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Can MLB save the starting pitcher? The search for solutions to baseball's 'existential crisis'

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Can MLB save the starting pitcher? The search for solutions to baseball's 'existential crisis'

Who’s pitching tonight?

For 100 years, that wasn’t just a casual question. It was the question that defined baseball.

The answer always had a chance to give you goosebumps. Maybe it was Tom Seaver versus Steve Carlton. Maybe it was Sandy Koufax versus Bob Gibson. Maybe it was Pedro Martinez versus Randy Johnson.

They weren’t just a reason to watch. They were the reason to watch. They threw the first pitch of the game. They often stuck around to throw the last pitch of the game. When the stars hold the ball in their hands 100 times a game, from the first minute of a game to the last, that’s where so much of the magic comes from. But now, those nights of pitchers’ duel magic are slipping away.

Ten active major-league starting pitchers have won a Cy Young Award — and nine of them have spent time on the injured list in 2024. The only exception: Baltimore’s Corbin Burnes. But no need to remind you of all the aces who aren’t healthy enough to ace. There are larger forces at work here that are just as big a concern for the people who chart the future of this sport.

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The issue is not only the health of the modern starting pitcher, but the role those starters play in the sport these days. Those two things are also connected. Here’s only one recent example:

May 6, Wrigley Field. San Diego Padres versus Chicago Cubs. Theoretically, this was one of those pitching matchups to savor: Yu Darvish, onetime Cubs ace, starting for the Padres versus Justin Steele, a 2023 All-Star and the Cubs’ 2024 Opening Day starter. But was it the stuff of goosebumps? No. The score at the end of five innings was 0-0. Both starting pitchers had allowed only three hits apiece … and, naturally, neither of them was still in the game. Seven relievers ate up the last 25 outs. Just another slice of baseball life in 2024.

True, both starters had spent time on the injured list this season, so they were being handled carefully. But those injuries — and how teams respond to them — are part of a crisis that seems to loom larger over baseball every year.

Should Major League Baseball sit back and let starting pitchers practically disappear? Should it let them recede in prominence, giving  away the essential entertainment value they’ve provided for the last century? Or should it act? Should the league step in to halt this trend the way it stepped in only one year ago, when it introduced a pitch clock before the sport arrived at a place where every game dragged toward a midnight finish?

“I think everybody agrees,” says Texas Rangers ace Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young winner currently working his way back from (what else?) another injury. “You’ve got to get the starting pitcher back. From an entertainment standpoint, people watch the matchups. That’s a big part of baseball. If you don’t have that matchup, every day is the same.”

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Once every day becomes the same, is that when your sport is officially in trouble? Maybe that feels like a question for another day, another season. Except that in reporting this story, The Athletic talked with three longtime baseball executives who used the term “existential crisis” to describe the state of starting pitching.

When one of those executives was asked, as a follow-up question, if he honestly believed that term reflected the depth of this problem, he replied, pointedly: “I do. I think the game is totally broken from that standpoint.”

What could baseball do?

Let’s draw a football analogy. Suppose the analytics gurus in the NFL suddenly decided the best way to win a game was Quarterback by Committee … so every team rolled out four quarterbacks and Patrick Mahomes might never throw a pass in the fourth quarter of any game. How fast do you think that league would change its rules?

“It would outlaw that in about six minutes,” said one of the baseball executives interviewed for this story. All of them were granted anonymity so they could speak candidly about an issue viewed as especially sensitive in their sport.

But in baseball, the league has largely stayed out of the way as teams’ analytics departments took the sport down a similar road: Overload the roster with eight relief pitchers who can throw a baseball 98 miles per hour. Then stop waiting around for the starting pitcher to get tired. Get him out of the game and cue the parade of fireballers out of the bullpen.

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The data may show that approach is the most efficient way to get outs. But the best baseball strategy isn’t always the best entertainment strategy. Inside most front offices, that’s not a major concern. But in reporting this story, The Athletic did find a few executives willing to ask why more of their front-office peers weren’t more worried about this trend.

“For the industry, it doesn’t have to be that way,” said one of them. “Can we take a step back and look at our sport from 20,000 feet?”

The league proved, with its rule changes a year ago, that it can act when it sees a crisis approaching. But has the starting pitcher crisis risen to that level? MLB officials declined to comment for this story. However, industry sources tell The Athletic that while the league views  this issue as a priority, it is still gathering information, via an extensive study of pitching injuries. So it is likely years away from taking action. And even then, some of those changes would need to be phased in over several years, because the repercussions would trickle down all the way to youth baseball, where the health of young arms is also a growing concern.

In the meantime, however, the brainstorming has already  begun. What rule changes could the league consider to help keep pitchers healthier and restore the prominence of the starter? The Athletic has spent the past few months collecting ideas proposed by executives, players and coaching staffs.

They all would address this issue. But they also were all met by so much fierce debate that it illustrated the challenge the league would face to get everyone on board with any of them.

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“I think that’s why it’s hard,” said one American League exec. “There are no easy answers. If it were just one thing that we could easily turn a dial … there wouldn’t be a lot of really smart people at the club and league level trying to work on this. But it’s very complicated.”

Here are four potential rule changes you could see someday.

New rule idea: Every starter has to go six innings

Last year, the length of the average major-league start plunged to an all-time low: 15 outs (or five innings) per start. Not even starting pitchers themselves think that’s anything to brag about. So here’s a goal some in the sport would love to shoot for:

How about the starter goes six (or more) in almost every game — barring extenuating circumstances? Is that doable? Why not? That used to happen, you know, and not 100 years ago.

