseball game. I told Tony La Russa one year that I wanted to pitch 300 innings. Obviously, his response was ‘you will never do that for me if I’m managing,’ but I ended up pitching 275 and 2/3 innings that year with 37 starts and with 14 complete games that season.’’
The year was 1988 when Stewart finished 21-12 for the A’s. The A’s went to the World Series but were shocked by the Dodgers and Kirk Gibson. Stewart pitched eight innings in Game 1 and left with a 4-3 lead and then Gibson did his miracle thing and AMBS was there to see it all develop.
Nestor Cortes #65 of the New York Yankees pitches in the first inning of a game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on July 8, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Stewart produced 14 complete games that season, but the A’s did not have a complete game this year and they were not alone as 13 teams could not manage one measly complete game. Another seven teams had one complete game. The Marlins led the majors with six complete games, all by Sandy Alcantara. The rest of baseball totaled 29 complete games; three of those were by Houston’s Framber Valdez, two by the Phillies Aaron Nola. No other pitcher had more than one.
“What’s missing in today’s starting pitching is recall,’’ Stewart said, “the ability to read what hitters are doing, which allows you to make adjustments from at-bat to at-bat. Today’s starters in the first at-bat display every pitch they have in their arsenal; whereas, I would probably in the sixth inning still have a pitch that the offense never saw. There is an art to pitching and most of it has to do with what the hitters are telling you – and that will tell you what you should do from at-bat to at-bat. That part of the game is totally missing, and if you explain that to a pitcher today they wouldn’t know what you’re talking about.’’
Also, Stewart explained how he became a more accurate pitcher and that came with a piece of advice from Sandy Koufax. It was Koufax who told Stewart to pull his cap down closer to his eyes, the famous Stewart glare, to sharpen his focus on the batter. It worked. Getting advice from former pitchers is also frowned upon in today’s game.
This brings me to something I have been hearing over and over again from pitching coaches who are not in the club anymore.
One such pitching coach lamented to me about the current state of major league pitching, “Nobody is teaching them how to pitch anymore,’’ he said bluntly.
“If they keep getting rid of experienced baseball people and teachers how are these kids ever going to learn?” I asked.
“They aren’t,’’ the former pitching coach said. “They are hiring a lot of college pitching coaches and you know what, you bring in a college pitching coach and he’ll teach you how to pitch like a college pitcher, a guy who doesn’t know how to pitch. Who somebody else is doing all the thinking for. If you bring in guys like Mike Maddux they teach guys how to pitch.’’
There are exceptions to every rule, of course.
He also pointed out that certain veteran catchers who went into coaching also got the job done and he mentioned Doc Edwards.
“Doc Edwards knew how to call a game and how to maximize a guy’s stuff,’’ he said.
He then told a story about being a young pitcher going out and throwing two fastballs by a hitter and then throwing a curveball and the batter lined out. The young pitcher came into the dugout after the inning and the pitching coach said, “Why did you feel like you needed to throw your curveball in some of those counts when you were overmatching hitters the first time through?”
The coach added, “If ain’t broke, don’t fix it, don’t change it.’’
“These are things that I learned at 18 years old in Instructional League,’’ the former pitcher concluded.
These are things only being learned by a select few pitchers, and in some cases it takes years and years to get there, and in Cortes’ case, it took playing in the Yankees organization, going to the Orioles, back to the Yankees, over to Seattle, and then back to the Yankees, where the third time was finally a charm.
Nestor Cortes is a professional glove hitter, and one with individual flair.