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Mudville: July 19, 2024 9:21 am PDT

Pitching Ponzi Scheme


Outsourcing starting pitching is a way of life for major league clubs now, and that’s great news for Japanese pitchers who have landed a financial windfall this off-season.

Looking deeper, though, it magnifies what a terrible job MLB is doing in developing starting pitching. Clearly, the methods put in place to develop starting pitching by this generation of GMs are not working.

But nothing is being changed in that system. In fact, the system continues to get worse and what an indictment that is on those running teams. They cannot begin to fix a problem that they’ve created and that has opened the door to mega-contracts from pitchers from Japan, who clearly do not train the same way pitchers in the United States do, because their workouts seem to be more about athleticism.

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That’s only part of it. Japanese pitchers throw the ball more in their workouts than those in MLB. That’s part of what they do. No teams throw as much as the Braves used to throw during the pitching heyday of Greg Maddux & Co.

For some reason, MLB continues to try to develop pitching by having their starting pitchers throw less than they have ever thrown in the history of the game, in both the minors and the major leagues.

It is mind boggling.

If you can’t beat them, outsource them, seems to be the be way of the MLB World these days and the know-nothing owners just just continue to nod their heads, write bigger checks and allow the flawed system to continue.

You would think that owners would say, “Hold on, here. What are we doing to develop starting pitching? How come our starting pitchers aren’t successful?’’

A number of years ago, the Nerds in charge of teams decided to go all-in on the bullpen or bust recipe of success. Starters were put on the back burner. That worked for the Rays, but it really isn’t working for anyone else and even the Rays have hit the wall when it comes to pitching.

Twenty major league teams this past season had a starting pitching ERA over 4.00. The Yankees were 10th at 3.97 and who knows where they would have finished if they had not signed Gerrit Cole after the 2019 season. Only three teams had a starting pitcher ERA under 3.75, the Brewers were No. 1 at 3.71, then came the Padres at 3.73, thanks to Blake Snell, and the Mariners were at 3.74. Four terrible teams managed to have a starting pitchers ERA over 5.00: The Nats, Royals, A’s and Rockies.

The most absurd aspect of all this is that the curtailing of innings and not the study of mechanics and building a repeatable delivery in “teaching’’ pitching at the minor league level, which has led to a starting pitching deficit in the majors.

“It’s the definition of insanity,’’ one top evaluator told BallNine.

You know who doesn’t mind that MLB teams have lost their way. Japanese pitchers don’t mind.

What a bonanza of an off-season has it been for them, starting with two-way star Shohei Ohtani who signed that $700 million deal with the Dodgers. Then there was Yoshinobu Yamamoto who has yet to pitch an inning in the major leagues but was given a $325 million contract by the Dodgers. This week, Japanese left-handed Shota Imanaga signed with the Cubs, a complicated multi-year contract that could pay him as much as $80 million. Ohtani is coming back from Tommy John surgery so it will be a while before he is ready to pitch for the Dodgers. It will be interesting to see if Ohtani goes back to the pitching workout regimen he had in Japan something that changed here in the U.S., once he is able to pitch again.

“Again, what is the definition of insanity? To keep doing the same crap over and over again when it is not working.”

The two top starting pitching free agents Blake Snell, a two-time Cy Young winner, and lefty Jordan Montgomery, have yet to be signed. Some teams have been hesitant to sign Snell simply because the left-hander does not go deep into games. Montgomery probably will head back to Texas. That makes the most sense for him and the Rangers, but we will have to see how this all works out.

Not pitching deep into games seems to be the standard for MLB pitchers as they work their way up from the minors. They are not allowed to go deep into games because of strict pitch counts. So in the effort to keep them on the field, they are taking them off the field.

Makes a lot of sense to me. What do I know, though. I didn’t go to Harvard.

“What an indictment on your own industry,’’ the evaluator said. “You don’t want your own because you can’t develop them.’’

One team went above and beyond in pushing their starters deeper into games this past season and that was the Texas Rangers, who did so well in that respect, they captured their first World Series. In winning the World Series over the Arizona Diamondbacks in five games, the Rangers starting pitching outclassed the Diamondbacks. That was extremely evident in the critical Game 4. The Rangers were leading the Series, 2-1 when Bruce Bochy was able to send starter Andrew Heaney to the mound at Chase Field. The D-Backs countered with a bullpen game, starting lefty reliever Joe Mantiply.

It was no contest. Bochy and the Rangers took a 10-0 lead and went on to win 11-7 as Heaney pitched five innings.

With all that in mind, isn’t it interesting that one of the big signings this off-season for the D-Backs was lefty starter Eduardo Rodriguez to a four-year, $80 million deal. To Mike Hazen’s credit, the Diamondbacks realized they had to go out and get another proven starting pitcher so they signed Rodriguez.

“They had the ability to look in the mirror,’’ one MLB scout said.

Newly acquired Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto (18) smiles during a press conference on December 27, 2023 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The big problem is how all these teams are “readying’’ their minor league starters for the major leagues.

“Where are we developing our pitchers,’’ the evaluator asked.

Good question.

A number of retread starting pitchers have been signed with GMs hoping for bounce back seasons. The Red Sox, who now live among the margins under new baseball boss Craig Breslow, just as they did under former baseball boss Chaim Bloom, who did such a great job with the Red Sox finishing in last place that he was just rewarded with a job by the Cardinals, took a shot on Lucas Giolito, who was 8-15 last year with a 4.88 ERA. Giolito signed a two-year deal good for $38.5 million.

