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Mudville: May 25, 2024 7:46 am PDT

LA Pepper

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Hallelujah!

Here is one small step for an MLB team, one giant leap for baseball.

Yes, it’s a play on the words of astronaut Neil Armstrong, father-in-law of former Met GM and longtime agent Brodie Van Wagenen.

That, however, is how I felt after receiving a text and video the other day from a scout who had just witnessed something remarkable at Dodger Stadium, hours before that night’s game. There in the outfield grass were Dodgers playing pepper. Yes, pepper.

AMBS has long been a fan of playing pepper for so many baseball reasons, the first being, it’s fun. You also learn to manipulate the bat a bit, focus on the baseball, and manipulate the glove; and it’s a competitive event that helps build team camaraderie. The only ones who don’t understand the value of pepper are the Nerds. Perhaps they had tried playing pepper at a younger age, were hit in the face with the baseball, and that was it for pepper.

Yet, here were the Dodgers playing pepper in May of 2023, which shocked the scout (see the video).

“I haven’t seen that in a ballpark in years,’’ the scout told BallNine on Wednesday.

“It’s something I haven’t seen since 1956,’’ he added with a laugh. “Remember, they used to have it on the backstop, ‘No Pepper Games Allowed.’’’

I asked another scout who happened to be traveling through the minor leagues this past month if he had seen pepper in any of the ballparks he visited.

“Yes,’’ he answered. “Every day … at the concession stand.’’

And so it goes; for some reason, the Dodgers have brought pepper out of the mothballs – and good for them and the coaches.

What was once a staple at all ballparks is being played by the franchise that is often held up as a beacon of modern success, even though the Dodgers have won only one World Series since 1988 and that came in the bastard season of 2020 when it really wasn’t baseball as we know it. The Dodgers get to the postseason seemingly every year, and sometimes things get in their way that cost them, like the Astros electronic sign stealing in 2017.

The Dodgers give their fans a game and for that they should be congratulated; and here’s hoping in the copycat league that is MLB, some Nerds looking to climb the ladder of success will say, “Hey, I saw this really interesting bat maneuvering drill the Dodgers were doing and I think we should try something similar. We’re running the Hawk-Eye numbers on it now, but be forewarned, the exit velocity wasn’t great.’’

It couldn’t hurt, since the league batting average is .246.

On Monday and Tuesday the Dodgers combined for 26 runs on 39 hits, winning both games. Then on Wednesday they came back from a 5-0 deficit to beat the Phillies 10-6 on a Max Muncy grand slam in the ninth. So that’s 36 runs and 44 hits vs. the Phillies in the three games. The Dodgers swept the six-game homestand and during the comeback on Wednesday, Dodgers TV analyst Dontrelle Willis proclaimed: “Something is going on with this offense.’’

Perhaps it’s the pepper, perhaps someone from the Dodgers wants to go back to some baseball basics. In any event, here at Baseball or Bust, pepper is applauded.

Now do something really crazy and make your pitchers run sprints in the outfield.

“You know who still runs sprints in the outfield,’’ our West Coast scout told us. “Clayton Kershaw still runs sprints.’’

Wow, two old school training methods, pepper and sprints, from the Dodgers.

Anyone celebrating “stolen’’ bases in 2023 is doing an injustice to those who made stealing bases an art.

*****

BUT, one step forward, one step back. And the Art of the Stolen Base is dead.

Anyone celebrating “stolen’’ bases in 2023 is doing an injustice to those who made stealing bases an art. The bigger bases, oven mitts, and only two disengagements by the pitcher has made it easy to steal bases; so easy it should be renamed “gifted bases.’’

MLB and Rob Manfred are gifting these bases.

“What a joke,’’ one longtime baseball man told me. “And teams are just figuring out how easy it is to steal – so it’s only going to get worse.’’

The fear of injury is still holding up some teams in their gifted bases approach, and Aaron Judge’s awkward headfirst slide into third is an example of the fear of injury mindset.

Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases in 1982. Manfred Minion Morgan Sword was yet to be born; but Theo Epstein was nine so he must have some clue as to the skill it took to steal bases like Rickey. Yet all that is out the window and gifting bases is the MLB lower the bar way now. You take what baseball gives you, and that has never been truer than in 2023 with all the rules helping the baserunner. It’s shocking now when someone does get thrown out trying to steal, as was Anthony Rizzo on Tuesday night against Cleveland. With these rules, Rickey would never have gotten thrown out. And just for a point of reference, Jacoby Ellsbury stole 70 bases in 2009 – so this is not something that needed to be changed. It was just another way to cheapen the game and get easy runs, a la Manfred’s despicable extra innings Fake Runner.

*****

THE injured list has become a way of life for teams.

“It’s every team,’’ one top evaluator told me. “And it’s not just pitchers, it’s position players.’’

How can this be happening over and over, to every team? Our man has a theory.

“They don’t do anything,’’ he said of the players. He rarely sees an MLB player sprinting anymore anywhere on the field pregame, and the same goes for the minor leagues.

Here is what he sees every day.

“They come out and do their hippy-hops, they do the exaggerated leg walking. It’s like what the heck?’’

“Hippy-hops” is a great description. The Yankees, no surprise, have been crushed by injuries again; and Brian Cashman didn’t help matters by bringing Frankie Montas and Carlos Rodon into the injury club to go along with perennially injured players like Giancarlo Stanton and Josh Donaldson.

