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Mudville: April 16, 2024 12:46 am PDT

It’s Now or Never

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Elvis has left the building.

And I don’t think he’s coming back.

Mark down Friday, September 8, 2023 as a monumental day in baseball. And not in a good way. Three items stick out as bookmarks regarding the state of Baseball 2023, and where it’s ultimately heading.

American League All-Star pitcher George Kirby criticized his Seattle manager Scott Servais, a former catcher, for not taking him out of the game after 90 pitches; that’s right, for NOT taking him out of the game. Mr. Kirby promptly let up a tying two-run home run and the Rays went on to win the game. Essentially, Servais let up the home run because he had the audacity to leave his starter in beyond a whole 90 pitches. Since the dawn of baseball, starting pitchers have been upset over being taken out of games, not staying in games. “I wish I wasn’t out there for the seventh,’’ Kirby whined after the game. “I was at 90 pitches and I didn’t think I really could go anymore. But it is what it is.”

It sure is. Someone read Kirby the riot act after that comment and on Saturday he changed his tune, saying he “screwed up” with his comments. “That’s not me,” he said. “Skip has always got to pry that ball out of my hands.”

Just a month ago, Kirby pitched his one and only “complete” game in 52 starts in the majors, nine shutout innings in a game against Baltimore that the Orioles won 1-0 when they pushed across their fake runner in the 10th while the Mariners could not get their fake runner to home plate. There were another 29 starts in the minors with zero complete games; but the complete game is something in this era that’s pretty much not allowed in the minors.

All told, 81 starts, and one complete game that really wasn’t a complete game.

Not a lot of prying the ball out of George Kirby’s hand.

I checked with longtime baseball people on Saturday and they all were furious with Kirby’s comments. One former pitcher told BallNine, “That was appalling that Kirby said that. But they’ve been groomed that they can’t go through a lineup three times, six innings is a lot, and 90 pitches is a lot. ‘I’m just not capable of doing it,’ is in their head.”

The end result of that can’t do attitude is this, the evaluator said: “We’re stifling greatness in our game. We’re stifling records that should be broken.”

That is so well said.

Noted former major leaguer Doug Mientkiewicz on X, “You have 3 weeks left in a playoff race, and you want out after 90? Sadly this is how most minor league systems are ‘developing‘… starters these days.”

*****

The Mets, under Buck Showalter, the managerial King of Fundamentals, put together one of the greatest Keystone Kops plays in the history of the game when rookie catcher Francisco Alvarez, who leads the Mets in errors, forgot he was a catcher. In a 2-2 game in the bottom of the seventh at Target Field, an 0-2 bounced changeup, which used to be the calling card of pitchers (bouncing the ball with two strikes), skidded past Alvarez as a double steal was in motion. Alvarez wasn’t even in the same area code as the pitch. He then couldn’t find the ball and Andrew Stevenson, the pinch-runner who stole third, made a wide turn at third because he had visions of coming all the way around to score.

Alvarez finally found the baseball, had Stevenson dead to rights at third base, and promptly chucked the ball into left field. Stevenson got up from his belly flop and headed home. Tim Locastro was there to back up the play and had a short throw home, and an easy one-hopper would have done the trick; but Locastro’s throw was way wide left and got past Alvarez again as Stevenson scored. On Twins TV a giggling Justin Morneau put it perfectly, harking back to his T-ball days, saying: “Run until they tag you – unbelievable.”

Stolen bases have never been easier in MLB. It’s even easier now than in the days when fielders didn’t wear gloves, and this was just another example that teams can’t play fundamentally sound baseball because all the focus is on swinging practice and iPads before games.

Alvarez leads the Mets with 12 errors. Fellow rookie Brett Baty is next at nine. If you remember, when I visited Buck in Port St. Lucie in spring training, he told me he was concerned about the defensive play of the Mets rookies. He could see all this coming. At the end of August, the Mets fired director of player development Kevin Howard, director of pro player evaluation Jeff Lebow, and director of performance Jim Cavallini.

After watching the play, a top talent evaluator told BallNine that baseball needs to add one more metric to the game and I agree, this one is a dandy.

“They should measure Buck’s blood pressure on a play like that and post it on the scoreboard,” he said with a chuckle. “I would love to have a blood pressure clock on Buck for that inning.”

Through the roof.

Great idea, ballpark operations: Exit velo, spin rate, pitch speed, and manager’s blood pressure should be staples in all ballparks. And good old Rob Manfred can monetize this by providing bettors an over-under and the inning in which the blood pressure will soar. Think of all the possibilities.

Hey, if baseball wants to continue to make a mockery of itself, who am I to stop them? Perhaps in Kirby’s next start there can be a “pry the ball out of his hand” over-under on pitches before he wants out for the good of the team.

Call it the Bob Gibson Line.

Official scorers have been handing out gift hits all year and I feel for the pitchers because everything is a wild pitch when so many should be scored passed balls.

*****

The third critical happening on Friday was another sad but true reality of the game in 2023. Yankee right-hander Luis Severino got hurt again, this time with a left side injury, not to be confused with an earlier lat injury this season, not to be confused with previous lat injuries, shoulder inflammation, and Tommy John surgery. Remember when Brian Cashman rebuilt the Yankees’ training staff, getting rid of people and hiring someone who is really popular on social media – and for a lot of money?