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Even 10 years ago, as you can see in the graph above, the percentage of starters who made it through six innings wasn’t that dramatically different from what we saw  in the 1970s, a pitching era so golden that it produced 10 Hall of Fame starting pitchers. It’s only in the last five or six seasons that it began to change so significantly. So would it be outrageous to require that every starter get back to that six-inning standard — barring injuries, 10-run blowups, inflated pitch counts or other exceptions that could be negotiated later?

Why “require” it? Ultimately, the league might not push in this direction. But here’s why it might: The best rule changes are the simplest. So instead of a more subtle rule that the league might hope would lead to longer starts, it would take its best, simplest shot and just say: This is now the rule.

What would the penalty be? What would happen if a manager hooked their starter before six — and that starter didn’t meet any of those extenuating  circumstances? Good question. The league could say that pitcher had to be placed on the injured list. It could also impose discipline, via fines or suspensions.

Or what about a case like that Yu Darvish-Justin Steele game, in which both starters were being handled more cautiously as they built back from a previous injury? Sorry. The league probably would say that pitcher should still be on the IL working his way back on a minor-league rehab option.

Who would complain? Relief pitchers, obviously, would grumble about almost all of these ideas because this would dramatically change their job description — even if that’s the whole point. But almost every analytically inclined front office would complain just as loudly.

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Why, they’d ask, should their teams be forced to push their fifth starter through the sixth inning when they have five unhittable relievers who could rescue him? And how can anyone be sure, they’d wonder, that even those fifth starters would be on board with this?

“It’s really hard to force pitchers to start and go (six innings),” said one exec, “because in my opinion, you’re going to get into all sorts of situations where you ask: Is someone faking an injury? How do they feel? Even if they’re not hurt, they might think: ‘They forced me to stay out there when I wasn’t effective and then I got hurt.’”

So it’s possible, even likely, that a rule requiring six-inning starts would be so harsh, it would gain very little support. If that’s the case, the league could pivot to rules that simply incentivize teams to push their starters deeper into a game. There are several options. Here’s one we’ve written about before.

New rule idea: The “Double Hook”

Unlike most of these ideas, the Double Hook already exists. The independent Atlantic League, a longtime testing ground for MLB rule changes, first experimented with this rule in 2018. Back then, here’s how it worked: When your starting pitcher leaves the game, your designated hitter also has to leave the game (or, at least, go play a position).

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But after teams complained, the Atlantic League began tinkering. So by 2023, it used this version: If your starting pitcher leaves the game before the end of the fifth inning, only then does your DH have to leave with him.

What was wrong with the original rule? Would any team really prefer a rule that would keep its best hitter from ever coming to the plate late in a game? Think about all those dramatic walk-off October home runs David Ortiz once hit as the Red Sox DH. It will answer that question.

Why might the Double Hook actually work? You would be surprised by how many people in baseball like this rule. If the idea is to incentivize (but not require) keeping a starting pitcher in the game, what works better than this? Leave your pitcher out there or bench one of your most dangerous hitters? The concept is brilliantly simple.

Who likes it? Some of the most prominent starting pitchers in baseball — Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Adam Wainwright, among others — have been the Double Hook’s biggest public fans. But more front-office minds also seem open to this concept than many others they’ve heard.

“I have been in favor of the Double Hook for a while,” a National League executive said. “I think it would be interesting to have. It adds an extra element of strategy into the game for managers to think about, gives them another decision they have to make in-game, which I don’t think is a bad thing in general.”

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Who hates it? The Designated Hitters of North America aren’t sold, for one thing. And one AL executive spoke for his fellow front-office critics when he called it “one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard.”

“We want close games, right?” that exec said. “We don’t want blowouts. And if you’ve got the Double Hook, you’re going to have a boatload of blowouts. (If you lose your DH) you’re playing a man short, basically, like a soccer team with a player on a red card. Or you attempt to not play a man short, and the game gets out of hand because you’re trying to leave the starter in there for that extra hitter. Then that turns into three or four or five runs, and now you’re done.”

So is there an alternative to the alternative? At this point, everything is on the table. Scherzer, for one, sees no limit to possible incentives you could dangle to keep starters in the game.

“You could sit there and say: You get a free substitution,” Scherzer said. “You could pinch run for a catcher. You could make an instantaneous defensive replacement for an inning, you know what I mean? Keep upping the ante, if the starter goes out and does his job, how much extra stuff would you get as a benefit? So the idea would be if you pull your starter, you’re going to lose a ball game because you pulled your starter early.”


Of the ten active major-league starting pitchers who have won a Cy Young Award, all but the Orioles’ Corbin Burnes have spent time on the injured list in 2024. (Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

New rule idea: No more than 11 pitchers on the roster

Roster limits are another idea that has been tossed out there publicly, even by commissioner Rob Manfred. Two decades ago, teams got along fine with five- or six-man bullpens. So if those in-game rule changes don’t catch on, roster limits might move to the front of MLB’s line.

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How would roster limits help starters? With eight relievers hanging out in your bullpen, what would stop a team from using four, five or even six a night? But if the league gradually drops the maximum number of relievers to seven, then six, then possibly even five, the value of a six-inning start — or longer — would skyrocket.

Why do front offices hate this? Many front offices think forcing fewer pitchers to bear the burden of so many innings is a recipe for even more injuries. And this furious debate sums up why there is so much disagreement over how to address this entire pitching crisis.

“There are people on one side of this,” one skeptical executive said, “who want to have less pitchers, make them pitch more … and I just don’t understand how that’s going to work. To me, rested pitchers are probably healthier pitchers. So our positions are totally misaligned with each other. And I’m not sure how to resolve this because we’re not seeing eye to eye at all.”

