A Pirate Looks at 70
BY KEVIN KERNAN
Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call
Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall
You’ve seen it all, you’ve seen it all
No, I haven’t seen it all in baseball, but I’ve seen plenty of change.
On July 4th I hit the age of 70. Born in 1953, that October the Yankees would win their 16th World Series. Billy Martin was the World Series MVP and produced a World Series walk-off single in the Game 6 finale before there were walk-off singles.
Here I am 70 years later and I was a guest on Jill Martin’s wonderful podcast this week.
Billy the Kid hit .500 that World Series, Yogi Berra batted .429. Johnny Sain who would go on to become one of the greatest pitching coaches in the history of the game, won Game 1 for the Yankees, coming on in relief. A 21-year-old Mickey Mantle blasted two home runs as the Yankees won their fifth straight World Series. Whitey Ford won 18 games that season but was 0-1 in the World Series.
After the Series, the Dodgers fired Chuck Dressen who was replaced by Walter Alston … for the next 23 years signing one-year contracts – followed by Tommy Lasorda for 20 years. Red Barber, the Dodgers lead announcer at the time, got into a money squabble with World Series sponsor Gillette and was replaced at the start of the Series by a kid announcer, 25-year-old Vin Scully.
That is the baseball world I was born into so it is not surprising I became a huge baseball fan – a Yankee fan – while my father was a die-hard Detroit Tigers fan. As God would have it, I was able to build a writing career and cross paths with many of those baseball men, and so many others.
I’m not here to talk history, though, I’m here to point out that many of the same truths of the game in 1953, remain Baseball Truths 70 years later in 2023. Here are some thoughts on today’s game.
Nerds, you did not invent the game. So just stop it.
I mention Johnny Sain because he came up in a pitching conversation I had with Jack McKeon this week. “I learned so much from Johnny Sain,’’ said McKeon, a catcher, who already knew a lot about pitching. And did you know that a lot of Johnny Sain’s pitching knowledge was born out of his stint as a Navy pilot and flight instructor during WWII, where he learned to understand the aerodynamics of flying and utilized that knowledge in pitching, especially with his curve ball? Perhaps it was Johnny Sain who invented Spin Rate. The pitching information from that era was not as specialized as it is now, but then again, those pitchers managed to complete a season and even pitch complete games.
Not the case now where the rate of injury to pitchers continues to climb and organizations do nothing to fix the bad mechanics of pitchers. The Yankees used 14 pitchers the entire 1953 season and only nine pitchers in the six games of the 1953 World Series.
The Nerds are way more concerned with the bells and whistles of pitching than the results, kind of like a cat chasing a laser.
The pure craziness of max effort every pitch is crushing the game from within; figure it out, baseball, and make adjustments. On a positive note, in this space a scout told me weeks ago that Max Scherzer has to realize who he is now, make adjustments and throw his curve ball and changeup more – and Scherzer did just that on July 4th to last six innings to beat the D-Backs.
Former major league pitcher and current Cardinals radio broadcaster Ricky Horton made some tremendous points this week on the podcast Common Sense Pitching with Mark Wiley and Will George. Horton pitched seven years in the majors, mostly with the Cardinals. He also was on the TV screen pitching for the White Sox in a scene from Field of Dreams. “My four seconds of fame,’’ Horton said, although of the clip he notes, “It’s a little humbling if you listen to that part of the movie. It’s about 19 minutes and 57 seconds in, in case you are wondering, when I’m on the screen. You can hear the broadcaster saying ‘That’s the sixth straight hit given up by the veteran southpaw.’“
Horton was on the 1988 World Champion Dodgers, managed by Lasorda. In Game 1, of course, Kirk Gibson hit that magical home run at Dodger Stadium and AMBS was there. Horton also was a team chaplain for the Cardinals and heavily involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in St. Louis so he understands people, pitching, baseball and broadcasting.
The stumbling Cardinals are 25th in ERA this season, in this YAY Year – Year After Yadi – with a 4.74 ERA and have surrendered the third most hits in baseball.
“I just see too [many] all or nothing pitches thrown to get maximum spin and maximum velocity. Location is not as emphasized as much,’’ Horton said about pitching in general in the majors today. “They are more concerned about what the analytics of that pitch is as opposed to the result of that pitch. The result ultimately has to be outs. The bottom line is getting guys out.’’
That is such a great point and something I say often, the Nerds are way more concerned with the bells and whistles of pitching than the results, kind of like a cat chasing a laser.
Horton also offered this truth-telling comment about life in the majors today opposed to the time when he played and every team had a number of veteran leaders. The clubhouse was a much different place than it is today.
“Every player is a bit of a silo now,’’ Horton said, using an agricultural reference. “He’s got his own hitting coach or his own pitching coach. He’s got the other coaches. He’s got an analytics coach, he’s got a sleep coach. It’s almost like he is his own corporation. (Teams) are just not investing in veteran guys who have the capacity to lead in that way… The economics of the game have taken us in a different direction.’’
That is a brilliant comment and nails the state of the game.
Teams that get leadership and are all in it together makes a difference. The Mets are in the process of learning that lesson now as they are trying to right the ship in a team way. Leadership from within the clubhouse matters.
You know what else matters?
Again, there are certain truths to the game that have not changed since 1953, like batting average. The top five teams in batting average at the halfway point are the Rangers (.274), Braves (.271), Marlins (.263), Rays (.262) and Diamondbacks (.261). Four of those five teams are in first place and the spunky Marlins lead the NL Wild Card. There are only 11 .300 hitters in the majors at the moment.
