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Mudville: April 20, 2024 10:48 am PDT

Starr Search

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone have finally jumped onto the baseball Reality Train with the firing of Dillon Lawson and the hiring of Sean Casey as the Yankees hitting coach. Casey hit .302 over his 12-year major league career.

Problem is the bridge may still collapse while crossing the river.

Cashman dumped his hand-picked analytic based hitting coach in Lawson, who was all about Hit Strikes Hard and not overly concerned with making contact. Lawson got the big-league job before the 2022 season after being hired in 2018 as the Yankees minor league hitting instructor, a rising star to Cashman.

Anyone who has read BallNine or my tweets @AMBS_Kernan knows I have been all over Cashman for living in his fantasy world of Nerd Baseball. I have railed against Cashman’s Way for years. And I don’t get it, he grew up in a baseball environment, his team has gobs of money and yet he wants to be Moneyball King instead of Baseball King.

The fourth-place Yankees made even more gobs of money on Wednesday, announcing their hideous new Starr Insurance patch on their uniform sleeves on both home and away uniforms. The pinstripes used to stand for something; now they stand for another money grab by Hal Steinbrenner’s Yankees.

This organization loves to annoy its loyal fan base in such creative ways.

Think of it this way, the Yankees will get well over $20 million a year through 2031 for desecrating the pinstripes. Here’s another way to think of it. That pays for Josh Donaldson’s salary. Donaldson is hitting .152 with only 15 hits this season and is yet another botched addition by Cashman.

How about adding more real stars in uniform instead of a patch for Starr Insurance on the uniform?

How about not pulling a pitcher with a one-hitter after 74 pitches?

How about getting back to championship baseball and getting away from Nerd Baseball?

With Cashman’s Nerd Revolution, a lot of good baseball people have paid the price, leaving the Yankees while Cashman fiddles and Yankee Stadium burns. Since 2001, the Yankees have won one World Series under Cashman and that was 2009 when they decided to do it the Boss’ Way and spend big money on free agents.

That’s what makes the hiring of Casey as hitting coach so interesting. Cashman and Boone went with a baseball man. Boone needs allies in the dugout and Casey is a longtime friend. Cashman needs to change his Nerd ways, too, because at this stage of the game the Yankees are in danger of not even making the most watered-down playoffs in baseball history.

The Nerd Way has been a complete failure because it’s really all about championships with the Yankees.

Joe Torre was run out, Joe Girardi – who tried to hold players accountable – was run out. Nerd after Nerd was brought into Yankee Stadium and into Nerd Central, the Tampa minor league complex, while baseball people were put on the shelf.

I remember one Yankee employee telling me years ago he had to give up his desk for yet another Nerd analyst hired by Cashman.

Good for Cashman to be waking up to reality. Good for Boone to be waking up to reality. Of course, they are next on the Hit List if the Yankees continue to sputter along; they woke up because they are the bullseye now.

Let me tell you a quick story about Life with Nerds.

This happened on a West Coast road trip in Oakland. I am a keen observer of batting practice –  it’s my favorite place to hang, by the batting cage – and watch the goings on and talk to players. I was spoiled because in San Diego I got to talk hitting every day with Tony Gwynn. I learned some things. I also loved talking to hitters like Sean Casey, who I was introduced to by Reds manager Jack McKeon when Casey was still at AAA Indianapolis.

Yes, Sean Casey and I go way back, he’s one of my favorite people in baseball. Anyone who watched MLB Network the rare times they actually talked baseball, knows Casey is a fountain of bubbly hitting information.

As McKeon told BallNine this week about the Yankees hiring of Casey, “He is a great salesman. He can sell his program to the hitters. He loves people.’’

Casey is close to Jack’s son Kasey McKeon. In an Instagram post from the 2022 Winter Meetings with a picture of all three together – Jack, Sean and Kasey – Sean Casey wrote; “Just ran into two guys at the winter meetings that basically changed my life. So much gratitude for both.

“Kasey was the scout who drafted me out of the University of Richmond (for the Indians in 1995) and Jack was my manager with the Reds my first three years in the show,’’ Casey wrote. “When I struggled the first half of ’98, Jack called me into his office and said, ‘Listen go out there and play your game, I’ve got your back, you’re gonna be in the lineup every day and don’t worry about failing. You can hit and I believe in you.’’

That comment says so much.

In New York, when I decided to come back east, I could chat with a Derek Jeter or a David Wright at the batting cage – or any player I wanted to talk to until MLB in all its wisdom essentially banned reporters from the batting cage area unless you worked for a rights holder.

Let’s grow the game by limiting media’s access to players. Well done, baseball. They would go on to “grow the game’’ years later by getting rid of 42 minor league teams.

Clubhouse time was also curtailed to the media. Back in the day you could go in the clubhouse anytime it was deemed opened, hours before a game and in spring training as early as 7am. But this is about power, and the media was essentially shown the door in so many ways by MLB and their elitist handlers.

Life goes on. I tell you all this because through the years even though I could not be right at the cage I would still watch BP from a short distance away and still learn things about the game at a time of day when players were relaxed. You could pick up little things like who is swinging the bat well, who is healthy, is someone bothered by a nagging injury, how competitive players were in BP when they played BP games, yes Jeter was the most competitive but most players, to their credit, are extremely competitive in the little things as well as the big things – at least they used to be that way.

Anyway, on this particular West Coast trip, there was an assistant GM-type on the trip for the Yankees, standing in for Cashman. Cashman and other GMs don’t make every trip because they have other things to do. Most of the assistant GM types (just look for beige khakis and a solid-colored Tommy Bahama shirt) would spend at least some time leaning on the batting cage during BP chatting up the hitting coach, the manager, the assistant hitting coach and the players.

