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Mudville: July 19, 2024 7:44 pm PDT

Iceberg Ahead

BY KEVIN KERNAN

In baseball, much like in life, you reap what you sow.

The epidemic of arm injuries is crushing baseball like never before because of the changes made to the game by Rob Manfred and the insane chasing of velocity and spin rate, demanded by those in charge of teams. Add to that recipe for disaster the pitch clock, and you have even more of a mess.

But wait, didn’t Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton and other pitching studs from yesteryear work fast? Yes, they did, the clock by itself is not the issue. Those pitchers did work fast, but they trained to work fast by running and building up their legs, something this generation of pitchers is not doing because those in charge, scoff at the old-time value of running poles or running in general.

As a result, 2024 pitchers are not conditioned for this pitch clock world. The hits keep on coming. In a week of terrible pitching injury news, the Reds’ Tejay Antone was one of the latest to go down. The Reds originally announced the injury as “elbow inflammation. Turns out Antone tore the tendon completely off the bone and suffered a partial ligament tear in his right elbow and will have to undergo Tommy John surgery on Friday.

This will be Antone’s third Tommy John surgery. His first came in 2017, his second in 2021. The Reds have suffered a great many pitching injuries the last few years.

Another day, another pitching injury and on Tuesday the Nationals’ Josiah Gray was expected to start – but was placed on the injured list with the dreaded flexor strain. Same for the Red Sox’ Nick Pivetta.

Josiah Gray #40 of the Washington Nationals pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the fifth inning at Nationals Park on April 04, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jess Rapfogel/Getty Images)

Shane Bieber, Eury Perez and Spencer Strider can relate.

Maybe this is what they mean in Field of Dreams when the Voice says: “Ease his pain.’’

This generation of leadership in MLB thinks it knows everything. The reality is this generation knows nothing about how to keep pitchers healthy.

“This is only the tip of the iceberg,’’ one longtime talent evaluator and former pitcher told BallNine on Tuesday of the surge of pitching injuries. “We’re going to hit rock bottom. We may think we are at rock bottom, but we are not even close.’’

Another former pitcher and manager told me: “Remember off seasons? When we wouldn’t touch a baseball for like two or three months. Guys don’t do it anymore. They are chasing down velo programs.’’

And in the end, losing the grunting, heaving, weighted balls throwing race.

This generation of MLB leadership, the Know It All (KIA) generation, has created an injury monster. And this is a generational monster because in the past, in the Yelling At Clouds (YAC) generation, those pitchers were smart enough to shut it down for a few months and had wise, veteran coaches guiding them to condition the legs and other drills done on the field. That generation of pitchers and pitching coaches knew the value of rest and recovery, too. That generation did not participate in heaving weighted balls and max out fastballs and breaking balls held so tight, as one former pitching coach said, “You just crank the shit out of your elbow.’’

Of course, here at BallNine we have been warning of this catastrophe for years.

Pitchers don’t pitch anymore, they throw. And get injured.

…Yes it is somebody’s fault, Justin, those running the show. Take some blame all the new front offices and all you certified pitching gurus.

Now, others are speaking up like Justin Verlander, who called it a “pandemic.’’ For this to be fixed the players had better speak up and not just throw out a weak statement condemning the pitch clock. It’s much more than the pitch clock, fellas.

Verlander wisely pointed out many issues on Monday, saying, “The game has changed a lot. It would be easy to blame the pitch clock. In reality, you put everything together and everything has a little bit of influence. I think the biggest thing is the style of pitching has changed so much. Everybody is throwing as hard as they possibly can and spinning the ball as hard as they possibly can … Something needs to change … When the ball started to change back in 2016 and they started flying out a bit more frequently, that changed how I approached pitching. I want swing and miss.

“You throw that into the mix, you throw analytics into the mix and you throw the pitch clock in the mix and it all kind of adds up. It’s unfortunate. I don’t know how we rewind the clock,’’ Verlander said. “Maybe there is some sort of way to incentivize starting pitchers going deeper into games… let’s navigate a lineup, those are conversations that are not had anymore. Nobody’s fault …Right now, the third time through a lineup they are looking for an excuse to take you out. I can’t sit here and blame anybody.’’

I can. And yes it is somebody’s fault, Justin, those running the show. Take some blame all the new front offices and all you certified pitching gurus.

It’s time to rewind the clock.

“There were approximately 900 roster and non-roster pitchers in spring training in major league camps,’’ one scout noted. “At the end of spring training, 216 of them landed on the disabled list to start the season. Within the first seven days of the season, another 25 ended up on the injured list and it is growing every day.’’

Incredible.

Ever so slightly I am witnessing some pitchers having the good sense to fight back by cutting back their velocity just a bit as the Yankees Nestor Cortes did on Monday in a 7-0 win over the Marlins. Nasty Nestor got back to being nasty with late movement, using the less is more velocity philosophy. Cortes made it through eight innings. He surrendered two hits and did not walk a batter. Granted, it was against the Marlins whose new leadership may be the most analytical driven group around.

