Common Sense Comeback
BY KEVIN KERNAN
Common Sense needs to be baseball’s Comeback Player of the Year in 2024.
That is my New Year’s wish for MLB.
It certainly worked for the Texas Rangers, who won their first World Series in 2023, and it will work for other teams too. Bring in talent, play like a team, develop some young players, have a masterful veteran manager with expert baseball common sense lead them like Bruce Bochy did, and good things will happen.
Play every play to the situation, not the numbers.
Too much of the game has shifted to analytics and not what is really happening on the field, on the job maneuvers, and it starts with the way young players are being taught the game.
For so many organizations, the essence of “team” has been lost; it’s all about self-indulgent numbers.
Essentially, MLB teams have outsourced their own game. Teams have given way to outside MLB facilities, and a kind of groupthink within their own organizations that has pushed actual coaching and team commitment aside.
That’s why in this week’s Baseball or Bust I am proposing significant changes to how teams run their show. In Texas, Chris Young made it all about the team. Much the same was done in Arizona on a much smaller budget, and both teams wound up in the World Series.
That should be the template for teams; it works with high payroll or low payroll if you make it about T-E-A-M. Make that the centerpiece of your game. I think the Orioles are trying to instill team into their talent and not just individual metrics. The Yankees appear to be heading in a better direction as well; certainly by trading for Juan Soto they have added more talent and given the fact that Soto is playing for a massive contract, he should not be a clubhouse negative as was the case in San Diego where it all went so wrong.
With the way Shohei Ohtani structured his $700 million contract for the Dodgers he put team first, so there are some encouraging signs across baseball. The Phillies also emphasized team and that carried them to the NLCS before they were ambushed in the desert when they suddenly tried to do everything individually – and that was the end of them.
Imagine if the Phillies add Blake Snell to the rotation after retaining Aaron Nola. The Phillies were in on Yoshinobu Yamamoto, so it only makes sense to go all in on the two-time Cy Young winner, who has actually pitched in the major leagues.
What needs to happen now, though, is what I call The Lost Teams, teams like the Pirates, Royals, and Tigers, have to make a commitment to team. Forget about the shiny object that is analytics and play baseball: hit, run, steal, play defense, and of course pitch. Don’t sell your owner on some magical algorithm, sell them on building a better team.
The lack of team discipline and personal discipline by so many teams has created a mess in baseball.
That is a good way to put it, baseball has become a bunch of independent contractors.
On Wednesday I had a wonderful conversation with a lifetime baseball man who has seen it all. He said that young players, when they get drafted and signed, should focus more on group discipline sessions as much as baseball. Combine the two in an almost military fashion.
“In that way,’’ he insisted, “young players will learn what a team is all about.’’
Now I’m not saying you go back to the barracks life that was once Dodgertown in Vero Beach. But don’t be afraid to demand more discipline from your players, don’t be afraid to teach the value of teamwork over self.
“When I first signed, our tenets were military based, they were disciplines, everything was about respect and discipline and something bigger than yourself,’’ the baseball man said. “You have to have your teammates’ backs. Now, everybody is an independent contractor.’’
That is a good way to put it, baseball has become a bunch of independent contractors.
Most metrics are individually based and something as simple as exit velo can misshape a team. When it’s all about exit velo, the simple act of putting a ball in play any way you can to move up a runner or score a runner from third base with less than two outs is lost.
Every bit of contact does not have to be 97 mph or higher off the bat.
Another story I heard recently involved the Yankees’ minor leagues in their “Hit Strikes Hard’’ Era, which ironically is now the game they are playing up in Boston. We will see how all this works out for the Red Sox, a Rich Lost Team, a team that has finished in last place three of the last four years.
In any event, a “coach’’ stood behind the Yankees’ minor league cage during batting practice and was reading out the exit velo of every ball hit in BP. I’ve watched enough BP sessions to know what Tony Gwynn did worked or what Derek Jeter did worked. It’s not always about the exit velo, it’s about doing something for your teammate, moving him along 90 feet.
In the end batting average is important as well.
“Teams that win the World Series or the Super Bowl, those guys truly end up loving each other and having each other’s back,’’ the baseball whisperer told me.
That’s the key.
Kelly Johnson #33, Derek Jeter #2, and Brian Roberts #14 of the New York Yankees stand in honor of the death of Tony Gwynn before the game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on June 17, 2014 in the Bronx.. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
A lot of people in charge of teams these days have no concept of team-based reality. That’s why when you hear comments from different GMs or presidents of baseball operations, they all sound alike; it’s what I call AI Leadership.
Try being a human being.
Bruce Bochy is a human being. He does not always follow a pre-planned script.
Push players to be their best. Push pitchers to go beyond their pre-set limits that were dreamed up in a lab. Have a Mike Maddux around that understands and can teach pitching mechanics.
It’s been written here before but it is worth repeating as a way to reset the mindset going into 2024: “We are stifling greatness,’’ the baseball man said, bringing up the fact that teams will never again have four 20-game winners like the Orioles once had.
How about one 20-game winner? That’s how far the pitching game has fallen. Wins, and learning how to win, have been so devalued they are not even on the radar anymore. That’s crazy.
I would love to hear a top pitcher come out before the season and say, “My goal is to win 20 games.’’
It’s not just about keeping your team in the game, it’s about winning the game. It’s about having the pride to win. Current teaching methods are not emphasizing winning.