At last count the Reds will bring 11 starting pitchers into camp hoping to find some nuggets of gold. Maybe they will find a rotation in there somewhere.

Even Rob Manfred knows starting pitching must be fixed when he noted in his State of the Baseball Union address: “There’s a lot of fans who feel like the change from ‘Let’s see who today’s pitching matchup is’ to ‘who’s the opener today’ has not been a positive one.’’

If Manfred admits to it being an issue then it is really just about a lost cause.

The Opener is a joke pulled on the game by the Nerds.

It’s one thing to be “concerned’’ but have they changed anything for the better recently when it comes to developing starting pitching?

“No,’’ the evaluator told me. “Again, what is the definition of insanity? To keep doing the same crap over and over again when it is not working. We are not allowing guys to do what Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton and Jim Palmer did. You can’t ask someone to go out and be great as a starting pitcher that has never done it.

“It’s like telling someone, ‘Hey we are going to let you do some 90-yard jogs and then we are going to take you to New York City to run the marathon.’ ‘’

When you don’t develop those starting pitchers then you have to look other places and that is what is going on now. Just like they couldn’t develop starting pitcher they were going to be building strong bullpens to make up for the slack.

The truth is that if you want to have a strong bullpen, you have to have strong starting pitching so you don’t burn out your bullpen and also so Tommy John, the surgery, is not a constant teammate.

Shota Imanaga of the DeNA BayStars pitches against the Hiroshima Carp in their Central League game at Mazda Stadium in Hiroshima, western Japan, on April 21, 2023. Imanaga worked eight scoreless innings in his team's 1-0 win over the Hiroshima Carp in his season debut. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)

They went to strengthen the bullpen but in reality weakened the starting pitching and the bullpens.

I consider all this part of the baseball Ponzi Scheme the owners have allowed to happen because they fell for the foolish promises of the Nerds who do not know how to build starting pitching. It’s really that simple.

All this is one gigantic Pitching Ponzi Scheme.

“And they are still emphasizing throwing hard instead of pitching,so we are having more injuries,’’ the evaluator said. “We pitch less with more injuries. That makes a lot of sense.’’

With more and more money going out the door.

It is so absurd it’s ridiculous.

What are they teaching them in the minors?

“They are not teaching them anything,’’ the evaluator said. “They are scared to death of injuries. What are we going to do here. If you are afraid to let guys get stretched out and throw innings because they may get hurt, we’re never going to develop anybody and we are still going to have injuries.’’

That’s the hard truth.

“That’s where we are now, that is why we had 45,000 missed days at $978 million last year,’’ he added. “And that was just from the 1200 guys in the big leagues.’’

In talking to real baseball people this also came up. Back in the day, teams that built good starting rotations, teams like the Orioles, who once had four 20-game winners in 1971, something we will never see again, they would take their top pitching instructor and place him in Rookie Ball so young pitchers could build a solid foundation and work up the ladder.

Again, makes a lot of sense to me, but I didn’t go to Harvard. Learn the right way early and you get better and better as you develop.

Earl Weaver would take his Rookie League pitching coach and Rookie League manager out to dinner in spring training and tell them: “You two guys are the most important guys in the system. You are going get the guys to teach them what it means to be an Oriole. When they go to Hagerstown the next year that manager will not have to worry about that and you will have built a foundation.’’

And up the ladder the pitchers and players went so by the time they got to Baltimore they really were ready to be an Oriole and all Weaver had to worry about was to manage the game, back when managers actually managed the game.

Absolutely brilliant strategy that has been lost. I will say this, though, Bruce Bochy manages the game and he has the four World Series rings to prove it.

Guys like Hall of Famer Jim Palmer soon learned what it meant to be an Oriole, but it just wasn’t the teaching of the coaches, the Orioles also had the brains to pair up 19-year-old Jim Palmer with 38-year-old pitcher Robin Roberts, a future Hall of Famer, as roommates, back when players had roommates on the road and the teaching would continue there as well.

Smart move.

We still have to see how the new Japanese pitchers do with a major league workload because they pitch more than once a week here. The Mets made it work last year with Kodai Senga who went 12-7 with a 2.98 ERA for a bad team as he pitched 166 innings.

The Padres signed Japanese reliever Yuli Matsui to a five-year, $28 million contract before Christmas.

Once again, let me say, good for the Japanese pitchers.

Will Yamamoto prove himself to be a $325 million pitcher? That’s a big number. That’s one million more than what Gerrit Cole signed for with the Yankees. Over the last four seasons with the Yankees, Cole is 51-23 with a 3.08 ERA. This past season he was 15-4 with a 2.63 ERA over 209 innings.

The Dodgers desperately need starting pitching because so many of their starters wind up injured. Their system has not worked. Their starters produced a 4.06 ERA last season.

At least the Dodgers can write a bigger check.

“It all comes down to starting pitching, it always does,’’ the evaluator said.

And not falling for a Pitching Ponzi Scheme.

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.

  • daniel Radison

    Wow! You always hit the ball !!!
    marlins one start a week. bullpen never two days in a row and scheduled appearances with no situational usage. how about anybody getting jobs because they got a certificate from driveline.( girls included)We had 2 pitchers from driveline. No command just violence .

    January 12, 2024
  • John

    Kevin you do a really good job. I enjoy your articles.
    John hirschbeck

    January 13, 2024
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