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Mudville: February 24, 2024 7:11 pm PDT

Paper Tigers

BY KEVIN KERNAN

The Nerds can explain baseball in their nerdy way, taking the humanity out of the game, but here is something they can’t explain.

How come so many players in the Nerd Era are getting injured, especially via pulled muscles of one sort or another?

The Nerds won’t admit it, but it’s because of how they’ve changed baseball; everything from training to games. In a large way they’re responsible for injuries through their litany of bad mechanics for pitchers and taking a key ingredient away from the training routine that had been part of baseball forever.

Essentially, they have turned baseball into a non-running sport.

They have created an MLB filled with Paper Tigers.

Players who look great in the gym but can’t stay on the field.

Two Paper Tigers reside in the Bronx: Giancarlo Stanton and Harrison Bader. Basically, Bader is Stanton’s little brother.

Stanton is soon due to return from a hamstring injury, one of many muscle pulls over his career. Bader was just put on the IL with a hamstring injury, one of four Yankee position players out with hamstring injuries.

In an earlier column for BallNine, a scout referred to those two Yankees as Paper Tigers – and his words were once again prophetic.

But there are so many other players you can add to the list. Start with Cardinals outfielder Tyler O’Neill, who has been out since May 5th with a lower back strain and is not doing any baseball activities at the moment.

In Stanton, Bader, and O’Neill you have three players who are physical beasts but just can’t stay on the field.

As of Wednesday morning, a stunning total of 9,632 days had been lost to injury already this season at a cost of nearly $203 million for the owners, who allow the insane cycle to be repeated again and again. Analytics and Nerds have taken over The Show and baseball men have been marginalized or completely removed from the decision-making process.

What the heck is going on?

One answer to the problem is right under the Nerds’ noses, but they act like they have re-invented the game in every way; and to a great degree they have, that’s why the game has deteriorated from what it was not too long ago to what it is now.

In their almighty wisdom they have taken running out of the game in almost every form.

Yes, the stolen base has returned because of the cut-down on pitcher mound disengagements and catchers who can frame but can’t throw; but this is not the same stolen base of the Lou Brock Era. This is a cheapened era of stolen base and these stolen bases should have an asterisk on them in the record books.

I refer to them as Given Bases, not Stolen Bases. Kind of like the Fake Runner in extra innings – a Given Double, not earned; a complete travesty. It’s not baseball.

Energy Management. Load Management. It’s all the same. Don’t work. It’s really bad in the minor leagues, where few teams put their young players through team workouts in 2023.

Here at Baseball or Bust we encourage baseball men to give their time-honored studied opinions on baseball and this is what one veteran scout said is the reason for the epidemic of pulled muscles:

“Nobody sprints ever,’’ the scout told BallNine. “No one runs in the outfield ever before games.’’

One scout just this week watched the Orioles for six days and said he did not see any early work done by the team over that span. Six days, no infield or outfield that he witnessed; a few individual players came out to do work on the field and maybe some batting practice – but nothing substantial like the work that Earl Weaver’s Orioles used to do.

No surprise that Cedric Mullins just went down with a groin injury running to first base when he smelled a hit.

This era of player is Running on Empty.

More from a scout: “Simple thought: how much actual running takes place in Manfred Ball? Teams don’t take infield/outfield, there is very little pre-game work on the field – such as pitchers using fungoes to hit ground balls to the infielders during BP – no one runs sprints or poles any more, [and] when was the last pepper game that you’ve seen? Do outfielders take pre-game fly balls off the bat? NO ONE EVER MOVES!

“Outfielders take bad routes on fly balls? And on and on …”

Nailed it.

The lack of extra work is planned by many teams, as crazy as that sounds.

Fellas, don’t tire yourselves out practicing baseball – it’s a long season.

“They call it Energy Management,’’ one top talent evaluator told me of the new way.

What?

Yes, teams don’t want their players to work because they may get injured. Kind of like the same philosophy of limiting innings of starters in the minor leagues.

Energy Management. Load Management. It’s all the same. Don’t work. It’s really bad in the minor leagues, where few teams put their young players through team workouts in 2023.

I can just imagine the conversation in the Nerd boardroom with the energy drinks, khakis, and polo shirts all around.

“Let’s not have our pitchers pitch too much when they are in the minors, that’s how we will keep them healthy. And with the big club, let’s not do any of that running around chasing the ball when there is no game being played. They call it shagging. We don’t need to do that.’’

The Chief Nerd responds: “Brilliant!

“Now they can maximize all that extra time working on their launch angle, figuring out how to lift the ball, and looking at their iPads.’’

The gullible owners sign off on this strange anti-baseball plan.

Overall defense has taken a hit because of the lack of extra work.

“How are you supposed to get better when you see only a small number of fly balls off the bat over the course of a week,’’ the first scout said. “On defense, the players will be told where to stand but they have no feel off the bat. That’s why you see so many bad routes now. They never work on it.’’

It’s become so absurd that some teams like the Twins don’t allow their best player, Byron Buxton, to play the field; they use the centerfielder as a DH because he gets hurt so often. Keep the Gold Glove guy on the bench to keep him healthy.

Byron Buxton #25 of the Minnesota Twins collides with Lenyn Sosa #50 of the Chicago White Sox in the seventh inning of a game at Target Field on April 12, 2023 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

How is that working out, you ask?