If players never practice running at full speed, when they do run at full speed (or even half speed), they will be in trouble; especially in baseball where there are a lot of awkward movements. Add to that the sweeper and other such stress-related pitches that are all the rage now, and you have a world of trouble.

When will owners stand up and say, “How come most of my money is on the Injured List?”

Willie Calhoun #24 of the New York Yankees celebrates a solo home run during the seventh inning during a game against the Cleveland Guardians at Yankee Stadium on May 2, 2023, in New York, New York. (Photo by New York Yankees/Getty Images)

The former pitcher said one of the major problems with pitching in 2023, other than bad mechanics, is the way pitchers are being cloned by organizations. “They catapult themselves off the mound,’’ he offered, a really interesting description the pitching motion of this era. “There’s no athleticism to it. There is no flow to a delivery like a Bob Gibson delivery, like a Mickey Lolich delivery, a Steve Carlton delivery. It’s all clone stuff.’’

And if you happen to have an athletic delivery, they soon change that. “They are turning everyone into your typical travel ball pitcher with a four-step robot delivery,’’ the pitching guru said.

If this doesn’t change soon, the game is lost. You see it almost every night on the mound; there is no gut feel regarding how to approach hitters and read swings. The Guardians and Yankees were tied 2-2 Tuesday night late in the game, after the Guardians blew a 2-0 lead. Right-handed reliever James Karinchak threw two fastballs right past lefty-hitting Willie Calhoun.

So naturally on the 0-2 pitch, Karinchak tries to trick Calhoun; and he hangs a breaking ball that Calhoun lines into the short porch in right for a 3-2 lead in a game the Yankees would go on to win, 4-2. What in the world was Karinchak thinking?

“They have no gut feel because we have allowed them not to develop a gut feel – because everybody else tells them what to do,’’ the evaluator said of the state of pitching.

They don’t see what’s in front of them.

Noted one scout, who has been traveling the minors, “I’m watching these games and the managers and pitching coaches are three hitters late when a kid is done,’’ he said.

How does that happen?

“They have a script, he was supposed to get through the sixth tonight,’’ the scout said. Everything is pre-ordained from above. Managers and pitching coaches are just there to watch the assembly line. There is little coaching and the assembly line on all levels is falling apart because of injury.

It’s no longer about athletic rhythm; it’s all about the algorithm for pitchers, hitters, and defenders.

“These are not good games,’’ he said of the level of play in the minor leagues.

The games are faster, yes; but they are not played better.

Another interesting minor league observation was made in Tampa with the Yankees A-ball team.  “When I was there, when they took batting practice on the field, they were only hitting off machines,’’ the scout said.

Geez, that seems weird to me.

“Yeah, if they were facing a pitcher that night that threw 98 they would set the machines at 98. The kids couldn’t even hit a foul ball,’’ the scout noted.

That philosophy must be working really well. Tampa is hitting .220, the fourth lowest mark in the league. That’s the same spot AA Somerset is in their league, .225, four slots from the bottom. In the International League, Scranton/WB is 19th, one slot from the bottom with a .238 mark. The Mets’ Binghamton AA squad is hitting .203. The St. Lucie team in A-ball is hitting .209. AAA Buffalo is hitting .242. There is work to do.

Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts (50) celebrates after a run scoring base hit during the MLB game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 2, 2023 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

*****

THE Phillies’ flop is getting pretty ugly, but nothing is as bad as the St. Louis Cardinals. A scout who covers the Phillies offered this assessment. “They got a World Series hangover, nothing has clicked for them, and they really miss Ranger Suarez.’’

A scout on the West Coast who just watched both the Phillies and the Cardinals came away with this interesting assessment of both teams. “The Phillies’ and the Cardinals’ defense is atrocious. They are making mindless mistakes. Mookie Betts took third base on a throw from centerfielder Brandon Marsh when Marsh for some reason just lobbed the ball into the infield.’’

*****

GOOD times in the AL East, where four teams probably will make the postseason because they don’t have to beat up on themselves as much in the past – the rescheduling from Manfred was a gift to the AL East.

“The Yankees are extremely mediocre right now,’’ one evaluator said.

Brian Cashman told reporters on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium: “Don’t count us out. Don’t give up on us. We’ve got a good group of people, player-wise, staff-wise, support staff-wise. It’s a championship caliber operation from that perspective, but we’re not currently flying at the level that we would have expected because we’re missing some really important pieces.’’

Cashman, like Godot, is waiting for good team health. Again.

One talent evaluator suggested the Yankees should have made a bold move in spring training, getting rid of both Aaron Hicks and Josh Donaldson, moving on from the disappointing veterans. Cashman would have had to admit defeat in both those cases. Hicks is batting .146 with a .212 on-base percentage and a .146 slugging percentage. He’s the one Cashman gifted a $70 million contract. Donaldson, 37, has been injured and only has 16 at-bats for a .125 average.

“Right now there is nowhere to go for help, there are no answers (in the organization),’’ the evaluator said. “If Hicks and Donaldson were released in spring training that would have been the right thing to do. Then move Gleyber Torres to third base, move Anthony Volpe to second, and Oswald Peraza should have made the team and played shortstop and you went with it from there. They would have been much better off. Young guys give you energy. Those are good guys to have on the team. You want them.’’

Fascinating perspective. The Yankees sure could use the energy and health of young players instead of following the Hicks/Donaldson failure script.

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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