BY KEVIN KERNAN
David Cone is as much a pitching coach as he is an analyst for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball and the YES Network.
He can still carve up a hitter, verbally, and his vast knowledge of pitching and what makes the game tick is a wonder. There is no one better to talk about the art of pitching in 2023 in this new MLB world than David Cone, and that is why he is The Story this week at BallNine.
I wanted to know how Cone would approach pitching in this era. He pitched 17 years in the majors, threw the 16th perfect game of all-time on July 19, 1999 with the Yankees (with Don Larsen and Yogi Berra at Yankee Stadium), won five World Series titles, was a five-time All-Star, and won a Cy Young in 1994 with the Royals.
That’s a pretty terrific career. He never shied away from the media; and now as a member of the media, he shines a light on the intricacies of pitching and what’s really going on in baseball – as he showed with his masterful tutorial last week on Sunday Night Baseball on the sticky situation involving Max Scherzer, rosin, sweat, and alcohol.
This Sunday Night, Cone & Co. will be reporting from Minute Maid Park where the Phillies and Astros offer up a World Series rematch.
In all my decades of covering athletes, I thought David Cone was one of the ones who approached the game with realism. In NFL terms, speaking with him was like speaking with offensive linemen, who have a unique perspective on how to break down a game. In the NBA, he was like talking to Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, or Michael Jordan, giving you that honest answer no matter what.
Cone’s common sense approach to the happenings on the field was always welcomed by the media and then after Cone became a broadcaster, there were many conversations between us in spring training at George M. Steinbrenner Field or at Yankee Stadium in the press room near the coffee machine.
David Cone’s knowledge of baseball is overflowing.
I have said for many years that a really smart team should hire Cone as a pitching coach. He bridges both worlds, analytics and down in the dirt knowledge of the game.
For Yankee fans, I wanted to ask Cone what he sees in ace Gerrit Cole (5-0, 1.11 ERA) that has made Cole so successful this season. Cone did not disappoint. I said before the season that Cole looks more ready for the fight than I have ever seen in his time as a Yankee.
Cone, 60, got right to the heart of the matter with this brilliant breakdown.
“I think he’s getting back to doing what he does really well,’’ Cone told BallNine. “He’s a tinkerer. What a pitching coach used to call a young Tom Edison, he’s always trying to invent something. Last year it was the cutter. He showed up in spring training and the guy throws 100 miles per hour, he is a four-pitch pitcher, fastball, slider, curveball, and a changeup and he came up with a cutter – and he started out the season giving up a lot of home runs, and I think he just kind of realized, when you throw as well as he does, you don’t need to tinker.
“Do what you do well. Throw your fastball. Establish your fastball. Throw it in good spots as well. And then mix in your breaking stuff and throw a changeup in fastball counts. It’s a very simple formula. He’s back to that. He’s doing what he does very well, mastering what you do well instead of trying to invent something new.’’
The Sunday Night Baseball crew: (L to R) David Cone, Karl Ravech and Eduardo Perez. (Photo courtesy Ben Cafardo/ESPN)
At what point in his career did Cone became a tinkerer?
“When I started to lose velocity, the Yankee years, post-Met years,’’ Cone said. “Then I realized I had to pitch backwards more often. I had to concentrate on location and mixing it up a little bit more and giving different looks, maybe changing my arm angle a little bit here and there. It coincides with age; the older you get, the more crafty you get, the less you rely on velocity.’’
Gerrit Cole does not need to tinker.
“He is in his prime, he’s in his peak right now,’’ Cone said. “He doesn’t need another pitch. He just needs to do what he does very well and continue that.’’
I wondered how Cone would approach pitching these days with all the rule changes going on in MLB, most notably the Pitch Clock.
“I’ve always felt the faster you worked as a pitcher, the more of an advantage you would have,’’ Cone said.
Just a reminder, his perfect game was completed in 2:16.
Working fast, throwing strikes was taught in his generation and in previous generations. This is not something new. Baseball just let it get out of hand and came up with the Pitch Clock.
“The old Ray Miller pitching coach mantra: work fast, throw strikes, change speeds, that was the way I was taught,’’ Cone explained. “The quicker you can work, the better off you will be and your defense will play better behind you. They won’t get bored, they will be on their toes. And the hitter, you always keep him on the defensive. So I would have tried to use that, I would work as quickly as possible.
“Holding runners would be a problem for me,’’ Cone admitted. “I was not good at holding runners. I pitched in the Vince Coleman era. I was not good at holding runners at all.’’
“What’s lost a little bit in the shuffle too is the artistic value of pitching…you know, the Greg Maddux style, the movement and the control.’’
What could be done then about holding baserunners?
“One thing I saw, you have 20 seconds between pitches,’’ he offered of the Pitch Clock with a man on base. “So the sooner you can get on the mound and sort of force the hitter into the box, you actually hold the ball a little bit, try to freeze the runner. There’s like 10 seconds to play with there. The hitter doesn’t have to be in the box until the eight-second mark. He has to acknowledge the pitcher at the eight-second point. There are 12 seconds to play with there if you can get the hitter in the box quicker. Some of them will, they will get in the box quicker, then you can actually hold the ball longer, which might be the best way to freeze the runners; just hold the baseball and keep them from getting a walking lead or a jump.
“You only have two pickoff moves now so the running game would have bothered me more than anything.’’