Well, injuries keep happening to the Yankees and pretty much everyone else; but poor Severino, going into a free agency, has been hit hard again. All I can say is, for his sake – and Sevy is a good dude – it’s a good thing for Severino and his family and his agent that Cashman handed over $52.5 million five years ago.

It’s also a good thing the Yankees didn’t let Severino pitch for the Dominican Republic in the WBC. That sure saved him.

Months ago I took a little heat because I said Severino was out of shape and clearly that was part of his problem. Same thing with Carlos Rodon (2-5, 6.60), who has been a flop – and so many other pitchers that it’s so obvious watching them throw the baseball.

By the way, the Yankees on Friday night let the game get away from them because they could not make some basic plays, including a throw home by right-fielder Jake Bauers. Rookie catcher Austin Wells also had trouble blocking the baseball and throwing to second base. Same thing happened Saturday in a loss to the Brewers.

Also on Saturday the Mets didn’t show up again in another loss to the Twins. The two New York teams can’t handle the Centrals.

Don’t look for errors in the box score to designate a bad play. Official scorers have been handing out gift hits all year and I feel for the pitchers because everything is a wild pitch when so many should be scored passed balls. One former pitcher said he is “appalled” by the number of wild pitches that should be assigned passed balls.

“Major League Baseball has allowed the corrupt philosophies of one-knee pitch framing, and that blocking balls now doesn’t really matter,” one former pitcher said. “Just trying to backhand those balls in the dirt is such a weak effort.”

Inch by inch, fundamentals have been destroyed.

What we have here on so many levels is a failure to communicate. Baseball keeps telling us this is a much better game than it once was – but our eyes show us the truth.

One top talent evaluator put the game in perspective when he said: “You bat flip a home run when you’re getting your ass kicked every night, and you swing out of your ass; you have no problem in striking out as much as they do, they take no pride in doing team fundamentals that actually helps you win games.”

There has to be sweat equity and teams do not work on fundamentals and even worse, they put themselves in poor positioning because of some of the goofy tactics of today’s game, like pitch framing. Everything seems to be scored a wild pitch even though in past generations these balls were blocked by the catcher – but you still have rare instances like Travis d’Arnaud of the Braves who knows how to block a pitch.

The Yankees celebrated the 1998 World Championship team and other old-timers on Saturday, teams of players who didn’t give away at-bats, teams whose only goal was beating the other team, nothing else, team goals. Take a walk and let the next guy do the job. Play team defense.

“That’s the difference in the game now,” one baseball man said. “We don’t see that enough.”

No, we don’t. Defense is out the window.

Former major league pitcher and longtime pitching coach Mark Wiley said on his podcast with scout Will George (“Common Sense Pitching with Wiley and Will”) that baseball is doing a lot of gaslighting.

He’s right.

“You want to be around people who tell the truth,’’ Wiley said, noting the divisions between front office and development and scouting are deadly to an organization. “Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and who don’t have agendas, especially if you are a young guy who does not have a lot of experience, and that is what we are running into in baseball today. They are going the other way. They are firing experienced people because they know they know more than them. You should embrace that they know more than you and you should use them to help you be better.”

You might want to write this next comment down, Nerds.

“It’s a funny thing,” Wiley said. “Chemistry shows that you care about your co-workers. That’s what chemistry is.”

It sure isn’t what’s going on in MLB. Some of the ownership situations in baseball are beyond belief. The news came out this week via The Athletic that the Nationals have gutted their scouting staff. And that’s only the start. One source told me on Saturday that many player development people will be lopped off the Nationals’ payroll as well.

The Nationals were making some good baseball progress, too, in their rebuild; but all that is out the window now.

The Kirby Situation is a “be careful what you wish for” situation created by the Nerds.

With all the pitch limits (and actually limiting pitchers in their development by ridiculously limiting their pitches in the minor leagues to a low number and limiting their starts), pitchers are getting injured now more than ever. The Nerds are producing Nerd pitchers who can’t, as the Voice said in Field of Dreams, “Go the distance.”

Those pitchers have even convinced themselves they can’t push the envelope.

What pitcher wouldn’t want to stay out there with a lead in a pivotal game against a playoff-level opponent? That’s what competition is all about.

But when you‘ve been told throughout your career that the third time through a lineup is a minefield for a starting pitcher, and you’ve been told that after 90 pitches you’re not the same and you can’t dig any deeper, and you’ve been ordered to empty the tank from the first pitch of the game onward, you come out of a tough game wanting to have a conversation with the manager where you essentially want to say: “I can’t go beyond 90 pitches.”

That is one of the saddest days in baseball.

Imagine Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and so many other great pitchers of the past saying as they walk off the mound and flip the ball to the manager, “Hey Skip, 90 pitches, I’m done. And if you do keep me in this game, it’s your fault if I blow the lead.”

Being a major league manager has become such a degrading job and this is yet another example. Stand up, men. Demand more from your players, including making them work on fundamentals before games instead of working on iPads.

Like Elvis sang: “It’s now or never … tomorrow will be too late.”

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
  • Randy Rorrer

    Great article. The game is evolving, and much of it not appealing to us oldtimers.

    September 10, 2023
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