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Mudville: February 29, 2024 11:54 pm PDT

Landslide

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Team first.

That used to be baseball’s mantra. Now it’s changed to the complete opposite.

Me first.

What’s my exit velo? Let me look at my swing on the iPad. Let me do some individual work in the cage.

Look at the break on my Sweeper. Pitchers’ Fielding Practice, PFP – forget about it. I’ll just go through the motions. No sense in taxing my body for a drill. My arm only has so many throws in it. Gotta save the bullets.

There’s no time for team drills like infield, outfield, and cutoffs. Team meetings are so old school. Meetings with analytics people to go over all my numbers, because batting average does not matter, are what’s important.

Why sacrifice bunt when I can swing for the moon with an uppercut swing? RBIs are a matter of luck, anyway. I’ll gladly take the walk and increase my on-base percentage, that’s the mark of a good hitter.

It’s not about wins and losses, it’s about The Process.

I’m not wasting an 0-2 pitch. I’m going for the strikeout, not soft contact.

Take one for the team. Are you kidding? Run hard out of the box, no way. I may pull a hammy. Let me stand in the box and admire my drive. I want to see how far it goes. And wait until you see my bat flip and the individual celebrations I have with teammates after I hit a home run.

Who cares if it’s a 400-foot single. Did you see the exit velo on that ball?

Anticipation has been replaced by celebration (over the top) of everything from a walk to a home run. And so it goes.

‘Til the landslide brought me down.

The Landslide is here.

The game is changed forever. The amount of sloppy play is a nightly occurrence in Rob Manfred’s MLB, mostly because managers have lost power to the analytics departments running teams – and you cannot, I repeat, you cannot upset a player.

I watched the Mets and Braves on Tuesday and there were numerous physical and mental meltdowns, including at least two occasions when Braves runners didn’t hustle on the base paths, one a non-slide in a critical slide situation that nearly cost the Braves a run; and all this coming after Marcell Ozuna’s stand and pose 400-foot single the other day.

What used to be a team game is now an individual game to the nth degree, and that is the way Manfred wants it. All you have to do is see MLB’s advertising campaign to see that. My personal favorite is when a game is advertised with a “Showdown’’ between two players and one of those players is on the IL.

One top MLB evaluator made this excellent point about where the game is at from the majors to the minors.

“This commissioner is not marketing the beauty of the game,’’ he told BallNine. “The game is about the building of relationships that you build with 25 guys and you become like brothers. Now there are like 40 guys there,’’ he said of minor league teams.

“Everybody is on their own and everybody wants to market themselves and that is what the game is – marketing. The commercials are not about good teams, the commercials are about the so-called stars.’’

After I mentioned the miscues in the Mets-Braves game on social media, a former GM responded to me in an email.

Sarcasm is a great way to look at Major League Baseball in 2023.

“I’ve identified the Mets problem with the following:

 

1 – Like too many clubs – they ‘only’ have 9 coaches. Need 3 more?

2 – They ‘only’ list 11 on their training/conditioning staff. How about 4 more?

3 – They ‘only’ list 23 people in their ‘Baseball Analytics’ department. Need another 7 to make it an even 30.

4 – They ‘only’ have 16 people in their ‘Baseball Systems’ department. Without even knowing what that is I can detect a ‘shortage’ in that area.

There, problem solved.’’

Tremendous. Sarcasm is a great way to look at Major League Baseball in 2023.

This is the era of the .162 hitter batting cleanup; yes, that happened on Tuesday for the Tigers when third baseman Nick Maton batted cleanup. He has had only 154 at-bats for the Tigers. Shockingly, the Tigers were shut out 1-0 by the Phillies. Four Tigers who appeared in that game were batting way under .200 with catcher Jake Rogers the lowest, at .149, batting eighth. If Rogers gets hot with one or two hits over the next few weeks, though, he may move up to fourth in the Tigers lineup.

Better yet on Wednesday, Gary Sanchez, who is with his fifth team since the Yankees dealt him away in March of 2022, was batting cleanup for the Padres, who have the third highest payroll in baseball. The Mets were one of the teams that quickly gave up on Gary Sanchez. “They’re under .500, they are horrible,’’ said one scout of the Mets, the team with the highest payroll.

The Padres are horrible, too, with their roller coaster offense. The Mariners are hovering around .500 after the high hopes created by last season.

Third highest payroll, and Sanchez is your cleanup hitter. The Mariners countered with their catcher Cal Raleigh as their cleanup hitter. He is batting a robust .221.

But batting Sanchez fourth is working out so far for the Padres; he’s hitting home runs and scoring for them. On Wednesday he hit his fourth home run for them. Maybe they can pick up some other released players.

Something is wrong with this picture; but there are no questions at the top from owners, who only know numbers, and not baseball, as to what’s wrong – as they all go along with the analytical flow.

‘Til the landslide brought me down.

What’s really scary is a closer look at what’s going on with minor league baseball and the analytics approach of not allowing pitchers to pitch enough to learn how to get out of trouble. That includes starters piggy-backing, so starters never earn a win.