So why might it still make sense? The small group on the other side sees this so differently. Too many teams, one of those executives said, are ignoring the ripple effects of regularly pulling starters for a fresh reliever at the first opportunity, then mixing and matching relievers every time the data says so.

“You’re not just playing one game,” that exec said. “And you’re not just playing one inning. There are consequences. And the consequences are that you’re going to fry your bullpen by mid-summer, let alone September and October.”

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New rule idea: Outlaw the sweeper 

Why are so many aces getting hurt? It’s a complicated problem, but let’s think it through.

If you’re a dominating starting pitcher in this era, it probably means you throw harder than the average pitcher. You create more spin and movement than the average pitcher. And you probably have some dominant pitch — or more than one — that most other pitchers can’t throw, or you just added one.

Now draw up the factors most injury experts point to as most likely to cause catastrophic arm injuries: Velocity … check. Spin … check. Throwing pitches that cause the most stress on the human arm … check.

So would MLB be out of line to make it illegal to throw one of those pitches it viewed as hazardous to pitchers’ health? Could it possibly act to ban a pitch like the sweeper, which has been identified as a source of undue stress on the elbow? That may sound radical, but what if MLB’s study of pitcher health recommends the league wipe out dangerous pitches the way it banned home-plate collisions a few years back?

Why a sweeper ban isn’t as extreme as it sounds: One executive said he wouldn’t be shocked if the league actually did ban a pitch or two someday.

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“What if they came to the conclusion, empirically, that the sweeper is a dangerous pitch, and it’s leading to a lot of pitching injuries?” he mused. “To me, it’s not crazy that (MLB) would consider outlawing it, because there’s lots of dangerous behavior that is not allowed on the field because it leads to injuries.”

Could the league even target high velocity? If the league is so concerned with pitches it views as dangerous, could it even look to tone down velocity itself? If it can’t agree on other changes that would force pitchers to take their foot off the gas in order to go deeper into games, one idea that has made the rounds is this shocker: Make it illegal to throw any pitch over 94 mph.

Don’t bet on that one happening. But a subtle element of many of these ideas is to motivate pitchers to pitch at less than max velocity. And that’s a volatile topic unto itself.

We mentioned to one pitcher we spoke with that rule changes are being discussed that would incentivize, or even require, pitchers not to throw every pitch at max velocity. He was borderline livid at that whole idea.

“That would be like telling an NFL running back not to run as fast as he can on every run,” he said. “That’s ignoring the competitive side of it.”

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He’ll be heartened to know that many baseball executives agree.

“I don’t know what incentive structure we can create,” said one of those execs, “that’s going to actually convince athletes to not try and throw as hard as they can. Because they know with certainty that they will be better pitchers, even for a short amount of time, if they do throw hard.”

He’s not wrong. But is it time for MLB to step in anyway? Is it time for Manfred to tell all those pitchers: We feel your pain — literally. But we can’t let you do it that way anymore because this injury rate is just not sustainable?

In a sport that has always been slow to change, it’s easy to find people who would tell the commissioner: Please stay out of this. But remember that term, “existential crisis”? One executive who used those words says it’s time to heed them. This latest rash of pitching injuries represents more than just bad luck, he said.  It’s a warning siren begging everyone to act.

“What if it gets worse?” that exec wondered. “It’s easy to say everything’s fine, and it’s all fun and games, until you look up and the product is truly horrible because no one has enough pitching. So it’s going to take someone to say, ‘All right, listen, guys. We can keep lying to ourselves, but this sport is broken. And we have to change it.’”

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Additional reading

  • People in the industry came up with solutions for baseball’s starting pitching “existential crisis.” Some of them are extreme.
  • Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, two of the sport’s most prominent pitchers, weigh in on the crisis.

 (Top image: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Photos: J. Conrad Williams, Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images; Matthew Grimes Jr. / Atlanta Braves via Getty Images)

Culture

What's it like to play Rafael Nadal on clay? We asked the players

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What's it like to play Rafael Nadal on clay? We asked the players

This article is part of the launch of extended tennis coverage on The Athletic, which will go beyond the baseline to bring you the biggest stories on and off the court. To follow the tennis vertical, click here.

“He makes you suffer. First he takes your legs, then your mind.”

Casper Ruud is describing what it’s like facing Rafael Nadal on Court Philippe-Chatrier at Roland Garros: the court where Nadal has won 14 French Open titles. Ruud was the beaten finalist for the most recent of those triumphs, in 2022. When asked to relive the experience of facing Nadal there, his eyes widen and he lets out a small laugh.

This was a pretty typical reaction of the dozen-or-so players The Athletic spoke to in an attempt to understand exactly what it’s like playing Nadal on clay — a surface on which he has a 90.9 per cent winning record over a career that has spanned more than two decades. He has won 479 matches on clay, losing just 48.

At Roland Garros, that figure is a ludicrous 97.4 per cent. Played 115, won 112, lost three.

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The players we heard from, including world No 1 Novak Djokovic, almost unanimously described playing Nadal on clay as “the toughest test in tennis”. Others, like Ruud, went as far as saying it was the toughest test in any sport. “He is the ultimate clay-court player,” says Gael Monfils, the one-time world No 6, who has been beaten by Nadal in all six of their meetings on the surface.


Nadal’s aura on clay is unlike any other in the game (Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Some players don’t even think it’s real. “It’s a bit like playing against someone on a PlayStation because every ball comes back,” is the view of Karen Khachanov, a two-time French Open quarter-finalist.

Ruud’s words call to mind Andy Roddick’s famous “first your legs, then your soul” description of Novak Djokovic, so what exactly makes playing Nadal specifically so terrifying?

