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Mudville: July 22, 2024 4:40 am PDT
Lab Rats

BY KEVIN KERNAN

The calendar hasn’t yet turned to St. Patrick’s Day and there already are key injuries, especially for the Yankees.

This was a dreadful week for the Pinstripes, with both centerfielder Harrison Bader and pitcher Carlos Rodon put on the shelf for Opening Day. Bader suffered a left oblique strain, while lefty Carlos Rodon has a forearm strain. In the bullpen, Tommy Kahnle is down with biceps tendinitis and Lou Trivino is out with an elbow ligament strain. The Yankees gave Rodon a cool $162 million in free agency. He has a history of injuries and in eight MLB seasons has only once made 30 starts – that came last season for the Giants.

The Bader injury is especially dangerous. Oblique injuries can hang around for quite some time, and it’s beyond me how a hitter can go down with such an injury so early in spring training. But, just as it’s all about power pitching these days, it’s all about power hitting and the intense Bader certainly put on a power display in the postseason last October for the Yankees, blasting five home runs in nine postseason games.

Bader told reporters in Tampa on Saturday that he hurt himself with an awkward swing against his old team, the Cardinals, on Wednesday; and called the injury “a punch in the face.’’ He said he felt rushed in the at-bat and that he just didn’t have his timing down, but he did not say he felt rushed because of the Pitch Clock.

The last thing a hitter wants is an oblique injury because that injury can take such a long time to heal and even after they’re ready to play in a game, there is that lingering thought, “is my next swing going to be a problem?’’

The Oblique Era has been upon us for a while. Perhaps Bader, scouts say, should focus more on contact and less on lifting the ball with a ferocious swing. Bader is a lifetime .245 hitter. These days that’s two points above league average.

“The Yankees have enough to weather the storm,’’ one scout told BallNine about the injuries. “But this is not a good start.’’

On Saturday the Yankees played the Phillies, who have had to shut down their 19-year old pitching phenom Andrew Painter with a UCL sprain and fellow pitcher Noah Song, suffering back tightness; Song will be re-evaluated next week. In addition, starter Ranger Suarez returned early from the WBC because of tightness in his left forearm.

That’s just two teams.

The way pitchers train has changed drastically over the years; the same for hitters – with some teams bragging on their pitching and hitting laboratories. And that is The Story this week.

Scouts who have been following these teams are wondering what the heck is going on as players from this generation appear to be so much more fragile than in past generations.

Perhaps there’s too much time in the lab and not enough time on the field.

Certainly a lot of training methods have changed, especially with the amount of running pitchers used to do compared to the amount of running they do nowadays.

One of the fun little things at spring training used to be to watch pitchers run in the outfield after their starts; it produced a certain rhythm to the day. It was a ritual. You don’t see much of that anymore in the land of Velo Above All Else, when it comes to pitchers.

For hitters it is all about Exit Velo.

Sure, players can be improved in the lab, but the diamond itself is the greatest laboratory.

One scout who’s a former pitcher said it perfectly.

“Why don’t you get out of the ‘laboratories’ that they call them now and get your ass out on the field and run and field ground balls, take fly balls, run the bases, swing the bat, throw bullpens, work on your curve ball, work on your command ? You know, you might stay a little bit healthier,’’ noted the telling-it-like-it-is scout.

That one sentence should be a primer for spring training – but the game has gotten too sophisticated these days, too analytical, to take such a common sense approach to what was successful for generations and generations of past ballplayers.

Injuries happen. I get it, but this is a bit too much.

The scout hit on something big. You rarely see pitchers taking fly balls in batting practice anymore, which used to be a staple of the sport.

“They don’t run,’’ he said flatly. “I see guys, kids who get fatigued in their second inning of pitching now, because they don’t run anymore.’’

But you will find them all working in the pitching labs.

Stop being a lab rat and maybe become a baseball gym rat; that might lead to success.

I am encouraged with seeing how some young players approach the game, and Yankees future shortstop Anthony Volpe is one of those players. I’ve been telling you about Volpe for a couple of years now and he has the same approach as Aaron Judge. Can’t wait to see the two players together in a real Major League game.

Volpe

Anthony Volpe #77 of the New York Yankees stands in the batters box at eight seconds on the pitch clock during a Grapefruit League Spring Training game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at George M. Steinbrenner Field on March 06, 2023 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Yankees VP and director of amateur scouting Damon Oppenheimer has locked into whatever secret ingredient there is with both players and that is they are essentially both baseball gym rats and that counts for something big in today’s game.

Judge was the 32nd pick in the first round of the 2013 draft while Volpe was the 30th pick of the 2019 draft. In case you forgot, Judge blasted 62 home runs for the Yankees last year and then signed that massive $360 million deal even though he could have gotten more money from the Padres.

Judge was born April 26, 1992 while Volpe was born April 28, 2001. Interesting. When it comes to playing baseball both appear to be Taurus the bull personalities; and typical traits of Tauruses include being tenacious, reliable, and loyal.