It certainly is bothering a lot of pitchers. Cone said communication between teammates would help and offered this real-life experience.
“I would definitely work more on the inside move with a man on second,’’ Cone said. “I think you would have more planned pickoff moves. Even with a runner on first, you can have something with your catcher. I used to look at Wade Boggs at third base. It’s hard to see the baserunner when you’re a right-handed pitcher. I would look to Wade Boggs and he would drop his glove or give me a sign when to do a quick pickoff move at first base. And you can do that at second base too, with the catcher. The runner thinks you forgot about him and then the catcher gives you a quick swipe with the glove and you wheel and throw.’’
That’s how it’s done.
“Communication is more important than ever now,’’ Cone said. “These back pickoff moves are more important because you are limited with how many times you can pick a runner off. You get two pickoff moves so you had better make them count.’’
OCTOBER 19, 2000: The New York Yankees' David Cone watches from the dugout during a workout at Yankee Stadium the day before the start of the World Series against the New York Mets. It was the first Subway Series in 44 years. (Photo by Mike Albans/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Cone likes PitchCom.
“Sometimes I want the catcher to lead, what do you think? Call the signals,’’ he said. “There are other times when I want to call the pitch. I would use it just because I think there is so much paranoia with the electronic-sign stealing that happened and the use of video, just breaking the sequence of signs. That would be a big distraction for me to constantly have to change your signs. I am in favor of the PitchCom just because of that.’’
In Cone’s era, stealing signs and the consequences of stealing signs were handled on the field if the sign-stealing got out of control. Two of the best sign-stealers Cone said were Paul Molitor and Roberto Alomar.
“That was a real art,’’ Cone explained. “That was the big difference between somebody in your analytics department with a separate feed and a centerfield camera and running algorithms trying to break codes. That’s a whole different game than Paul Molitor actually using his eyes to steal signs.’’
Because of new rules, not as much is handled on the field today and Cone believes that inability to take care of a problem on the field leads to other issues.
“I think that is why you see so many managers today get thrown out over strike zone issues,’’ he said. “It’s the last thing they can argue about.’’
Consider it The Last Picture Show with the changing times of Major League Baseball.
“The hitters actually appreciate the managers sticking up for them,’’ Cone noted. “That whole baseball justice, let us take care of our own business is kind of a lost art as well.’’
On the SNB set. (Photo courtesy Ben Cafardo/ESPN)
Regarding his experiment last Sunday with rock rosin, Cone noted, “the rock rosin is sticky. You keep applying it and keep getting moisture from sweat to reactivate it.’’
Baseball seems befuddled by the whole sticky situation and where they go from here will be interesting. Cone noted that if a pitcher does get suspended, a team is playing a pitcher short.
“If another pitcher got popped you’d be two pitchers short, you can’t replace them on the roster until the suspension is over,’’ Cone said of the penalty. “So that’s a big problem for managers and I know managers and pitching coaches are worried about it. It’s kind of the Wild West; what is too sticky? Rosin is sticky, too much rosin and you get thrown out of the game, if you use alcohol it activates the rosin, it makes it stickier like Scherzer. There is a lot of grey area right here, and if you get popped you’re a man down on the roster and I think that is the concerning part, especially for managers.’’
What does he see happening with the ridiculous number of pitchers getting hurt?
“That’s just chasing velocity, absolutely,’’ Cone said. “It’s been in the pipeline for a while now that pitchers are training for velocity, they are throwing weighted balls, they are really pushing the envelope on getting noticed because that is the best way to get noticed, to throw the ball hard, to have higher velocity to show year over year, a big gain. That’s going to leave you more susceptible to injury, especially the ulnar nerve and the Tommy John surgery.
“What’s lost a little bit in the shuffle too is the artistic value of pitching,’’ said Cone, who pitched in 450 major league games, compiling a 194-126 record with a 3.46 ERA, 419 starts, 56 complete games, 2,668 strikeouts, and another 21 games in the postseason where he compiled an 8-3 record with a 3.80 ERA.
“You know, the Greg Maddux style, the movement and the control,’’ Cone said. “That sort of craftsmanship has kind of taken a back seat although you do see some guys come back with it; Zac Gallen does a great job with it.’’
Perhaps a bit of a change is coming.
“As starting pitchers are allowed to go three times through the order, that becomes more important,’’ Cone said. “Pitchers are understanding that by mixing it up, giving the hitter different looks, learning a third pitch is important to get deeper into games; and that’s what we had to do. It was more on the finesse side of things where you thought your way through some situations. Change speeds a little bit, worry about location a little bit more; as opposed to just trying to blow it by them at the top of the zone.’’
Going deeper into games saves your bullpen a bit too.
“Those guys get abused,’’ Cone said of relievers.
As for this generation of hitters, Cone said: “Situational hitting is a thing of the past. People are just trying to drive the baseball. Front offices want them to get good at increasing their launch angle, driving the baseball into the gap, hitting doubles, hitting homers. The situational part of the game, just winning the game, ‘Hey, hit a ground ball to the right side, advance runners, reading situations,’ what it calls for is a bit of a lost art as well. I think we’ll come back. Some of these new rules may bring some of this back into play – without the shift now, maybe there is some situational hitting that is a little better now.
“It puts value on contact again. It’s a little early, but that seems to be the case. We’ll see.’’
Whatever happens, you can be sure David Cone will see it first.