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Mudville: July 19, 2024 5:45 pm PDT

Pitching Czar

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Talking Baseball with David Cone is a thought provoking experience.

No one has their pulse on pitching more than David Cone, a vital cog in the terrific ESPN Sunday Night Baseball crew. SNB kicks off the 2024 season Opening Night on Thursday as the Texas Rangers begin their World Series Championship defense against the Chicago Cubs. Then it is officially Sunday Night Baseball on March 31 when the Dodgers host the Cardinals.

Cone, 61, has both mound cred and booth cred, an enlightening combination.

He pitched 17 years in the majors, won an AL Cy Young award in 1994 with the Royals and was more than worthy as well in 1988 to win the NL Cy Young with the Mets when he produced a 22-3 season with a 2.22 ERA – but Orel Hershiser put together a season for the ages to win the award.

Cone made 419 crafty starts over his major league career, threw 22 shutouts and 56 complete games as he compiled a 194-126 record with a 3.46 ERA. Eight seasons the right-hander hit the 200-innings mark. Last year, in all of baseball, there were only 35 complete games, and 11 teams could not even muster one lonely complete game.

That is where we are with the sad state of pitching in Major League Baseball. On the mound, injuries continue to plague teams. Cone loves the game and loves to talk pitching so I could not wait to ask him on Monday in a conference call with Cone, Eduardo Perez and Karl Ravech what the heck is going on?

Is the system broken?

Every team is suffering from significant pitching injuries.

Pitchers rarely finish what they start. A key element of the game has been drastically changed. The Chase for Velocity and other modern pitching methods have created a cruel reality where pitchers are not expected to finish what they start or come close to the finish line and even worse, it has become a truth in the game that at some point most of these pitchers will get injured and many of them will need Tommy John surgery.

How can baseball survive in this fashion?

To his credit, Cone met my question head on. That is standard operating procedure for David Cone, when he was on the mound and now in the broadcast booth. Cone speaks from the pitching heart.

“I think the craftsmanship that we grew up watching is going to come back into play. Certainly, the Chase for Velocity has changed everything.’’ – David Cone

“I believe it is going to come full circle, I really do,’’ Cone began, offering hope in this turbulent sea of pitching failure. “I think the craftsmanship that we grew up watching is going to come back into play. Certainly, the Chase for Velocity has changed everything. The maximum effort type style that we see, the lack of a third time through the order. The lack of finesse from starting pitchers certainly is something that has kind of come to roost, so to speak. I think the value of pitchers who can get through three times in the order, who can get deeper into the games, starting pitchers who can give you innings, that is such a residual effect on the entire roster, on the entire pitching staff, that if you don’t have those guys, you really are in trouble on the major league level. In a long season you are going to get worn down, bullpens are going to get worn out, it’s hard just to trot a group of three-inning pitchers out there and certainly that is the theory, make no bones about it.

“I had this talk with Gabe Kapler last year and I think Eduardo and Karl were there too and Gabe sort of admitted that if they could re-imagine the way we use pitching staffs, we’d have a collection of three-inning pitchers,’’ Cone said, offering a glimpse of the behind the scenes work that takes place before a broadcast.

“We would just have hard throwers, one time through the order, maximum effort,’’ Cone said of that Mad Max method of pitching. “Go as hard as you can as long as you can then we’ll get you out of there and replace you with the next best guy. That kind of strategy, I think is not only hard to sustain, but it is not entertaining.

“We’re in the entertainment business,’’ Cone said, on a roll now, “and I think that is the part if you are uber efficient from an analytics standpoint then sometimes that is not the most entertaining way to go about it. And fans like to know that there is a battle for a starting pitcher to stay in that game and that can really be a storyline that is good to follow, that always has been good to follow and it’s kind of been lost.”

The ESPN ``Sunday Night Baseball`` booth (from left) David Cone, Karl Ravech and Eduardo Perez. (Photo Adam Hagy / ESPN Images)

“Long story short, I believe it is coming full circle. I believe there is a place in this game for veteran pitchers, especially for guys who can give you innings, for guys who understand their craft, for guys who develop a finesse who can spot fastballs and change speeds. I still believe there is a place in the game for that, I think it is going to come back around and get in vogue again.’’

It must come back. This current style can’t sustain in the game or in the fan base. Fans need to root for their guys. Fans need to feel there is a rainbow ahead and not just a game filled with mathematical equations and heartless front offices that essentially want max velo robots on the mound.

After answering my question so eloquently, I have another question:

Can David Cone go right from the broadcast booth and become the MLB’s Pitching Czar?

Just think about it. Someone in MLB offices needs to be looking out for the best interests of pitching. And, of course, not just in the majors, but the minor leagues too. Pitching philosophies must change. This is not just an MLB problem, this is a baseball problem at every level of the game.

Start with MLB. MLB needs such a person, someone who has been there, done that like David Cone, and wants to see what is best for the game and – just as importantly – wants what is best for fans and what is best for pitchers in the long run of a major league 162-game season before the real fun starts in October. Someone who also sees some value in new methods.