Make wins important again for pitchers. Make that a goal.
The same thing with position players and contracts that are being handed out. As the baseball man said about some of the $10 million a year contracts to free agents this year, “You used to have to be able to hit a little bit, too.’’
There is the hint of change in the air.
“I believe it’s going to take a while,’’ the baseball man said, “but I believe they have to make a commitment to teaching again at the minor league level so the players that get to the big leagues actually know how to play.’’
That would be progress.
Some of the many basic miscues last season were hard to believe; and this was actually in a major league game. Listen, mistakes happen, but the mental mistakes are off the charts – even something as simple as showing up on time is an issue as newest Yankee Alex Verdugo learned last year when he was benched by Alex Cora. Now Verdugo is on his third team with the third chance to make a first impression as he runs the big market parade of having played for the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Yankees. Both Verdugo and Soto need to spend quality time with Aaron Judge in spring training to get their acts right; do that and the Yankees will be much better off. It’s not just about talent, it’s about preparation, being in top shape, and thinking of team, not just yourself.
This is why the Yankees had to re-sign Judge. He sets the standard as much as Corey Seager and Marcus Semien set the standard for the Rangers’ position players and Nate Eovaldi sets the standard for Rangers’ pitchers. Don’t underestimate their value to the team. Seager’s a two-time World Series MVP, learned from his older brother Kyle, who was a class act with the Mariners that I dealt with often in my travels to Seattle.
Leadership and discipline play in all sports, but especially baseball because it is such a mental grind day after day after day. Be humble. “Baseball is a very unforgiving game and every time you show up somebody, it can come back and bite you in the ass,’’ our baseball man wisely said.
The Mets were such an atrocity last year that Steve Cohen had to play $101 million in luxury tax for that lost season. It’s difficult to see what the Mets are doing this offseason to get better. Maybe they are sitting back waiting for the Phillies and Braves to age. The Braves have always had a team discipline concept going back to the days of Bobby Cox, and I vividly remember Chipper Jones telling me he learned early on in his Braves career to never put sunglasses on the brim of his cap because they would cover up the Braves logo – and that was a no-no.
That was a little thing, but it was a big thing in Braves’ world.
Instead of buying “stars,’’ our baseball man asked, “How about we try to develop some stars. If I have some pieces of clay who have really good arms and they have some intelligence, teach them how to pitch. Teach them how to go deeper in games, teach them how to be more competitive.’’
I would add to that, demand more. Trust more.
There is no better example than how the Yankees did not allow left-hander Jordan Montgomery to develop as a pitcher. Once he got to the Cardinals and then the Rangers, he was a much more successful pitcher than he ever was with the Yankees. They allowed him to blossom. Now he is a free agent, and the Yankees may take a second shot at him.
Kevin Kernan's Hot Stove award from 2010
The lesson for the Yankees here, if they are willing to look in the mirror, is that there is no metric that measures heart and competitiveness. Takes the human element to see what is inside of a pitcher. I remember talking to Montgomery after games as a Yankee early in his career, and it was obvious to me that this young pitcher had a desire to win that was huge.
And again, the big word is trust. The Yankees never showed the trust in Montgomery to allow him to reach his potential.
Don’t just outsource your decisions to metrics or Driveline; have your baseball people, your scouts and coaches evaluate. And while we are at it, congratulations to Yankees longtime scout Matt Hyde, who will be honored as Scout of the Year at the NY Pro Baseball Scouts Hot Stove League dinner on Jan. 19 at Leonard’s of Great Neck, always a tremendous cocktail hour and dinner and a sure sign that spring training is right around the corner. No tickets will be sold at the door. Email Billy Blitzer at email@example.com for more information. David Cone will be honored, as well as many others.
Get back to basics. Get back to scouts and coaches.
“We’re outsourcing everything,’’ the baseball man said. He added that he remembers hearing an interview from about four years ago with a current GM who was enamored by an outside facility’s ways and said, “There are people in facilities all over this country who are teaching as well if not better than we have traditionally, and we need to utilize it.’’
Now there is nothing wrong with looking at a situation from another vantage point so I have no problem with that; but you can’t just cast your baseball people aside. Let them in on the action and the decisions.
What I have seen from MLB organizations of recent years is there is too much groupthink and not enough questioning from within of decisions made. Too much playing nice instead of “Hey, why the heck are we doing this?’’
People are afraid to rock the boat.
I say, rock the boat. Demand more, teach more, don’t be afraid to hurt your players’ feelings in an effort for self-growth, and above all, let your coaches coach. Let the Ron Washingtons of the world do their thing; and now Washington is managing the Angels, a perennial Lost Team. I’m interested to see how that works out and if a manager can help a meddling owner.
“There needs to be more realism in the game,’’ our baseball man concluded. “There are too many hucksters in the game now. The commissioner (Rob Manfred) is the Head Huckster. Just look at all the different uniforms. I’m so sick of the Sunday uniform, the Friday uniform, and on and on.’’
The Head Huckster just knocked two seconds off the Pitch Clock with men on base, something the players on the competition committee that is stacked in ownership’s favor did not want to do. Instead of worrying about that, worry about finding ways to keep your pitchers healthy.
Who cares that from April to September games increased by seven minutes?
Teach young pitchers to work fast like they used to work, get their minds set on getting outs, using proper mechanics, and not just on spin rate and velocity.
Bring Common Sense back to the game in 2024, and baseball wins.