If I’m the Yankees, why not go with Volpe at shortstop at this juncture? He certainly has opened the Yankees’ eyes this spring; but if you were paying attention you could see that Volpe had his head on straight from draft day to now. I’m going to simplify this: He’s a baseball player.

Sure, players can be improved in the lab, but the diamond itself is the greatest laboratory.

Some teams just want to sound and act smarter than other teams – that’s why you hear so much about the new ways. I was listening to a new GM talk the other day about the value of throwing more strikes than balls and the value of swinging at more strikes than balls and it was if he had discovered the Fountain of Youth.

Dude, it’s always been that way. And if there’s a hanging breaking ball out of the strike zone, don’t be afraid to bang it even though it’s a ball. Mike Schmidt produced a Hall of Fame career with that approach.

As for the labs, the scout said sarcastically, “The Yankees have pitching and hitting labs – oh my gosh they must have scientists in there who have figured everything out. Trust the science, right?’’

Bader

New York Yankees centerfielder Harrison Bader hitting a sacrifice fly in the 1st inning against the Detroit Tigers during a spring training game at George M. Steinbrenner Stadium, in Tampa, Florida, on February 27, 2023. (Photo by J. Conrad Williams Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images)

When word of the Rodon injury came down on Thursday a number of scouts sent me texts. The Yankees are saying the injury could have been much worse, so they’re hoping for the best. Perhaps that will be the case – but once again the red flags are raised and this all coming after Rodon passed Yankee physicals before signing that six-year, $162 million deal. This strain is a brachioradialis strain. Rodon had made only one spring appearance, giving up six runs on five hits – so clearly something was bothering him.

It’s the way of the pitching world it seems these days, as are the infamous pitching labs in Major League Baseball, yet it seems pitching injuries are more frequent than ever.

Yes, velocity has improved, that’s a fact; but command hasn’t improved. It’s much worse.

“Why do we care that guys are throwing harder? – because they don’t know how to pitch and they don’t know how to stay healthy,’’ the scout said, again dropping some hard-earned lifetime career common sense on the game.

Baseball and the current crop of GMs throughout the game may not like to hear that, but it’s the truth. More velocity, more injuries, probably because of worse mechanics. And you have to wonder if the speeding up of everything with the Pitch Clock will result in more injuries because of a breakdown in mechanics. No one is talking about that, but it could be a reality.

Pitchers will be tested physically, especially since this era of pitchers does not run as much as past eras of pitchers.

“I can’t wait to see guys back up bases,’’ the scout said of pitchers and the Pitch Clock, “and they don’t have time to catch their breath before having to make the next pitch.’’

Interesting point.

Rodon

Carlos Rodón #55 of the New York Yankees throws during Spring Training at George M. Steinbrenner Field on February 20, 2023 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by New York Yankees/Getty Images)

This is the honeymoon period of the Pitch Clock, everybody loves it, especially the players, because it gets them out of the ballpark earlier than in the past. To get a true read of the impact of the Pitch Clock it will have to come down to when games mean something. There is nothing wrong with working faster, the slowdown game is something baseball created.

The scout offered this thought.

“The clock doesn’t fix guys who can’t pitch,’’ he said.

Here is your amazing fact of the day about baseball when it was still baseball and it is brought to you by a former GM who recently sent me this email: “I just double-checked. AVERAGE time of game for Arizona Fall League in the first season (1992) … 2:23.”

“Critics would say that is because of no TV commercials … but players still had to change sides and warm up each inning. No pitch clock. No propeller-headed ‘tricks.’”

“All thanks to the players.’’

There you have it, back in the Stone Age of Baseball, back when I was still covering the Padres, the games were played in a timely fashion with no gimmicks, no clocks, no question.

But that was all Pre-Nerd.

Things have changed across the board, like pitching command.

Earl Weaver

Manager Earl Weaver #4 of the Baltimore Orioles sits in the dugout being interviewed prior to the start of an Major League Baseball game circa 1985. Weaver managed the Orioles from 1968-82 and 1985-86. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

For my money and many scouts’ money, command is the key, not velocity.

Teams need to wake up and get to the understanding that it is not only about velocity.

One former pitcher related a story to me that is still pertinent today about the value of command; and the speaker was the one and only Earl Weaver of the Orioles who was talking to his pitchers the first day of camp.

“I don’t give a bleep how hard you throw,’’ Weaver stated. “You don’t throw strikes, you can’t hold runners, you can’t field your position, you’ll never pitch a day for me in your life. Now go do your work.’’

That says it all.

That’s a pitching lab, right there, and the Orioles and Weaver produced aces like Jim Palmer and those four 20-game winners: Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, and Pat Dobson, something we will never ever see in baseball again.

“When you parse through all the word salads of today,’’ our baseball man noted, “all they are saying is that they want their guys to throw strikes. I’ve been saying, ‘work fast, throw strikes, change speeds’ for 50 years since I started playing.’’

Do all that in the lab that is the real baseball diamond, and you will have success.

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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