A scout at the game said: “Cortes pitched to contact all night, he was ahead of every hitter. He was breaking bats at 89-90 miles per hour. That’s good. He threw eight innings, he threw 102 pitches. He could have thrown the last inning, too.’’

It’s up to pitchers to protect themselves because nobody else will. There always will be some officially certified “pitching guru’’ who is going to drive for more velocity, drive for more spin and it will be the pitchers left holding the bag; or should I say holding the ice pack or holding the sling, the sling they wear after Tommy John surgery.

Keep grunting and slinging it against the wall.

“Rob Manfred needs to listen to baseball people,’’ the evaluator said.

That would be a fine start instead of listening to his Manfred Minions.

The problem is much deeper than Major League Baseball and minor league baseball.

“We need to create an educational system for parents and kids,’’ the evaluator, a former pitcher said. “We have to get away from value with velocity only. As Verlander said, put some emphasis back into pitch-ability, guys who can manipulate a lineup three times through, guys who know how to pitch, guys who can get outs. Incentivize that. Right now we have created our own monster. The radar gun became the measuring stick for how much your signing bonus is and then if that wasn’t bad enough, we had to add the spin rate and the shape monsters that came in from the Nerd side.’’

Thanks, Nerds, you’re doing a bang-up job.

A lot of that pitching template was created by people who didn’t pitch or listen to those who did pitch and did coach.

As my friend Dave Dagostino, who played pro ball, coached college baseball and is currently coaching youth basketball and baseball, said, “We just need baseball guys directing traffic a little bit.’’

That’s all it takes, Nerds. Let baseball guys direct traffic.

Essentially, these pitchers have allowed others to take over the thinking for them, others who do not rely on the expertise of people who actually succeeded as major league pitchers or pitching coaches. It would be like getting on a plane and being okay with a certified guru pilot. Instead of getting hours actually flying a plane, that pilot got certified at a warehouse located in an industrial park.

And parents, you can do better. One of the best things Verlander said, and, by the way, kudos to the reporter who asked Verlander the question that got him rolling, was that young arms need to be nurtured not exploited.

Said Verlander of the exploitation of young arms throwing “as hard as they can at 10 years old. I sure as hell didn’t do that. I didn’t figure it out until college when I matured into my body. If I came up in today’s world, I don’t know what would happen.’’

College is where he found success. “It wasn’t because I did some program to make me throw harder,’’ Verlander said.

One longtime coach told BallNine: “These parents believe that they have to have their kids going all out, all the time in baseball.’’

And what about not being allowed to pitch three times through the order?

“The whole time you are developing in the minor leagues if you never have an opportunity to do that, how are we going to learn how to do that,’’ the evaluator said. “How did Bob Gibson learn how to do that and Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer? They learned how to do it in the minor leagues. You learn how to pitch when you are tired and make pitches. You never hear anybody talk anymore about guys who make pitches, guys who have good command.’’

Javier Assad #72 of the Chicago Cubs pitches during the first inning of a game against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park on April 08, 2024 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Minor league pitchers are on such strict pitch limits they barely are allowed to break a sweat. The pitch count in the majors is there so people in charge have a ready-made excuse when to take out a pitcher. The Cubs managed to blow an 8-0 lead against the Padres by panicking and taking out their starter who gave up a two-run home run in the sixth inning with that lead on Monday. That made it 8-2: time for the Bullpen Parade instead of letting the starter Javier Assad navigate through a bit of trouble. By the time the bullpen inning ended the Padres had scored seven runs. The Padres won it when the Cubs Albert Alzolay surrendered a two-run home run to Xander Bogaerts in the eighth. Good thing the Cubs are paying Craig Counsell $40 million to manage.

The Cubs faded last year because their over-worked bullpen faded, that happens a lot in baseball these days. That’s what happens when you take the human element out of the game and think players are robots.

Every owner listens to all this BS and allows this to happen; again, you reap what you sow.

“I appreciate the doctors that are weighing in but none of them ever pitched,’’ the talent evaluator said. “Doctors have become a big part of the protocol that organizations are now following. There was a whole generation of pitchers that used to stay healthy by going out and pitching and throwing between starts and having good mechanics and learning how to be a starting pitcher that got themselves deep into games and unfortunately, we are not doing that anymore. My analogy is that I would like to have somebody who could run a marathon but I’m only going to let them run 15-yard sprints for four or five years in the minor leagues and then go say, ‘run the marathon, get me into the seventh inning.’ ’’

That is how absurd this has all become in 2024, The Year of the Elbow, which reminds me of my “Exploding Elbows’’ column written last August at BallNine, after Shohei Ohtani hurt his elbow again. Two surgeries are the charm, until they are not. And get this, 93 pro pitchers got TJ surgery last year. In the 1990s there were 109 pro pitchers who got TJ surgery, according to Baseball Doesn’t Exist on X. So one year, last year, matched nearly 10 years in the 90s. Who is in charge of this mess?