From the size of the Chatrier court and the feeling that it’s impossible to get the ball past him, to the heaviness of his ball, to the mental torture he is able to exert, those who have faced him explain exactly what it’s like playing Rafael Nadal on clay.

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Let’s start with the ultimate, ultimate test — playing Nadal on Chatrier. Since winning his first French Open in 2005 as a 19-year-old, this has become his court. He knows its dimensions perfectly; he knows how the ball will bounce in any spot; he knows how to inflict the maximum amount of damage on his opponents. Sometimes a player and a court become so intertwined that it feels as though the venue were made for them. Roger Federer and Centre Court, Serena Williams and Arthur Ashe, Djokovic and the Rod Laver Arena.

First up, the man who has inflicted two-thirds of his defeats on the court and who has played him there more (10 times) than anyone else — Djokovic.

“The court is bigger,” he says. “There is more space, which affects visually the play a lot and the feeling of the player on the court. He likes to stand quite far back to return. Sometimes when he’s really in the zone and in the groove, not making many errors, you feel like he’s impenetrable. He’s like a wall.

“It’s really a paramount challenge to play him in Roland Garros. He’s an incredible athlete. The tenacity and intensity he brings on the court, particularly there, is something that was very rarely seen I think in the history of this sport.”

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Nadal and Djokovic duel at the net during the 2022 French Open quarter-final (Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

“It’s like Novak said, winners don’t come easy against him on Chatrier,” adds Ruud, who is a clay-court specialist and has been ranked as high as No 2, but was thumped in straight sets in that Roland Garros final two years ago. “He reads the game so well, as well as him being one of the best movers of all time.”

To reach that final, Nadal beat Alexander Zverev in the semi-final. In a very strange match with lots of breaks, Zverev had to retire with an unfortunate ankle injury in the second set while trailing 6-7, 6-6. He had somehow failed to win the first set, despite holding four consecutive set points, and the way he talks about it now underlines how much the match has stayed with him. The way he describes Nadal conjures up the image of trying to escape from the Terminator in the classic Arnold Schwarzenegger film.

“He becomes different,” says Zverev, who has lost five of his six matches against Nadal on clay. “His ball all of a sudden becomes a few kilometres an hour faster. His footwork and foot speed become a lot faster.

“It’s more difficult to hit a winner, especially on Philippe Chatrier, which is a massive court, so he has a lot more space. It is very difficult. It’s probably the biggest challenge in tennis playing Nadal on that court.

“You have a feeling that you just can’t put him away. I think the first set that I played against him (in that 2022 semi-final) basically describes it to perfection. I mean, I won that set I don’t know how many times against any other player and I still somehow managed to lose it in the tie-break.

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“I was up 6-2 in the tie-break. He aced me I think for the first time in the entire match. Then he hit one of the most ridiculous passing shots (skip to 9:09 below) I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

 

“Somehow you feel like you’re winning, but then somehow you end up not. It’s just something you only feel against him on that specific court.”

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Sebastian Korda, America’s world No 28, won just four games when he faced Nadal on Chatrier four years ago, losing 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 in a fourth-round shellacking. He feels Nadal’s comfort and experience on the court adds to the feeling for opponents that no situation could unsettle him there.

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“He’s as comfortable as someone can be on a tennis court and once someone gets comfortable on a court, it becomes extremely difficult to play them,” Korda says.

“He’s been through pretty much every situation on that court so plays as free as anyone can on a court.

“You feel like you can’t get the ball past him.”


Nadal rockets a forehand on his way to beating Korda (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Khachanov, the big-hitting Russian world No 17, was thumped by Nadal 6-3, 6-2 in their only meeting on clay — in Monte Carlo six years ago.

“It was a bit like playing against someone on a PlayStation because every ball comes back,” he says. “Sometimes you have trouble winning one point. And you can feel like you do everything right and you don’t win the point.

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“You serve well and open the angle, the ball comes back. That’s why he’s unique and the best ever to play on that surface.”

The feeling that whatever you do isn’t enough ties into Ruud’s description that “first he takes your legs and then your mind”.


There’s worrying about what to do when you’re hitting the ball. There’s the growing sense that whatever you do, it won’t be enough.

Then there’s the fact that for every ball you hit, Nadal’s ball is about to come for you.

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His ball on clay is known to be so full of spin that players struggle to comprehend it until they experience it first-hand. This can be quantified to some extent by looking at the extremely high revolutions per minute on Nadal’s shots, especially the forehand, but even that doesn’t fully do it justice, his opponents say.


Nadal and Ruud during their 2022 meeting (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

“His ball? It’s… heavy,” says Ruud, who was the French Open runner-up again last year. “And I think if you haven’t played tennis yourself it’s maybe hard to know what heavy means. I guess it’s the spin and rotation of his ball. The more RPMs he has on his ball, the quicker it will bounce up towards you. And when the ball bounces up at you, the more RPMs it has, the heavier it comes up at you compared to a ball that’s coming at you really flat.

“He has mastered that more than anyone else.”

World No 55 Miomir Kecmanovic lost to Nadal in straight sets in Madrid a couple of years ago and says: “His ball was different. Different in the way you know it’s Rafa behind the ball. Sometimes even if it’s not as good you still feel the pressure because you know it’s him. It’s completely different when you play him.”

Khachanov says it’s the variety of Nadal’s ball when playing him on clay that really struck him. “It’s always different,” Khachanov says. “He finds different angles, different trajectories, he always pushes you back when he opens the court. He has so much variety and the ball speed. So whenever he wants to be aggressive, he goes aggressive, and if he wants to be more defensive, he can take a step back. It’s like chess tennis — with the pieces, the shots he has in his arsenal. He is always trying to make you have trouble.”