Going into Wednesday, Buxton was hitting .221. But that’s okay, the Twins move of putting Michael Taylor, who is essentially a fourth outfielder into center, is working out peachy. He is hitting a robust .212.

The mediocre Twins are in first place, barely, because they play in the worst division in baseball; and by the way, all the people raving about Joey Gallo earlier? He is hitting .200. Carlos Correa, who was slated to get $350 million from the Giants before they backed out and then was slated to get $315 from the Mets before they backed out (and Correa then “settled’’ for a deal that could pay him as much as $270 million from the Twins), is hitting .211.

A lot of interesting baseball decisions up in Minnesota by Derek Falvey & Co.

Another baseball person offered this “radical’’ idea to me on how to train baseball players.

“Train baseball players to be better by using baseball activities. These guys are not in shape,’’ he said.

They certainly are not in baseball shape.

The Yankees recently dumped Aaron Hicks, who had trouble staying on the field – but Cedric Mullins’ injury created an opportunity for Hicks in Baltimore.

When you think of it, even though they play different positions, the Yankees made a wonderful swap of players, getting rid of Hicks’ blahness and replacing it with the energy and hustle of young Anthony Volpe.

That may be a game plan for teams in the future; you have to have players who love the game and work on their own to get better at the game. Add a few of those players and you change the approach of a team.

For now, baseball is in the Look the Other Way Era.

Batting averages don’t matter, look the other way.

Kyle Schwarber is hitting .166 over his 187 at-bats. That’s the lowest batting average in the major leagues. He has 13 home runs, but that’s quite the price to pay – and the Phillies struggles have been mighty this season.

“You can throw high fastballs right by him and he’ll chase changeups and breaking balls in the dirt like anybody,’’ one scout noted. “If you throw it in the strike zone he is going to hit it out of the ballpark, but if you throw what we used to call a strike-to-ball breaking ball, it looks like a strike all the way until the ball disappears.’’

Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Philadelphia Phillies reacts after striking out swinging in the eighth inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field on May 31, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Then Schwarber disappears to the dugout. His 67 Ks are good for the sixth most in the majors. Teoscar Hernandez leads the pack with 77. And this is one area where Volpe must improve. He has 67 Ks, the same number as Schwarber. Buxton, with all that rest, has 61 Ks.

When you have been a complete ballplayer your entire life, even if you are injury prone, it’s tough to become a DH. Even Stanton has difficulty with the DH position and believes he needs to be in the field more to keep his body loose.

Geez, maybe more pre-game infield and outfield work would keep players loose. But analytics rule the baseball roost. My friend Dave Dagostino, a former college baseball and basketball coach and someone who has an advanced degree in analytics, knows the subject much better than I do. He offers these thought-provoking comments about analytics.

“I happen to like math and analytics. I’ve found them useful in reviewing and challenging decisions I’ve made as a coach, but [they] never dictate,’’ Dagostino said. “Analytics were designed to tell a story, not alter swings and pitching.

“Analytics are deemed as objective. They are not. They are as fallible as the person who designed the formula. Their models could be made with the best intentions, however they are encoded with bias, prejudice, and the misunderstandings … The same as the person who created the code.  Analytics are merely opinion embedded in code.

“Some of these models are opaque (like WAR) and only visible to the gods that created them,’’ he added. “Analytics should not be seen as math. Analytics were designed to tell a story … not be an absolute number … The questioning of analytics has been used as ‘cause’ to punish and marginalize baseball people that question – ironically that’s the purpose of the tool, questioning. Instead, the insecurity of the people wielding the sword have eliminated or silenced baseball men and progress in the name of analytics. Reducing human behavior, potential, and performance to an algorithm is nearly impossible.’’

There you have it.

Harrison Bader #22 of the New York Yankees celebrates scoring with Giancarlo Stanton #27 during the fourth inning against the Houston Astros in game four of the ALCS at Yankee Stadium on October 23, 2022 in the Bronx. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Added a scout on the new strange, strange world of minor league preparation these days and the overall loss of preparation in the Nerd Era: “The minor leagues are off every Monday. Nobody plays all six games of the week that are played. So they basically get two days off a week.’’

The pre-game instruction and work is nothing like it used to be considering the lost art of hitting cutoffs, base-running, situational hitting, and you can go on and on.

I’ve been told by a number of scouts the team that does the most in traditional minor league development, up and down through the organization, is the Rays, the team with the best record in baseball.

Funny how that works. Low payroll, high baseball IQ.

Consistency is the name of the game.

Look around the majors and there are more roller coaster teams than ever, Schwarber’s Phillies being a prime example.

“Teams like the Phillies think they have plenty of time to turn it around because the league is so bad, and maybe they can get hot like [last year],’’ the scout said. “I remember when I first started doing this I used to hang around all the guys like Moose Stubing, Ronnie Hansen, Larry Haney, Jim Fregosi and one of the things that always stuck in my mind – and it speaks volumes – all you have to say is that good teams do not play baseball on a roller coaster, up and down. What we have now is a lot of bad teams that lack focus, that have no real burning desire to truly win, they just play up and down.

“Sometimes they just don’t show up. It’s so hard to watch it’s just unbelievable.’’

Paper Tigers in both spirit and results.

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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