Winning is not part of the development equation for most teams.

Have you seen the number of pitchers on the IL with arm issues in the minors? It’s frightening and the Yankees have been hit hard, throughout the organization.

I’m not going to say it’s the Sweeper, but something is contributing to all those pitching injuries.

Starting pitchers can’t get through five innings and at Class High A on Tuesday, for example, Yankee Hudson Valley starter Joel Valdez walked four and hit a bunch more batters to bring his hit batters total to 12 this season in only nine starts. That explains his 1-3 mark and 6.46 ERA. Hudson Valley won the game 13-1 and it was 6-0 in the fifth when Valdez fell apart.

There’s a lot of work to be done.

Hudson Valley's Joel Valdez

“No adjustments, no feel to pitch,’’ said a scout at the game. “The Sweepers these kids are cranking the crap out of, it’s no good. It’s a shaped breaking ball that the analytic people love because Adam Ottavino had one that guys swung and missed at, so all of a sudden that became a shape that they became enamored with and they are trying to teach that. But the biggest problem with that is that it stays flat too often in the hitting zone and good hitters barrel that stuff up. The ball that has depth, that goes down, the hitter hits the top of the ball. The ball that’s flat, you can barrel up and get underneath and drive. And the Sweeper puts incredible pressure on your elbow.’’

Adjustments are the name of the game on every level.

On Ed Randall’s excellent “Remember When’’ show this week with former major league manager Kevin Kennedy, one of the guests was Tommy John, who won 288 games, and yes – he is a Hall of Famer. I’ve always loved Tommy because of his incredible honesty, and he did not disappoint. Randall introduced him as Tommy John Surgery for obvious reasons. John won 124 games before the surgery and 164 victories after the surgery.

Amazingly, John said, no pitcher who has gotten the surgery has ever called him about the surgery that was performed by the great Dr. Frank Jobe.

Coming back from the surgery, John threw the baseball six days a week to get back his arm strength and command. “I wasn’t pitching, I was just throwing,’’ he said of his early work.

As for the lack of length from today’s starters, John said if his era of starters pitched like that, “We would have gotten booed out of the locker room.’’

John then offered this, something I have heard often from so many former players, front office people, managers, coaches, and scouts, “I don’t even watch baseball because it’s not the game I played,’’ he said flatly.

It’s no longer the game he played. Pitching was more about art and not velocity in John’s time.

“You change speeds, you go high, low, in, out. That’s not done today, that’s why I don’t watch baseball. They are just out there throwing it as hard as they can.’’

John then joked, “That hitter’s launch angle was good, though.’’

And so it goes.

‘Til the landslide brought me down.

Tommy John #25 of the New York Yankees poses for this portrait prior to the start of a MLB game circa 1987 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. John played for the Yankees from 1979-82 and 1986-89. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Youth league players imitate the MLB players. A friend of mine was talking to a top level high school coach recently who said this was one of the most difficult years to coach in his career, saying it was a “miserable experience.’’

The high school coach went on to say, “These kids don’t listen to anything, they all go to these hitting people. I have kids who are 5-6, 140 pounds that think they can hit home runs by swinging uphill. They make no adjustments, the pitchers just go out and throw as hard as they can, their deliveries are horrible. The game is so broken it’s unbelievable.’’

Sounds like the major league and minor league game these days.

Having said all this, there is one team I want to praise, a team I identified before the season as one to watch because they were staffing the team with bright, veteran baseball men to go along with analytics. That is the Texas Rangers, under manager Bruce Bochy.

Real managers make a difference.

The Rays, a franchise that relies on player development, has taken the American League by storm so far – but as of Wednesday, the Rangers were only four victories behind the Rays. The Rangers lead the AL West and the defending World Champion Astros, led by another wise veteran manager in Dusty Baker. Should be quite a race. Both managers are destined to be in the Hall of Fame and Bochy was inspired by the job that Baker did and decided to come back and manage. Credit to Rangers GM Chris Young, a former pitcher, and the Rangers are doing all this without Jacob deGrom, who is out for the year with more elbow issues. DeGrom might want to put in a call to Tommy John and try not to throw every fastball at 100 mph and try not to throw sliders that are 95 mph and try to get those mechanics cleaned up.

Bruce Bochy #15 of the Texas Rangers addresses the media before a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 27, 2023 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

The Rangers have a baseball-oriented leadership group. In a copycat league, more teams should hire baseball people. I know that’s a radical thought; why hire a baseball lifer when you can get a young numbers whiz who might have been the statistician of his Ivy League baseball team?

“Bochy, Chris Young, (pitching coach) Mike Maddux, bringing Dayton Moore in,’’ the evaluator said. “You know, you make better decisions with baseball people.’’

That’s a great line, but that’s how crazy MLB has become.

“You make better decisions with baseball people.’’

Our man then expanded on that thought. (Try to follow along, Nerds.)

“When you actually have a gut for the game and you watch the game, you make good decisions,’’ he said.

Bruce Bochy makes good decisions.

That’s how you stop the landslide. And Bochy has the rings to prove it.

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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