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Such a kind person off the court, there’s no doubt that Nadal has a sadistic streak on it. He seeks out opponents’ weaknesses and exploits them mercilessly — especially on clay, where the high bounces suit the violent topspin he puts on the ball. Roger Federer could be forgiven for still having nightmares about those French Open finals when Nadal would loop topspin forehands to force him to hit one-handed backhands from shoulder height again and again.


Nadal used his forehand to dismantle Federer, out of shot, on clay (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

The punishment was so severe that Federer eventually remodelled the entire shot.

Grigor Dimitrov, the world No 10 and three-time Grand Slam semi-finalist, is another gifted shotmaker with a single-handed backhand. He has faced Nadal six times on clay and lost all six meetings — winning just one set in the process.

He recalls Nadal making his life as awkward as possible. “It was no fun. No fun at all,” Dimitrov says.

“I played him at his absolute peak on clay and how can I explain? It’s just very uncomfortable. It’s very difficult for a one-hander to play him on any surface, but clay especially. The direction on the ball is very different. You have to move a bit extra. You can’t make any cheap mistakes. Overall there’s so little margin for error and then if you can’t put him in an uncomfortable position, there’s not a lot you can do.”


Nadal sliding in Monte Carlo, a tournament he was won 11 times (Neal Simpson/PA Images via Getty Images)

One of Nadal’s characteristics is that he never takes things for granted. No matter the opponent or the event, he will always show every match the utmost respect. Part of that is properly researching his opponents and knowing how to exploit any holes in their game.

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That was the impression that Zizou Bergs, the world No 101, had when he was beaten by Nadal in Rome two weeks ago. “He was hitting such a high ball with lots of spin,” Bergs says. “Playing my weaknesses. You can tell his team did their homework on me, on what I don’t like.

“The intensity he can give sometimes with his forehand and backhand, it’s brutal.”

The feeling of being put under relentless pressure is draining and eventually, it becomes overwhelming. “It’s difficult physically, tactically to handle his speed, his angle, the way he puts you under pressure,” says Monfils.


Nadal beat Monfils in the 2016 Monte Carlo final (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Corentin Moutet, the world No 79, played Nadal at the French Open two years ago. He shakes his head as he remembers trying to reconcile the fact he felt he gave a good account of himself but still lost in straight sets. “I played well that day,” he says. “And left the court thinking I’ve played a really good level here but it’s still not enough.”


One of the biggest challenges about playing Nadal on clay is the mental aspect. Trying to go into the match not fearing what is about to come.

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And playing Nadal on Chatrier can do strange things to people. Ahead of their first-round match at Roland Garros five years ago, the German player Yannick Hanfmann was so frazzled that after the customary photo at the net, he stuck his hand out to Nadal as if it was the end of the match. A slightly bemused Nadal didn’t leave him hanging and politely shook it.

“That was weird. I don’t know what I was doing, to be honest. I was a bit out of it there,” Hanfmann said afterwards. “I saw him shaking this kid’s hand and the ref’s hand and I then stuck out my hand. I don’t know why.”

This is an extreme example, but there’s no denying that players struggle not to be overawed by the prospect of facing Nadal on clay.


Red clay swirling round him feels like his natural state (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

“I think the fear shouldn’t be a factor,” Dimitrov says. “But the way certain players are, and him on clay, with a 97 per cent winning percentage, it’s already difficult enough. But I think the mindset is really important. You have to really believe that you can play well enough to have a chance.”

As time has gone on, there’s also the challenge that many players who face Nadal grew up idolising him. How do you switch off the part of your brain that is so full of admiration for him and listen only to the one that tells you you need to go and, metaphorically speaking, kick the living daylights out of him?

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“It’s about being out there, having tonnes of respect for Rafael Nadal, but also seeing him as your opponent you want to beat and not just want to play,” says Bergs, who led Nadal by a set in Rome before succumbing in three.

“Sometimes you lose because you don’t really believe.”

Ruud was one of the players who grew up with Nadal as their childhood hero and then trained at the Spaniard’s academy. There was a feeling that he was overawed by facing Nadal in their final two years ago, which ended with a one-sided 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 scoreline and was happy enough just to be there.


Nadal consoles Ruud in 2022 (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

“Of course, I wish I could make the match closer and all these things,” he said afterwards. “But at the end of the day, I can hopefully one day tell my grandkids that I played Rafa on Chatrier in the final.

“I’m probably going to enjoy this moment for a long time.”

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Korda had a similar situation when he faced Nadal at Roland Garros in 2020, describing him as his “idol” in the lead-up to the match and having named the family cat after him growing up. Korda admits it was strange playing him in Paris having watched thousands of his matches growing up. “He was my favourite player, so nothing really surprised me,” Korda says. “But it still felt pretty strange seeing him on the other side of the net.”

Even older, more experienced players, confess that at times they had to grapple with the feeling of being honoured to share the Chatrier court with Nadal.

Fabio Fognini, 36 now, was a top-10 player and clay-court specialist. He has played Nadal eight times on clay, winning three of those meetings – including the most recent one, a 6-4, 6-2 hiding in Monte Carlo five years ago.

But he admits that during their one meeting at Roland Garros, he was too happy just to be there. Nadal won the match — a third-round contest in 2013 – 7-6, 6-4, 6-4. “I’m happy I was one of the 1,000 players who got to play at the same time as them,” he says. “Being in the second week of a grand slam was a party for me.

“I played with all three and Andy. I played Rafa at Roland Garros, Roger at Wimbledon, Nole (Djokovic) in Australia, Andy at Wimbledon. They were all incredibly tough.”

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As we head towards Roland Garros, where 37-year-old Nadal is battling injury to try to compete at one last French Open, it feels as though we’ve come full circle.

