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Mudville: July 23, 2024 11:52 am PDT

Three Card Monte

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Perhaps it is the old hitter in me, but I hate to give credit to pitchers. Just not in my nature.

It’s like what Barry Bonds said when he was asked by Derek Jeter what would you do against Satchel Paige?

“Gone!’’ Bonds responded.

Barry didn’t even have to think about it. That’s Barry Bonds. I remember Bonds giving me a hitting tip on how he punches with the back hand and arm, not really a swing, a punch. I passed that on to my daughter, Kelly, and it helped her tremendously in her college softball career.

Many years later in spring training in Jupiter I mentioned that tip to Bonds and how my daughter took the advice to heart and put it into practice.

Barry smiled and said, “Just send me a check.’’

Hitters love to get over on pitchers.

So perhaps that is why I have so much trouble swallowing the current narrative that pitching has never been better. Everywhere you look now someone is talking about it on TV or writing about the mastery of MLB pitchers. Meanwhile, I’m seeing teams score 11 runs in a game, I see more middle-middle mistakes than I have ever seen. I’m seeing loss of command and lots and lots of walks.

Geez, the Mets, who aren’t even a .500 team, have scored 10 runs in a game five times over their last 19 games, heading into their 8-1, 14-strikeout Saturday loss to the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

These pitchers are not better. Granted, there is more grunting in 2024 from the pitching mound, more spin from relievers and more out of control velocity, but these pitchers are not better. Where is the command?

What’s happened is many, many hitters don’t battle as they once did during an at-bat.

So please stop with the nonsense.

Just look at all the takes for strike three right down the middle with a fastball. Hitters are taking their “A’’ swing at all times or are taking no swing if they guess wrong, they take strike three, proudly walk back to the dugout as if they accomplished something and move onto the next at-bat.

So, when I read batting average is nearing an all-time low – this week the average batting average in the major leagues was a pathetic .241 – I am not singing the praises of pitchers like others are, I’m saying, hitters get your freakin’ act together.

The Shift was sent away to some deserted island by Rob Manfred but that didn’t help hitters the way the rule changers wanted to help the hitters. You know why, it just encouraged the big swingers and misses to keep on swinging big. No downside of grounding out anymore to that extra infielder on the power side. In fact, the no shift empowered hitters to not be hitters, spraying the ball all over the field, it gave they another reason to swing from their ass.

You zig when they zag.

That’s the way the game used to be played when winning was the only goal. But now the goals and the goal posts have changed. For hitters, now it is all about exit velocity because that is what the Nerds are stressing. It’s not where you hit it, it’s how hard you hit it, and for some reason I cannot begin to fathom, when you don’t hit it at all, you are not penalized in MLB 2024.

Zero exit velocity should bring down your exit velocity.

It’s become so ridiculous, now they measure the speed of your bat even if you don’t hit anything.

You know, if frogs had wings, they wouldn’t bump their asses every time they jump.

“Skip, what are we going to do about Smitty, he keeps striking out?’’

“That’s okay, the analytics say he is getting some really good bat speed.”

“Yeah, but he’s not hitting anything, he’s hitting .205.’’

“Yeah, but a deep dive into the numbers tell us he is generating upper echelon bat speed. Just wait until he makes contact and then we can measure his xBA (expected batting average) when he does make contact for an out.’’

“But he is still hitting .205”

All this, I lump into the new front office philosophy I call: “If frogs had wings.’’

You know, if frogs had wings, they wouldn’t bump their asses every time they jump.

That’s the world a lot of teams live in these days, bumping their asses, something I addressed in a recent column because so many teams were playing under .500 baseball. It used to be about winning. That’s what mattered.

Now it’s about excuses.

It’s all about the excuses.

Here is one. Hitters aren’t having as much success now because outfielders are playing deeper than they have ever played. The combination of that and ballparks being smaller,

less room for the ball to land in play, results in fly balls being caught. And they say, outfielders have never been better covering ground. Not buying that either. I’ve seen Roberto Clemente play right field. I have seen him throw a baseball from the deep corner on a line to a base or home. I’ve seen guys named Willie, Mickey and the Duke play centerfield; and God Bless Willie Mays who passed away last week at the age of 93.

There are some talented outfielders out there now, not many can throw, but they can run, and they are not like the legends I saw roam the outfield, and speaking of Willie Mays, my BallNine teammate Rocco Constantino, a master at research, dropped this gem on us the other day on X. He found Willie Mays’ postgame comments after The Catch against Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, regarded as the greatest catch in baseball history.

“I had that ball all the way,’’ said Mays. “There was nothin’ too hard about that one. Did that save the game? Well, maybe it did. But what about my hitting? I wasn’t any help up there at the plate. And I remember one catch I made this year that was better. One on Skinner of the Pirates. I had to go right to the wall for it and make that catch with one hand. But that catch today, you should never miss those kind.’’

My friend John Shea, who was the writer closest to Willie and was at his birthday celebration this year that I wrote about at BallNine, once gave me great advice when I was set to interview Willie on The Catch.

John said, “Don’t focus too much on the catch, make a big deal about the throw.’’

Not being too dense, I did exactly that. I said, “Yeah Willie, that was a great catch, but my gosh, that throw was incredible.’’

Willie loved that and went into great detail about the throw. And I loved that and so did the readers.

So that gets me back to my point, some outfielders today are extreme Ball Hawks, but they aren’t Willie Mays or others from past eras, who, by the way, had no protection running into walls. And they played every game it seems, no rest management.