The AAA A’s are dead last sporting a .219 team average.
Hitting has been made easier with the outlawing of the shift, but the hitters have made it so hard on themselves with their all or nothing strike out or home run approaches. The smart teams are trying to put the ball in play more often and steal more bases because it has never been easier to steal.
Interesting that the Yankees are playing more of Isiah Kiner-Falefa at third base than Josh Donaldson, who is essentially a walking strikeout. Since Donaldson is batting .149 and is 37 years old and IKF is batting 113 points higher, is nine years younger and has nine stolen bases to Donaldson’s zero – it should be a no brainer; but sometimes it takes Nerds a while to catch on and they are mesmerized by Donaldson’s nine home runs just as that cat is mesmerized by the laser. Donaldson’s sitting woke him up on Wednesday as he hit his ninth home run; of his 13 hits this season, nine have left the yard.
Hall of Famer Wade Boggs was a 12-time All-Star who won five batting titles and finished with a lifetime .328 batting average. Wade knows chicken and he knows hitting and was always one of my favorite interviews in Cooperstown at Hall of Fame induction weekend. Here’s why. In an interview with Matt Vautour of MassLive.com, Boggs said he is not a fan of the new rules and does not watch a lot of baseball these days.
Every week I talk to former coaches, managers, front office people and players and hear the same comment.
“It’s crazy how the sabermetrics have taken over the game, trying to make it cool,’’ Boggs said. “But it just doesn’t fit. I think they wanted to make it more interesting for the younger generation kids to where they could tabulate numbers and say, ‘Ooh, that’s cool,’ and launch angle and various things like this. So it makes watching a baseball game a math equation.
“The announcers start throwing numbers at you, ‘He had 107 exit velocity with a 37 percent launch angle. And his home run was at 93 degrees. Nobody wants to hear that. He hit a bomb. And he hit it hard. That’s plain enough for the game. Don’t reinvent the wheel when it is not flat.’’
Boggs said he would walk about 300 times a season today because he would not swing at the high pitch. “Guys swing at that pitch … every once in a while, they run into one. When you have more strikeouts than base hits in a month, that’s a problem. It’s just difficult to watch at times.’’
Wade Boggs #26 of the Boston Red Sox bat against the Baltimore Orioles during an Major League baseball game circa 1990 at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. Boggs played for the Red Sox from 1982-92. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
One player who is so much fun to watch is the Reds’ Elly De La Cruz who has turned his team into a new Reds machine since being called up 25 games ago. Just as impressive as his speed, hitting and defense is the fact he turned down an invite to the Home Run Derby; because in the long run it would be best for his team to keep his swing in order and not risk the dreaded Home Run Derby fatigue that comes after appearing in the event. He can rest during the All-Star break instead of heading off to Seattle. That kind of team thinking is refreshing and old friend Scott Boras is his agent – and Boras recommended he sit this one out. It was also nice to see the Reds’ Alexis Diaz, Edwin’s brother, be selected to the All-Star Game after the heartache of Edwin’s knee injury in the WBC as Edwin – one of the nicest guys in the game – was injured celebrating with his brother.
Other numbers that mean something: starter’s ERA. Heading into Wednesday’s games, the top five include four first place teams, the Rangers (3.55), Rays (3.59), Twins (3.61) and Braves (3.78).
The Rockies are dead last at 6.55 and the Moneyball A’s come in next at 6.23. The Reds are third from the bottom with a 5.71 starter’s ERA – and their offense has saved their chili over spaghetti – but that will not last if Reds don’t acquire some starting pitching help.
Through my 70 years one of my favorite baseball people to talk to and listen to is Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who was born in 1945. He was on his game this week with the Orioles playing the Yankees at Yankee Stadium and was wondering something I often wonder.
Umpire Quinn Wolcott #81 hands the bat of Elly De La Cruz #44 of the Cincinnati Reds back to him as manager David Bell #25 looks on in the second inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on July 05, 2023 in Washington, DC. De La Cruz hit a mammoth home run in his next at bat. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Why don’t pitchers with electric fastballs throw their fastballs more?
In Monday’s loss to the Yankees, he implored O’s starter Tyler Wells to throw more fastballs – especially the high fastball with two strikes. “Do what you do best,’’ Palmer stated. He should know. The Hall of Famer won 268 games and seven times was a 20-game winner. “High fastball, it looks hittable, but it is very difficult to get on top. You take it, it is probably a ball, you swing, you go back and get your glove,’’ Palmer said. “Now you reverse the count, you’ve got to bring it down.
“I know the game has changed,’’ Palmer noted later in the game, “but when you have as good a fastball as Tyler Wells and just because (Kyle) Higashioka took one belt high in the middle of the plate (deep), doesn’t mean that still is not your best pitch. And tonight he hasn’t had a good cutter, he hasn’t had a good slider. He’s used his curveball; the fastball is his best pitch.’’
That’s some honest baseball knowledge.
That fastball, of course, makes Wells’ changeup much better, too. It all works together. I wonder if the Orioles pitchers realize the great resource they have at their games.
One final word on the Orioles. Felix Bautista owns 23 saves, a 1.13 ERA and has struck out 81 batters over 40 innings. Good pickup by former Orioles GM Dan Duquette back in 2016 when the Marlins released Bautista.