Nadal’s biggest opponent since his 14th title two years ago has been his creaking body. He has not competed at Roland Garros since, nor at any Grand Slam since January 2023.

Nadal finally has some insight into what his opponents have faced all these years. The doubts and fears that consume them. How tough has that been, suddenly having to manage your vulnerability? “Yeah, it’s tough,” he told The Athletic in Rome two weeks ago, where he exited the Italian Open early to Hubert Hurkacz. “Because I have to do the things very step by step, trying to make small improvements day by day.


Nadal during his defeat in Rome this year (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

“I need to try to play at my hundred per cent. It’s not easy because I need to lose a little bit of fear that I have in some shots, for example.”

Beating Nadal at Roland Garros has for so long been the toughest task in tennis, possibly any sport. But in his return from injury over the past month or so, Nadal’s physical issues have meant he is nowhere near as formidable on the surface as he once was.

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Perhaps it’s fitting that the only person who has properly got the better of Nadal on clay is, well, Rafael Nadal.

(Top photos: Left and right: Mike Hewitt; centre: Mateo Villalba/Getty Images; design: Dan Goldfarb )

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Does lightning-rod umpire Angel Hernandez deserve his villainous reputation?

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Does lightning-rod umpire Angel Hernandez deserve his villainous reputation?

Standing at second base, Adam Rosales knew. So did the fans watching on TV and the ticket holders in the left-field bleachers. They knew what crew chief umpire Angel Hernandez should have known.

This was May 8, 2013, the game in which Hernandez became baseball’s most notorious umpire. He’d made many notable calls before this, and he’s certainly had plenty since. But this particular miss did more than any other to establish the current prevailing narrative: That he’s simply bad at his job.

Rosales, a light-hitting journeyman infielder for the A’s, did the improbable, crushing a game-tying solo homer with two outs in the ninth in Cleveland. The ball clearly ricocheted off a barrier above the yellow line. But it was ruled in play. The homer was obvious to anyone who watched a replay.

“All of my teammates were saying, ‘Homer, homer!’” Rosales recently recalled. “And then (manager) Bob Melvin’s reaction was pretty telling. The call was made. Obviously it was big.”

Back in 2013, there was no calling a crew in a downtown New York bunker for an official ruling. The umpires, led by Hernandez, huddled, and then exited the field to look for themselves.

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After a few minutes, Hernandez emerged. He pointed toward second base. Rosales, befuddled, stayed where he was. The A’s never scored the tying run.

That moment illustrates the two viewpoints out there about Angel Hernandez, the game’s most polarizing and controversial umpire.

If you ask Hernandez, or those close to him, they’ll point to the cheap and small replay screens that rendered reviews nearly worthless. Plus, there were other umpires in the review — why didn’t they correct it? In this scenario, it was just another chapter in this misunderstood man’s career.

Then there’s the other perspective: This was obviously a home run, critical to the game, and as crew chief, he should have seen it. Hernandez, even in 2013, had a history of controversy. He had earned no benefit of the doubt. MLB itself said in a court filing years later, during Hernandez’s racial discrimination lawsuit against the league, that this incident, and Hernandez’s inability to move past it, prevented him from getting World Series assignments.

In this scenario, Hernandez only reinforced the negative perception of him held by many around the sport.

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He has brought much of it on himself over his long career. Like the time he threw the hat of then-Dodgers first base coach Mariano Duncan into the stands following an argument in 2006. Or, in 2001, when he stared down ex-Chicago Bears football player Steve McMichael at a Cubs game after McMichael used the seventh-inning stretch pulpit to criticize Hernandez.

On their own, these avoidable incidents would be forgotten like the thousands of other ejections or calls that have come and gone. But together, they paint a portrait of an umpire who’s played a major role in establishing his own villainous reputation.

“I think he’s stuck in, like, a time warp, you know,” Mets broadcaster and former pitcher Ron Darling told The New York Times last year. “He’s stuck being authoritarian in a game that rarely demands it anymore.”

“Angel is bad,” said then-Rangers manager Ron Washington in 2011. “That’s all there is to it. … I’m gonna get fined for what I told Angel. And they might add to it because of what I said about Angel. But, hey, the truth is the truth.”

“I don’t understand why he’s doing these games,” former Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia said in 2018 after Hernandez had three calls overturned in one postseason game “…He’s always bad. He’s a bad umpire.”

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“He needs to find another job,” four-time All-Star Ian Kinsler said in August of 2017, “he really does.”

Those who know Hernandez, and have worked with him, tend to love him. They say he’s genuine, that he checks up on his friends and sends some of them daily religious verses. That he cares about calling the game right, and wishes the vitriolic criticism would dissipate. They point to data that indicates Hernandez is not as bad as his reputation suggests.

Or at the very least, they view him in a more nuanced light than the meme that he’s become.

“Managers and umpires are alike,” said soon-to-be Hall of Fame manager Jim Leyland. “You can get out of character a bit when you have a tough situation on the field. I think we all get out of character a little bit. But I’ve always gotten along fine with Angel.”

But those who only know his calls see an ump with a large and inconsistent strike zone. Someone who makes the game about him. Someone who simply gets calls wrong at far too high a clip.

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With Hernandez, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Major League Baseball declined an interview request for Hernandez, and declined to comment for this article.

“Anybody that says he’s the worst umpire in baseball doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” said Joe West, who has umpired more games than anyone ever, and has himself drawn plenty of criticism over the years.

“He does his job the right way. Does he make mistakes? Yes. But we all do. We’re not perfect. You’re judging him on every pitch. And the scrutiny on him is not fair.”