But my biggest point here is a no-brainer. If outfielders today are playing deeper than ever before, that is even more reason to hit line drives instead of fly balls. Have any of the Ivy League geniuses in charge of teams considered the value of line drive hitters in an era where outfielders are selling popcorn in the bleachers?

No because that makes too much baseball sense. They can’t comprehend baseball sense and that is why you have so much of the same thing, teams under .500 and hitters around .241.

Don’t fall for the BS.

Since I am a hitting first guy, I checked in with a couple of former pitchers, who also were pitching coaches, just to be fair. They know the territory on several levels.

One said, “They continue to want to legislate, to lower the bar, instead of working on actual baseball skills. And former players who are in the media and most weren’t very good, they make excuses for the new players.’’

Interesting.

Another offered: “What do you think Rod Carew and Wade Boggs would do to outfielders playing too deep?’’

I’m certain they would have a field day dropping singles and doubles into all that green space in front of them as would my man Tony Gwynn. They wouldn’t be striking out 100 times already in the season like speedster Elly De La Cruz who has struck out 101 times going into play Saturday.

Elly De La Cruz #44 of the Cincinnati Reds after hitting double during the fourth inning of a game on May 1, 2024 at Petco Park in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)

With his incredible speed imagine if he cut his strikeouts in half and what a weapon he would be. The Reds may even be a team that gets to .500. Then come the Cardinals Nolan Gorman with 98 Ks, followed by another Red, Will Benson and then another Cardinal Paul Goldschmidt, the Dodgers’ Teoscar Hernandez and Phillies leadoff hitter Kyle Schwarber, all with 94 Ks.

That’s a lot of air conditioning with the bat.

Putting the ball into play used to mean something.

Hitters should take advantage of what is given them. These MLB 2024 hitters, despite all the toys and meter readings in front of them and their iPads, are not as game smart as former generations of hitters.

Quite simply, they get themselves out and don’t take advantage of what is in front of them.

There is no action, there are strikeouts, the occasional home run and the fly outs and popups and even though stolen bases are a complete joke, few teams take advantage of that legislated gift.

The former pitcher/pitching coach was now fired up from my questioning and said, “Playing too deep, what a crock of shit! It would be a merry-go-round if hitters had the right approach. My memory is that when there was major shifting going on no one could take advantage of it. What makes this any different. Players don’t want to make decisions; they want to do it the way they are told with no personal adjustments. Oh, let’s just make excuses for it.’’

No, adjustments.

So that’s what real baseball people think when they address these issues of today. The Nerds offer a much different story, emphasizing how great they have made the game. It’s pure Nerd 3 Card Monte and a lot of people, including MLB owners, are falling for it.

I do think we have some super talented players playing the game today but there also has been the greatest generation of excuse makers created as well.

Let’s face it, going to a game is still a fun event, if you can afford it or if someone else is picking up the tab. But the excitement, the gamesmanship, the love of the game of past generations of ballplayers, the ability to stand up for your teammate were the driving forces. Yes, players from the past played the game because it was a business too, but because it was a business where you had to produce to get that golden ticket, and they would find a way.

Mediocrity has never been so celebrated as it is today.

There is nothing more mediocre than a .241 batting average. Make a damn adjustment, don’t make new rules like perhaps regulating the depth of the outfielders.

I maintain there are two different games being played now. There is Baseball and there is Statcast Ball.

The metrics of Statcast Ball do not make you a ballplayer. The game has become so hung up on numbers, because that is what the Nerds know, players not only have forgotten about the game, but they have also forgotten how to play the game.

Look for every advantage you can get as a player. And I am not just talking about the major leagues. I am talking about the game at every level. Baseball players can be artists, they don’t have to just wield a sledgehammer.

The way defenses are positioned today, deep outfielders, infielders pinching toward the middle of the field, pitchers who are in no position to field their position after the grunting is done, there is so much to be taken advantage of if the hitter has the common sense, and more importantly, the baseball sense to take advantage. I laugh when I read that doubles are down because if the ball were put into play using the entire field, doubles should be up – because the first baseman and third baseman do not guard the lines like they once did. And with deeper outfields, a baserunner busting out of the box, and not just dancing down the line in preparation for his celebration antics with the dugout, you know, while the ball is still in play, that busting baserunner can turn singles into doubles.

Of course, to make a lot of this happen, you have to be prepared to fight off strike three and not just look for one pitch that the iPad told you to look for with two strikes and do whatever you have to do to put the ball in play. You know what, the pitcher might just make a mistake, too.

All that is the beauty of baseball. And that is why it is so hard for old hitters to give credit to pitchers.

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
  • Steve M

    I talked to a retired MLB pitcher yesterday, who hasn’t watched a game in 2 years. He is disgusted he said by the rule changes (Thanks for nothing Manfred), and some of the player issues Kevin has been harping on. Sheesh! I had a conversation with this man last year, who was amazed at the poor coaching pitchers are receiving lately, leading to the continuous spate of arm injuries in Little League, high school and beyond. Pitching clinics? “Come here son, we can mess your mechanics up and get you in line for the OR.” I know of a 12 year old with an alledgedly beautiful curve ball who had Tommy John surgery. He only hit last year, and is back on the mound this year, two years on at age 14.
    I am looking for something to love this year in my teams the Mets and the Red Sox. Actually, I am looking at all the teams lookong for that spark of Willie or Wade.

    June 30, 2024
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