I noticed during this particular trip that was not the case, Cashman’s surrogate was just sitting on the dugout bench day after day during BP, his eyes glued to his laptop. He wasn’t watching BP at all, at least when I checked. Maybe he was looking at BP exit velocity on the laptop.

The Oakland Coliseum always had excellent media access because there was no place for players to hide. I will miss the A’s leaving Oakland, but that is a Baseball or Bust for a different day. There is no dugout fencing at the Coliseum, no dividing line between players and media. Reggie Jackson usually showed up back when he worked for the Yankees and so did prominent others like Rickey Henderson, and the players were pretty relaxed there.

After a couple days in Oakland and me noticing the Assistant Nerd sitting in the dugout looking at his laptop during batting practice, AMBS did his thing.

I couldn’t help myself and this is what sometimes gets me in trouble.

I went up to the Nerd and asked: “Hey, I was just wondering, do you ever watch batting practice, do you ever watch baseball?’’

I don’t remember if there was an answer, but to me, my point was made. How are you going to evaluate these players on an everyday basis if you don’t take the time to watch a little BP and talk to some of the uniformed personnel who, you know, actually know baseball?

It was a small and early glimpse at the future of analytical baseball.

I tell this story because I want to make it clear that for too long a time the Yankees have leaned toward numbers telling the story, and not actually the observance of baseball. If you rely on only numbers, exit velocity, spin rate, pitch velo, and such, that is how you wind up with a Josh Donaldson and taking out a pitcher who has given up one hit with only 74 pitches.

That is how you wind up with a Giancarlo Stanton for life. Now he could fit in an offense if he made contact more often, and more often with speedy runners in front of him. He is getting paid a king’s ransom even though his next injury is just around the corner and watching him chase balls in right field immediately reminds me of watching a softball game.

That is how you wind up in fourth place with a team batting average of .231, 28th in baseball –only the Tigers and A’s are worse.

This game is so much more than numbers. Numbers are big, I’ve always relied on certain numbers to tell a story, but there has to be more. There has to be eyes on the prize to see that rookie Anthony Volpe needs to close his stance a bit so he is not fooled so much, something Hit Strike Hard’s Dillon Lawson did not do – but minor league catcher Austin Wells astutely noticed. There has to be someone in the room yelling, we need to hit higher than .231.

Making contact is part of the game. There has to be leadership who wants that kind of evaluation.

The Yankees have now done a 180 and have hired a hitting coach who did not go to Nerd University.

Good for Cashman to be waking up to reality. Good for Boone to be waking up to reality. Of course, they are next on the Hit List if the Yankees continue to sputter along; they woke up because they are the bullseye now.

The Aaron Judge toe injury put everyone on notice.

This is why I said after last season the Yankees have to re-sign Judge no matter the cost. He is their offense. And it still became a little bit of a drawn-out situation until Hal loosened the purse strings. Maybe that is the moment Hal had someone call Starr Insurance.

Too many people with power at the Yankees look only at numbers.

They stare at their laptops during batting practice. They have no feel what makes a ballplayer. They try to set up a crazy hitting system throughout the organization where contact is not encouraged or appreciated.

They lose good instructors and elevate people who should not be elevated to replace them and then rave about those replacements.

Luckily, and I said it at the time, Cashman has a small number of good soldiers around him who know baseball like Tim Naehring and the hiring of Brian Sabean, which I praised over the winter. There are other good people in the Yankees organization, but I don’t want to put their names out there in case someone is taking names.

Cashman needs to make the Yankees all about baseball again.

New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman during batting practice before a game between the Yankees and the Seattle Mariners at Yankee Stadium on June 20, 2023 in the Bronx. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Here are some numbers for Cashman and the Nerds.

At the All-Star break the Yankees are hitting .231. And here is what is going on in the minor leagues. AAA SWB is hitting .264, but AA Somerset is hitting .234 and prized prospect Jason Dominquez is hitting 59th in the league with a .204 average. High A Hudson Valley is batting .249 and A-ball Tampa is batting .237.

Not good.

I had to laugh out loud when I heard Cashman use the term, when he was speaking about hitting instruction throughout the organization as being an “ecosystem’’ not just about one person.

Well, Cash, your ecosystem is dying with the system you have put in place.

This is not just about Lawson and many people have told me for quite some time the guy was simply overmatched in his role given to him by Cashman. This is about an ecosystem of hitting that has neglected to teach and highlight what hitting is all about. Making it even worse, they love to tinker with successful hitters in the Yankees ecosystem in an effort to convert them to the Hit Strikes Hard mentality and Volpe was just one big example.

Every swing does not have to be the same, shortening your swing can work wonders. Focus on hitting, not swinging.

You can actually put in a combo hitting approach like the Rays have where some hitters swing to Hit Strikes Hard but then they get two strikes and look to hit the ball the other way or up the middle, making contact.

When play resumes on Friday, the Yankees find themselves a full eight games back of the Rays who have been slumping. The Yankees are seven back in the loss column of the second place Orioles, and Toronto, another confused organization, has snuck ahead of the Yankees for the last wild card spot.

Hal may be happy for now because he got his Starr Insurance $20-plus million per in his bank but make no mistake, it’s Survival Time.

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.

Comments
  • Hector Garcia

    Hitting coaches are a dime a dozen. There’s gotta be thousands, from little League,college,minors,and pros. Here’s the key to hitting “ experts “ HIT THE BALL WITH THE BAT. Just a waste of money buy all cited.

    July 13, 2023
  • Chris Clehane

    Kevin-awesome as usual. Thanks for the real baseball perspective.

    July 13, 2023
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