Of course, even West understands that he might not be the best person to make Hernandez’s case. “As soon as you write that Joe West says he’s a good umpire,” he said, “you’re going to get all kinds of heat.”

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Angel Hernandez is perhaps the best-known umpire in Major League Baseball — and the most criticized. (Brace Hemmelgarn / Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)

Hernandez’s family moved from Cuba to Florida when he was 14 months old in the early 1960s. His late father, Angel Hernandez Sr., ran a Little League in Hialeah. At 14 years old, the younger Hernandez played baseball in the Hialeah Koury League, and umpired others when his games finished. At his father’s urging, Hernandez went on to the Bill Kinnamon Umpiring School, where he was the youngest of 134 students. He finished first in the class.

When he was 20 years old, Hernandez was living out of a suitcase, making $900 a month as he traveled up and down the Florida State League. It was a grind. Each night, he’d ump another game alongside his partner, Joe Loughran.

The two drove in Loughran’s ’79 Datsun. They shared modest meals and rooms at Ramada Inns. They’d sit by the pool together.

“There was a real camaraderie there, which was a lucky thing because that’s not always the case,” Loughran said. “Maybe you have a partner who isn’t as friendly or compatible, but that was not an issue.”

Hernandez did this for more than a decade. He drove up to 30,000 miles each season. He worked winter jobs in construction and security and even had a stint as a disc jockey. He didn’t come from money and didn’t have many fallback options.

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“He was very genuine through and through,” said Loughran, who soon left the profession. “(He) knew how to conduct himself, which is half of what it takes.”

But even then, Hernandez umpired with a flair that invited blowback. Rex Hudler, now a Royals broadcaster, has told a story about Hernandez ejecting nearly half his team. Players had been chirping at Hernandez, and after he issued a warning to the dugout, they put athletic tape over their mouths to mock him. Hernandez tossed the whole group.

By the time Hernandez was calling Double-A games across the Deep South, he was accustomed to vitriol from fans, including for reasons that had nothing to do with baseball.

“I remember my name over the public address, and the shots fans would take. ‘Green card.’ ‘Banana Boat,” Hernandez said in a Miami Herald article. “Those were small hick towns. North Carolina. Alabama. These were not good places to be an umpire named Angel Hernandez.”

In 1991, he finally got an MLB opportunity. This was his dream, and as Loughran said, he achieved it on “blood and guts.” But once he got to the majors, it didn’t take long for controversy to follow.

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Take the July 1998 game when a red-faced Bobby Valentine, then the Mets manager, ran out of the dugout to scream at Hernandez.

Valentine claims he knew before the game even started on this July 1998 afternoon that Hernandez would have a big zone. He said he had been told that Hernandez had to catch a flight later that day — the final game before the All-Star break. Valentine’s message to his team that day was to swing, because Hernandez would look for any reason to call you out.

“He sure as heck doesn’t want to miss the plane,” Valentine recalled recently. “I’m kind of feeling for him in the dugout. You miss the flight, and have to spend a night in Atlanta. Probably miss a vacation.”

As luck would have it, the game went extras, the Mets battling the division-rival Braves in the 11th inning. Michael Tucker tagged up on a fly ball to left. The ball went to Mike Piazza at the plate, and Tucker was very clearly out.

That is, to everyone except Hernandez, who called him safe to end the game.

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Valentine acknowledges now that he likes Hernandez as a person. Most of their interactions have been friendly. On that day, Valentine let Hernandez hear it.

“He didn’t mind telling you, ‘take a f—ing hike. Get out of my face,’ that type of thing,” Valentine said. “Where other guys might stand there and take it until you’re out of breath. He didn’t mind adding color to the situation.”

It’s not a coincidence that Hernandez often finds himself at the center of it all. He seems to invite it.

He infamously had a back-and-forth with Bryce Harper last season after Hernandez said the MVP went around on what was clearly a check swing.

Harper was incensed. But Hernandez appeared to respond by telling him, “You’ll see” — a cocky retort when the video would later show that it was, in fact, Hernandez who was wrong.

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“It’s just bad. Just all around,” Harper later told the local media. “Angel in the middle of something again. Every year. It’s the same story. Same thing.”

In 2020, there was a similar check swing controversy. Hernandez ruled that Yankees first baseman Mike Ford went around. Then he called him out on strikes on a pitch inside.

Even in the messiest arguments with umpires, the tone and tenor rarely get personal. But Hernandez seems to engender a different type of fight.

“That’s f—ing bull—-,” then-Yankees third-base coach Phil Nevin yelled. “We all know you don’t want to be here anyway.”

Plenty of fans might understand why Nevin would feel that way. When Hernandez is behind the plate, it can seem that anything might be a strike.

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Early this season, Wyatt Langford watched three consecutive J.P. France pitches land well off the outside corner — deep into the lefty batter’s box. None of the pitches to the Rangers rookie resembled a strike.

“You have got to be kidding me,” said Dave Raymond, the incensed Texas broadcaster. “What in the world?”


When it comes to egregious calls, it feels as though Hernandez is the biggest culprit. But is he the game’s worst umpire? The answer to that, statistically, is no.

According to Dylan Yep, who founded and runs Umpire Auditor since 2014, he’s ranked as the 60th to 70th best umpire, out of 85-to-90, in any given season.

“It sort of becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and there’s also a lot of confirmation bias,” Yep said. “When he does make a mistake, everyone is immediately tweeting about it. Everybody is tagging me. If I’m not tweeting something about it, there are a dozen other baseball accounts that will.

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“Every single thing he does is scrutinized and then spread across the internet in a matter of 30 seconds.”

Even on April 12, the night he called Langford out on strikes, two other umpires had less accurate games behind the plate. Only Hernandez became a laughingstock on social media.

