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Mudville: September 21, 2023 7:31 pm PDT

What are they Thinking?

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Every week I am in contact with many baseball men. They weep for the game.

They know the talent is there, but they are scared for baseball’s present and future because those in charge of the game, for the most part, have forgotten about the past.

The true lessons of the game are no longer being taught. Not the lessons of the great George Kissell. Not the lessons of the great Johnny Sain. The nuances of the game have given way to measurements and metrics, and essentially the soul of the game is dying.

Watch any game, any night, at the major league level and you see mistakes made that you used to only see made in Little League. Nothing against Little League; but major league players should know better than to be thrown out at third on a ground ball to short when they are on second base in a non-force situation, a regular occurrence now. I saw it happen three times this week in casual viewing of games.

One longtime talent evaluator told BallNine, “We watch the games now and we say, ‘What are they thinking? What are they doing?’ You watch the game at the minor league level and there is no gut feel for watching the game and helping your player get through the game through coaching. Because everything is just basically a script.

Watch any major league game and you will have the same question as me: what the heck is going on and what is being taught in the minors and majors?

“The script of the game used to be written by how you played the game so when you ran your team out of an inning and you came off the field, the base-running coach came over and talked to you. You don’t see that anymore. You don’t see that anywhere. You screw up cut-offs and relays, nobody talks to the player. There’s no coaching moments being taken, everybody is sitting on their iPad. Nobody’s paying attention to playing the game the right way. That’s why we watch poorly played games, night in and night out.’’

In the major leagues included.

As for young major league players, the evaluator nailed it when he said these words to me, and think deeply about this: “They’re learning on the job, but there is not a lot of teaching going on anywhere. The big leagues is a hard place to learn to play. They rush these guys to the big leagues and they aren’t ready and then they become unsure whether they are ‘(The) Guys’ or not.’’

MLB is about metrics over mechanics.

And not just young players can get in a funk.

Yankee analyst Jeff Nelson, a smart pitcher I have known since his Yankee wipeout slider days, recently was explaining the things Carlos Rodon was doing mechanically wrong at the key point of taking the ball out of his glove.

Now Rodon, after struggling mightily, is on the IL with a hamstring injury. He is attempting a quick return; but if he doesn’t smooth out his mechanics, there is more trouble ahead. The Yankees gave Rodon $162 million over six years and he has already had a forearm strain that sidelined him.

The numbers are horrific. Rodon is 1-4 with a 7.33 ERA. He has pitched only 27 innings, but stunningly has allowed eight home runs and 42 base runners in those 27 innings.

Carlos Rodon #55 of the New York Yankees stretches during the third inning against the Houston Astros at Yankee Stadium on August 06, 2023 in The Bronx, NY. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The Yankee brass may be good at reading Rodon’s spin rate, but can they clean up his mechanics? The Rays, who do a good job with overall development, have been crushed by pitching injuries; the latest pitcher headed for Tommy John surgery is ace Shane McClanahan, so something is deeply wrong there, too.

Another scout told me this week he watched the Nationals bullpen in Philadelphia and said that may be the worst bullpen he has seen in years.

Who is getting better?

What are they thinking?

Minor league players who were untouchable a few years ago have not progressed or have been injured. My question is: what exactly is being taught anymore? What they are teaching isn’t working, certainly not for the pitchers who are going down left and right. One of the Mets pitching prospects recently acquired in the non-fire sale fire sale, Coleman Crow, 22, is headed for Tommy John surgery; and he comes from the Angels, a team and pitcher with whom Billy Eppler is deeply familiar because Eppler was the GM of the 72-90 2019 Angels, the year Crow was drafted by the Halos.

Crow pitched 24 innings this season in the minors. The good news for Mets fans is that the pitcher should be really good to go come 2026, the 40th anniversary of the Mets last World Championship.

Every team has been hit with Tommy John fever.

So much for pitch counts magically solving the pitching woes of the world.

Watch any major league game and you will have the same question as me: what the heck is going on and what is being taught in the minors and majors?

Major league players should be able to make a respectable, on target throw from the outfield, a rarity now. Major league players should know where to position themselves on cut-offs, a lost art. Pitchers should be able to read swings.

I was watching a young Kansas City pitcher throw two sliders for strikes against the Red Sox’ Trevor Story, who was returning this week from injury and was 0-for-9 this season. Story missed badly on both swings and was in an 0-2 hole. Another slider, right? No. With the next pitch the pitcher threw a fastball right down the middle and Story drove it to center for a double.

Trevor Story #10 of the Boston Red Sox hits a double during the fourth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Fenway Park on August 10, 2023 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Nick Grace/Getty Images)

Throw another breaking ball and Story would have walked back to the bench. It’s all about “trickery” and what the algorithm spits out at 4 pm, not what is happening at 8 pm and what the manager and coaches see at those moments.

It gets worse. Is this too much to ask? Major league pitchers should be able to throw strikes.

This week in the 10th inning of a game, the Brewers walked home three straight Rockies runs on four-pitch walks (though one was actually a three-pitch walk because reliever Abner Uribe started his stint with a pitch-timing violation, another issue today). Veteran lefty reliever Andrew Chafin, recently acquired by the Brewers, was charged with four runs on only one hit, a bunt single.

One of those four-pitch walks was taken by Cole Tucker, who had entered the game earlier as a pinch-runner and had not had a major league at-bat in well over a year.

At one point the Brewers excellent play-by-play announcer Jeff Levering noted: “It’s been a while since the Brewers have thrown a strike.’’

Levering played four years of baseball at Chapman University, so he is not just a broadcaster with a golden voice, he knows the game. I’ve known him since his days broadcasting in Pawtucket.

