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Mudville: April 20, 2024 11:18 pm PDT

Training Wheels


Before we can look ahead, let’s look back. Let’s give the Nerds a history lesson.

Let’s go back to the ‘60s – and Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson – since “Manfred’s Minions” like Morgan Sword keep saying they want the pitch clock because they want baseball to look like it did in the ‘60s.

Gibson appeared in three World Series, 1964, 1967 and 1968, a one-layer postseason back then. He pitched 27 innings each of those World Series. In the regular season in 1964 Gibson pitched 287.1 innings. In 1965 he followed that up with 299 IP. In the 1967 season with the Cardinals the right-hander threw only 175.1 innings in the regular season (he was hit with a line drive off the bat of the great Roberto Clemente and suffered a broken leg, and after being hit with that line drive, he did pitch to three more batters). He managed to come back that season and then fired 27 innings in the World Series to earn MVP honors just as he did in 1964.

Two World Series, two MVPs.

So exhausted was Gibson after the 1967 campaign and World Series, he managed only 304.2 innings in the 1968 season with a 1.12 ERA. They had to lower the mound after that season, as 1968 came to be known as The Year of the Pitcher.

Now we are in The Year of the Pitch Clock.

So exhausted was Gibson in the 1969 regular season, pitching from that lower mound, Gibson could only manage 314 innings.

I understand Gibson was a Hall of Fame pitcher with a desire to beat the competition that was unmatched, but the point is Gibson flourished with the more work he received. Don’t forget he batted, too, ran the bases, and this was back when the bases were much smaller.

He ran the poles in the outfield too, something you never see anymore. In those three World Series seasons Bob Gibson produced 55 complete games.

Gibson could hit too, producing a lifetime .206 average, 24 home runs, and two more home runs in World Series play. He even stole bases – and this was before the giveaway rules of Rob Manfred with only two disengagements by pitchers.

Bob Gibson, a complete player of body and mind.

Fast forward to today and only eight pitchers managed to pitch 200 innings last season. Miami’s Sandy Alcantara led the way with 228.2 innings followed by Aaron Nola with 202, Miles Mikolas went 202.1 innings, then Corbin Burnes at, Framber Valdez at 201.1 innings, Gerrit Cole at 200.2 innings, Merrill Kelly with 200.1 IP and finally Shane Bieber making it to 200 innings on the dot.

As for complete games, it should be noted that Alcantara was tops with six. As for the rest of the 200-innings crew, Aaron Nola had two, Mikolas produced one CG, Framber Valdez had three and Bieber had one. That was it. The eight 200-innings workhorses managed only 13 complete games. To the Marlins credit, under Derek Jeter they made it a mission to try to get pitchers deeper into games and it paid off in a big way for Alcantara.

No one is doing that now. Pitchers are placed in bubble wrap throughout baseball, much like that commercial where that guy wraps his vehicle in bubble wrap.

(Original Caption) St. Louis Cards' ace pitcher Bob Gibson grimaces with pain as trainer Clarence (Bob) Bauman works on his right leg after being hit by the ball on a smash by Pirates Roberto Clemente in the 4th inning of Cards-Pirates game. Gibson suffered a fracture to his right fibula and will be out of action for 4 to 6 weeks.

We are smack in the middle of the era of babying pitchers, thinking that fewer innings, fewer pitches, much less work will make them better in the long run. That’s what the Nerds do – and the injuries keep piling up. So they keep doing it over and over again, makes a lot of sense.

Something is wrong with this picture but you would never get the MLB front offices to admit their system has failed miserably. Those who live in Ivory Towers will never admit they are wrong. So team after team keeps following the same failed game plan with the owners happily shoving more pitching money onto the bonfire.

After a while you just have to just shake your head.

But here at BallNine and The Story we do more than shake our head, we seek out the real pros, the ones who have been there before and give them a chance to speak.

“Everyone is just listening to the front office spin doctors,’’ one former pitching coach with a lifetime in the game told me of what’s really going on in baseball. “Take off the training wheels.’’

That’s his hope.

Of course, we will never see numbers like the kind of innings pitched, complete games and shutouts that Bob Gibson put up. Gibby was the most competitive, intimidating player and pitcher of that most competitive and intimidating era. And he didn’t need a Pitch Clock. He moved fast just as his baseball moved fast.

Those numbers are out of sight, but I would love to see the innings pitched by starters go up a notch. That might actually save teams from having to go through a laundry list of relievers every year. And this year I’m predicting an even tougher year on relievers arms and bodies because of the Pitch Clock. You can see already that some of these pitchers are worn out on the mound and the season is just getting to Easter Sunday. The stress is getting to them and there is an amazing – in a bad way – lack of command already being displayed.

These days the only way most top starters pitch on the road in spring training is if they happen to have a home in that area. This era of leadership doesn’t know how to keep pitchers healthy.

When your body and mind tire, it is difficult to command the baseball. It is also difficult to command the baseball when you are trying to throw every pitch through a cinderblock wall or sweep it around the corner.

It’s crazy, just check the transactions page every day and see how many relievers are going down and just watch the games and see how many starters looked drained early. The Phillies are going through some issues now with their two stud starters Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler because of the run into October. I will say this, the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole looks ready for the fight. Our pitching guru has noticed too and said Cole is finally commanding his slider.