Not baseball people.

“Pitchers don’t run anymore,’’ the scout said, diagnosing one issue. “They spend too much time in the weight room. They spend too much time with the weighted ball. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, I went to high school, but I spent 48 years in professional baseball. In 2009 I said I could revolutionize pitching?’’

How?

“Get rid of the radar gun,’’ he answered. “Take it away from your scouts, take it away from your minor leagues and reward people who get outs and know how to pitch.’’

In 1995, the scout was with four other quality baseball people, a farm director, a legendary scout, a former player and a former executive, one person being the terrific scout Tom Giordano, in Syracuse watching a game. In the ‘90s every scout had to start carrying a radar gun. “They all said, ‘I’ve never been wrong on so many damn pitchers since I got this f-ing radar gun because it’s leading me down a road where I am looking at that and saying, ‘Wow, this guy throws hard,’ instead of watching guys pitch.’ ’’

It’s time to turn back the clock to go forward. Get experienced baseball people back in charge of baseball, hire people who have been there before, people who know baseball, who taught their players to answer the bell.

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
  • 100 percent. If we get back to pitching, we could solve this issue. We need somebody to interview Mickey Lolich. That dude did just fine. He worked quickly, never got injured one year, he threw 376 innings. Another year, he had 328 and those numbers are off the top of my head. And, those were the days of 4 man staffs.

    I love the pitch clock. The MLBPA will fight it forever because MLB mandated it and didn’t need their approval. That’s the only reason they oppose it–defiance for the sake of defiance. If the pitch clock goes, I’m probably done watching MLB because I still think the game is slow—not enough balls in play these days.

    Call Mickey Lolich—-please

    April 10, 2024
  • Lee Seras

    As the scout who signed Josiah Gray for the Cincy Reds in 2018, (a good athlete and for 2 years, the starting SS at LeMoyne College before converting to P only in 2018), I fully concur with many of the statements contained in the recent article on pitching. As a former HS and college head coach, a 25 year MLB scout, and published author on pitching and hitting in several national baseball/ coaching publications, I can attest to the past 2 decades emphasis on pitchers’ velocities, spin rates, and other analytical data.
    No doubt, certain aspects of analytics can be used to gain knowledge about players which can be used for game management purposes. But, sadly, in recent years, with the advent of extended social media, Trackman and video analysis, many younger players have become enveloped by the emphasis placed on velocities, tilts/angles, spins on both pitched/batted balls. Many times, the quest for attaining certain levels of pitches and hits, has often lessened the emphasis placed on employing basic mechanics to gain favorable results without overtaxing body parts.
    No doubt, many will label me and other “experienced” baseball people as “old school” when citing basic mechanics for both pitching and hitting giving way to overthrowing and over swinging in attempts to gain acclaim for distance, carry, speed on batted/pitched baseballs. And, no doubt, for those involved in higher levels of college/pro baseball who are trying to get the top players, the emphasis placed on the above-stated qualities of thrown and hit baseballs becomes high priority. Many times, as a long-time MLB scout, I have been asked “did you see so and so throw?” If my response is “yes,” then the next questions is, overwhelmingly, ” how hard did so and so throw?” Sadly, I wish the main question to be, “did so and so command the K-zone, throw strikes, and get hitters out?” This last question should be the KEY point of emphasis regarding pitchers’ performances and to a large degree, having correct mechanics (ie., quick lift to balance, quick/short downward hand separation as proper stride direction occurs, and lead arm/elbow full pull down past lead side rib area) is critical, to a great degree, for pitchers to have success. For pitchers being sought after by MLB clubs, ultimately, the ability “key”
    point cited above, becomes vastly important, for as pitchers move up to the higher levels of pro ball, they encounter hitters who have seen and continue to see velocity and who have learned, to some extent, to lay off the bad velo and take on velo against which they can make consistent contact. Thus, pitchers at the high levels of pro baseball, must be able to move pitches in, up, down, and at edges of the K-zone and change speeds/alter directions of pitches to gain advantage over hitters faced.
    Aside from having had many reps vs. higher level pitchers, hitters, from a strong load position start, and making short, “down to ball” attacks with lower to upper body synch in starting and finishing swing are key elements in producing success on the offensive side.
    SO, it is greatly important for BOTH pitchers and hitters to establish basic, logical mechanics in their quest to attain highest levels of play. No doubt, there are excellent athletes who have their own various idiosyncracies and/or strength to attain success without consistently applying commonly accepted basic mechanics. But, for the general population of baseball pitchers and hitters, use of basic mechanical essentials most likely help on the path to success!

    April 11, 2024
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