At another exasperating point the Brewers’ excellent analyst Bill Schroeder, a former major league catcher, let out a “Yikes!’’

The knowledgeable Brewers fans let out several choruses of boos for the ineptitude shown by their relievers, and Uribe throws 100 of course.

How bad was it? According to AT&T SportsNet, the Rockies became the first team since 1988 (when all pitches were first tracked by MLB) to receive three straight bases-loaded walks without a single strike being thrown in any of the at-bats.

That’s epic ineptitude.

Again, this is stuff you used to only see in Little League and the Brewers are in first place in the NL Central.

Abner Uribe #45 of the Milwaukee Brewers prepares to pitch against the Washington Nationals during the seventh inning at Nationals Park on August 01, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jess Rapfogel/Getty Images)

Pitching coaches like Johnny Sain, whose lessons were passed along to so many other pitching coaches like the Braves Leo Mazzone, would not be able to fathom such happenings if he were alive today.

I watched a replay of that inning and could not believe what I was seeing.

The next night the Brewers got a 10th-inning fake runner revenge win because the Rockies lost the game on a room service grounder, a two-out throwing error by shortstop Ezequiel Tovar. Of course the Rockies had gained the lead in the fake-runner top of the 10th on an error by Brewers left fielder Mark Canha.

Errors, even if they are not charged errors by the overly generous official scorers this season, are everywhere. Canha had trouble retrieving the ball off the wall on a double.

One of George Kissell’s go-to drills for fielders was having the fielder stand facing a cement wall and having Kissell behind him firing balls off the wall they would have to catch. That is how he helped turn Joe Torre, a catcher, into a third baseman for the Cardinals. “I learned more baseball from George Kissell than anyone else in my life,’’ Torre once said.

My friend Howard Medgal wrote a book called The Cardinals Way to show what Kissell meant to that organization and a legion of players. As the late Tim McCarver once said of Kissell, “He taught me more how to think the game.’’

Who are the George Kissells out there today? Even if they are there, other than Ron Washington, does anybody listen to them?

Kissell was with the Cardinals from 1940 to 2008. The man was part of the Greatest Generation and he missed a couple of years with St. Louis while being in the Pacific in World War II.

If you polled current GMs, presidents of baseball operations, and assistant GMs, would they even know who George Kissell was, an instructor that Branch Rickey once boasted: “is a cleaner-upper?’’

(Original Caption) A double dose of pitching prowess is shown in Warren Spahn, (left) and Johnny Sain of the 1948 National League Champion Braves.

Better yet, poll all the Chief Nerds on all teams and ask them about George Kissell or Johnny Sain.

“Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.’’

Now it’s “Velo and Spin Rate and pray for a strike.’’

I spoke with a scout the other day who told me there were 22 walks in a minor league game he attended – 22. Someone else in the worldwide AMBS Network told me there were 20 walks in a minor league game just two nights ago. In a three-game series this week, the putrid White Sox surrendered 20 walks to the Yankees and still managed to win two of the three games.

Future managers Torre, Tony La Russa, and Earl Weaver all once played for Kissell in the Cardinals organization. Kissell died in 2008 and the Cardinals certainly are not playing The Cardinals Way this season.

As one longtime, generational baseball man said to me about the game in general: “Problem is, there are few baseball people left to teach the game – and what happens in 20 years when the Nerd players are all that’s left to teach? They don’t know fundamentals. They don’t care about history.’’

Great points all.

As for the minors, it’s a travesty; scouts tell me teaching moments have given way to looking the other way.

“Guys are going backwards,’’ one said when I asked what he is seeing in his minor league travels this season.

Yes, some great young players have arrived on the scene this year in the majors but there are peaks and valleys and the valleys of not understanding the basics of the game have never been deeper.

One story making the rounds the past year in Scout World refers to an analytical pitching coach’s reaction when asked about his pitchers’ mechanics. The new era coach dismissed the question with something along the lines of “Mechanics fix cars.’’

The respect for the coach of old, the scouts of old, the players of old has been lost. It’s baseball’s version of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Legendary Cardinals instructor George Kissell. (Photo via FOX)

“A lot of the younger analytically driven instructors now believe that pitching and hitting mechanics are bullshit,’’ one scout said in dugout language. “They believe you just do power repetition to improve your velocity and spin rate as a pitcher and power reps to improve exit velocity as a hitter.

“To be a good pitcher or a good hitter you need to have a foundation. These kids, there is no foundation for success being built. How you field the ball, how you throw the ball, how you swing the bat. You start to become a student of the game and a student of what pitchers are trying to do with you and that’s how you become a great player. And we’re not doing that.’’

I recently heard a story about one Yankee minor league analytic-driven coach from a couple of years ago yelling out the exit velocity to Yankee hitters during a game, much to the disbelief of opposing coaches.

So what if you flew out with the bases loaded in the last inning for the final out in a one-run loss, your exit velocity was 98.6, great job, kid!

Don’t you dare get an 80 MPH single the other way to win the game.

That’s how crazy all this has become, folks.

There should be more players like Dodgers All-Star Freddie Freeman who has a base-hit approach, and a don’t-strike-out approach, every time he steps in the box.

“Drive the ball to left-center, keep the line moving,” Freeman explained to Spectrum SportsNet LA. “You’re not a hitter, you’re a baseball player, there’s multiple facets to this game. At two strikes I’m just trying to put the ball in play. Even if you don’t get a hit, if you get on on an error, you’re helping your team. There’s not much help if you are walking back to the dugout. Make them make the play to get you out.”

Great advice. Watch any game and you can see plays aren’t being made. Not only that – sometimes, even with the bases loaded, pitchers may walk three batters in a row in only 11 pitches.

That’s MLB 2023.

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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