In today’s game the theory is to work less and give the body more time to rebound, but there also were no weight room programs back in Gibson’s day to contend with like there are today. Let’s be clear here, I am not against weight rooms, but the work has to be really monitored. Don’t go crazy in there. Save the real work for the running and the mound. Build up the legs and the arm and go from there.

You know what you do to get better as a pitcher? Pitch. My Hall of Fame friend Jim Kaat made note of that the last time we talked.

Pitchers are hitting a brick wall much earlier than before and you know what’s really interesting about that, the powers in charge continue to over-protect pitchers from pitching.

Just look at the Phillies who made the surprise run to the World Series.

“Nola and Wheeler were protected all spring long,’’ one scout said. “You know what, for 100 years, the guys who went to the World Series, they rebounded the next year and went through a normal spring training, they didn’t have bleeping training wheels on.’’

The training wheels are on this generation of pitchers like never before and they are still getting injured – and with much more serious injuries – and they can’t post like pitchers in the past posted.

Craig Kimbrel #31 of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches in the ninth inning during a game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on Friday, April 7, 2023. (Photo by Steve Boyle/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

And it is not just starters.

Relievers are facing a tougher battle too and a scout who recently saw Phillies closer Craig Kimbrel said, “He has to re-invent himself. He’s got to understand that trying to hit 96 is not his thing, he needs to command his fastball. He has to stay in control because he has a swing and miss curve ball, but he can’t throw either of them for enough strikes right now.’’

The Yankees put key reliever Jonathan Loaisiga on the 15-day IL with right elbow inflammation on Saturday. The beat goes on and on and on and no one questions those in charge. Just keep doing what you are doing.

“You have got to go pitch to build your pitching endurance up,’’ our expert said. “Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer, all the horses, nobody babied those guys.’’

Back in the day, late in spring training, Jim Palmer, because he did not want to face the nearby Yankees so much (the Yankees were based in Ft. Lauderdale while the Orioles were in Miami) knowing they would have their battles during the season, Palmer would hop on the bus with the Orioles minor leaguers and go pitch against the Braves or the Expos AAA teams and he would go up and throw seven, eight innings.

“He wanted to be ready for the season,’’ the pitching expert explained.

These days the only way most top starters pitch on the road in spring training is if they happen to have a home in that area. This era of leadership doesn’t know how to keep pitchers healthy.

“None of their (stuff) is working,’’ the pitching expert said with passion in his voice. “Or we wouldn’t have all the injuries we have.’’

That, ladies and gentleman is the bottom line.

First pitch of 1968 World Series is delivered by Cards Bob Gibson to Tigers Dick McAuliffe, who took it for a ball. Catcher is Tim McCarver, Umpire is Tom Gorman. McAuliffe struck out.

And, of course, it is not just pitchers, look at all the other injuries just a week into this season. Mets catcher Omar Narvaez is out two months with a calf strain. It’s ridiculous. Yet the same procedures are used even though the injury count piles up and up. The Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins was lost for the year with a massive knee injury just backpedaling on a ground ball in spring training. His replacement Darick Hall tore a thumb ligament sliding into second base. Centerfielder Brandon Marsh sprained an ankle going back on a fly ball.

Not to pick on the Phillies, but these players all got hurt doing simple baseball moves. Hall was injured on a slide, always a dangerous situation, trying to avoid a tag as he tried to stretch a single into a double.

Just wondering are bigger bases causing some injuries? Like I said, just wondering?

And no one questions anything.

The risk-aversion Nerds crack me up, they create problems because they don’t do baseball fundamentals. For example, I asked a number of scouts when was the last time you saw a team practice sliding in spring training. That used to be a staple back in the day not too long ago.

They all said they haven’t seen it done in decades.

“I can’t remember seeing a team practice siding, they don’t practice it at all,’’ said one scout.

Instead, they build bigger oven mitts to put on the players’ hands. But if you are trying to stretch a single into a double you can’t be putting on an oven mitt running between first and second.

“Half of these guys don’t know how to slide,’’ the scout observed.

Brandon Marsh #16 of the Philadelphia Phillies after making a catch against the Cincinnati Reds at Citizens Bank Park on April 07, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Here is the bottom line and again, I implore baseball owners to wake up.

“If you are out on the field doing baseball things and not in the weight room, then your baseball skills are better like sliding, like hitting cutoff men, like playing good defense, like getting good jumps on balls, like doing all that kind of stuff,’’ the scout said.

Baseball stuff.

Baseball teams, believe it or not, once practiced baseball stuff. Players could put down a bunt, move a runner along, field a ground ball without getting injured. I’m not kidding. The game once was practiced. Instead now it’s all about the quick fix, putting on the training wheels, mowing away any problems that may stand in the way of the players, much like parents do with children now, instead of learning how to overcome those problems.

Putting the time in on the field, not just putting the time in at the indoor cages. I find it funny now because hitters are whining they can’t disrupt the pitcher’s timing because of the Pitch Clock. You know what disrupts a pitcher’s timing?

Dropping an occasional bunt down to make that pitcher get off the mound, that can disrupt timing, but no one bunts because they don’t practice the bunt to make it successful. There may be a half-hearted attempt that doesn’t work. Same with precision base-running, and fielding and pitching.

Take off the training wheels and get to work.

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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