Chasing Velocity is like a dog chasing its tail. Going nowhere. We need more David Cone and his pitching thoughts, so I asked: What about the carnage of injuries and how pitchers are just looked upon as assets. Do they care about these pitchers?

David Cone poses for a photo prior to a game between the New York Yankees and the Houston Astros at Yankee Stadium on June 24, 2022 in The Bronx.(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

“The problem runs so deep it is on the amateur level now,’’ Cone said. “In order to even get scouted or even get signed maybe to a college program, you’ve got to chase velocity. You are not even going to get looked at or scouted unless you meet a certain threshold in terms of arm strength. We are understanding more about biomechanics, how the body moves, some of the analytics within the pitching realm are really good, the high-speed cameras, studying the spin, how the ball spins, how the seams are oriented. I think there is a lot of good stuff there, the pitchers are learning a lot from and how to pitch design, but certainly the chase for velocity has brought the pitchers right up to the edge of maximum effort, maximum limits, ultimate stress on your ligaments, more injuries. That’s just where we are nowadays.

“It’s hard to sort of unscale it, to go all the way back to a Little League level to say, ‘Hey guys, it’s okay if you learn your craft. It’s okay if you have good control first and you hit your spots because they’re being taught right now you have to chase velocity, you have to light up the radar gun. We’ve got parents with radar guns in the stands in their iPhones. ‘Hey that was 89 miles per hour, c’mon you can do a little bit better.’ The emphasis on that has certainly led to more injuries.’’

Just to remind people, David Cone was not a max velocity guy.

“No … I was in for the long haul,’’ Cone answered. “I was allowed to throw 120 or 130 pitches in a game. If I got to the 100 pitch mark I knew I had more left in the tank and that is where the finesse comes in, that’s when you learn your craft when you do get a little bit fatigued, then you back off a little bit. You learn how to finesse a little bit more now. Those pitchers are not allowed to do that anymore. The minute you get to 100 pitches, it’s sort of like, ‘You know what? We got somebody else who is ready to throw 98 miles per hour and we are going to bring him in.’

“I get it,’’ Cone said. “If I was managing a game and I got somebody down there in middle relief throwing 98 miles per hour, I’d probably get him in the game too.’’

David Cone and sportswriter Ed Lucas attend the 2019 David Cone Celebrity Charity Golf Classic at Brooklake Country Club on August 19, 2019 in Florham Park, New Jersey. (Photo by Bobby Bank/Getty Images)

Unfortunately, that is the harsh reality of playing the numbers game every game, the entire game. The human element is removed. It’s also become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts because look at how starting pitchers are handled in the minor leagues in this day and age. They are not built for the long haul.

That is the time to stretch them out and at the same time learn their craft, but young pitchers have strict pitch limits in the minors and in most cases are not able to essentially go past a limited threshold and learn how to pitch through fatigue. Then by the time they get to the majors they don’t have the ability to navigate trouble or even pace themselves in the hopes of extending their outing. Those hard-throwing middle relievers must be called upon because the starting pitchers haven’t been allowed to figure it out.

They must paint by numbers given to them. Don’t dare go outside the lines.

Just to be clear, I would have no problem with the Chasing Velocity routine if it worked and if it kept pitchers healthy, but it is not working. Pitching injuries have overwhelmed the game.

Injuries mark the season and already there are so many pitching injuries with some of the highest paid pitchers on the shelf for Opening Day it is ridiculous. I’m not going through the list again of super wealthy pitchers on the shelf, including Shohei Ohtani, who just began some light throwing after undergoing his second elbow surgery.

Just look at the AL East. The Yankees and Red Sox used to control the division but times have changed. Both have been hit with injuries. Ace Gerrit Cole is down for the Yankees and free agent Lucas Giolito is down and out for the Red Sox.

“Losing Giolito is a huge blow for them,’’ Cone said of the Red Sox. “They need some veteran presence in that rotation. Pitching is going to be tough for them but on the position player side they have a good nucleus potentially brewing.’’

Pitching is going to be tough for a lot of teams. The new ways have produced some positives but just looking at the numbers and what starting pitchers now produce compared to what they used to produce and it is obvious the system is failing. Throw in the fact that the hitters have never been easier to strike out than this generation because of their launch angle, exit velocity, one size fits all approach to hitting. If more pitchers learned their craft and did it in a way where they could remain healthy it would be such a benefit to the game.

David Cone does a phenomenal job in the booth, but I would love to see Cone, in addition to his TV work, at least sit on a task force to investigate what is going wrong in the pitching world and how it could be changed for the better.

Just think of the money teams could save if they could keep their pitchers relatively healthy and how much more interesting the product would be in Major League Baseball.

It’s time to find a Pitching Czar for the good of the game. I nominate David Cone.

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
  • Kevin,
    ‘Coney’ is the last of the creative pitchers I have seen in the past 30-40 years. Greg Maddux was more precise but ‘Coney’ would invent pitches ‘on the fly’. Really enjoyed covering his games from the booth . I hope MLB is smart enough to tap into his knowledge. I hope he’s right about going back to be a ‘craftsman’. I still have doubts. I’m glad you did this column on him to make people aware of his knowledge of pitching

    March 27, 2024
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