Yep finds Hernandez’s performances to be almost inexplicable. He’ll call a mostly normal game, Yep said, with the exception of one or two notably odd decisions — which inevitably draw attention his way.

“He consistently ends up in incredibly odd scenarios,” Yep said, “and he seems to make incorrect calls in bizarre scenarios.”

Many of his colleagues have come to his defense over the years. After Kinsler made those aforementioned comments in 2017, umpires across the game wore white wristbands as a show of solidarity against the league’s decision not to suspend him.

Longtime umpire Ted Barrett recently posted a heartfelt defense of Hernandez on Facebook.

“He is one of the kindest men I have ever known,” Barrett wrote. “His love for his friends is immense, his love for his family is even greater. … His mistakes are magnified and sent out to the world, but his kind deeds are done in private.”

A confluence of factors have put umpires in a greater spotlight. Replay reviews overturning calls. Strike zone graphics on every broadcast. Independent umpire scorecards on social media, which Hernandez’s defenders contend are not fully accurate.

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It’s all contributed, they argue, to Hernandez being the face of bad umpiring, even if it’s not deserved.

“He’s very passionate about the job, and very passionate about doing what’s right, frankly,” longtime umpire Dale Scott said. “That’s not true — the perception that he doesn’t care. That just doesn’t resonate with me.”

Still, Hernandez generally does not interact well in arguments. And his actions, including quick or haphazard ejections, don’t de-escalate those situations.

These interactions were likely a significant reason Hernandez lost the lawsuit that he filed against MLB in 2017. He alleged that he was passed over for a crew chief position and desirable postseason assignments because of his race.

The basis for the suit was a belief that MLB’s executive VP for baseball operations Joe Torre had a vendetta against Hernandez. The suit also pointed to a lack of diversity in crew chief positions, and attorneys cited damaging deposition testimony from MLB director of umpiring Randy Marsh, who spoke about recruiting minority umpires to the profession. “The problem is, yeah, they want the job,” Marsh said, “but they want to be in the big leagues tomorrow, and they don’t want to go through all of that.”

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MLB contended in its response that “Hernandez has been quick to eject managers, which inflames on-field tensions, rather than issue warnings that potentially could defuse those situations. Hernandez has also failed to communicate with other umpires on his crew, which has resulted in confusion on the field and unnecessary game delays.”

The league also said his internal evaluations consistently said he was “attempting to put himself in the spotlight.”

Essentially, MLB contended that Hernandez wasn’t equipped to handle a promotion — and because of that, and only that, he wasn’t promoted. A United States district judge agreed and granted a summary judgment in MLB’s favor.

Hernandez’s lawyer, Kevin Murphy, says the lawsuit still led to positive developments in the commissioner’s office. “That’s another thing that Angel can keep in his heart,” Murphy said. “The changes, not only with getting more opportunities for minority umpires. But he changed the commissioner’s office. Nobody’s going to give him credit for that.”

Despite its criticism of Hernandez, the league has almost no recourse to fire him, or any other umpire it feels is underperforming. The union is powerful. There are mechanisms in place, such as improvement courses, which can be required to help address deficiencies.

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Even Hernandez’s performance reviews, though, paint a conflicting portrait. From 2002 to 2010, according to court documents, Hernandez received “meets standard” or “exceeds standard” ratings in all components of his performance evaluations from the league. From 2011-16, Hernandez received only one “does not meet” rating.

His 2016 year-end evaluation, however, did hint at the oddities that can accompany Hernandez’s umpiring. “You seem to miss calls in bunches,” the league advised Hernandez.

But for better or worse, the league and its fans are stuck with Hernandez for as long as he wants the job.


Criticism comes with the job, but players haven been particular vocal in expressing their issues with Hernandez (right, with the Phillies’ Kyle Schwarber in 2022). (Bill Streicher / USA Today Sports)

Hernandez isn’t on social media. By all accounts, he doesn’t pay much attention to the perpetual flow of frustration directed his way.

But, according to his lawyer, there are people close to Hernandez who feel the impact.

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“What hurts him the most,” Murphy said, “is the pain that his two daughters and his wife go through when they know it’s so unbelievably undeserved.”

“I think it bothers him that his family has to put up with it,” West said. “He’s such a strong-character person; he doesn’t let the media affect him.”

It’s not only other umpires who have defended him. Take Homer Bailey, the former Reds pitcher who threw a no-hitter in 2012. Hernandez, the third-base umpire that night, asked for some signed baseballs following Bailey’s achievement. Bailey agreed, without issue. Hernandez would receive his one “does not meet” rating on his year-end evaluation because of it. But Bailey said the entire thing was innocuous.

“He didn’t ask for more than any of the other umpires,” Bailey said. “…Maybe there are some things he could do on his end to kind of tamp it down. But there’s also some things that get blown out of proportion.”

Hernandez is a public figure in a major professional sport, and criticism is baked into officiating. But how much of it is justified?

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Leyland will turn 80 years old this year — just a few months after his formal Hall of Fame induction. His interactions with Hernandez are long in the past.

With that age, and those 22 years as a skipper, has come some perspective.

“A manager, half the games, he has the home crowd behind him. Normally, you’ve got a home base,” Leyland said. “The umpire doesn’t have a home base. He’s a stranger. He’s on the road every night. He doesn’t have a hometown.

“We all know they miss calls. But we also all know that when you look at all the calls that are made in a baseball season by the umpires, they’re goddamn good. They’re really good at what they do.”

Leyland has found what so few others have been able to: A nuanced perspective on Hernandez.

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For almost everyone else, that seems to be impossible.

The Athletic’s Chad Jennings contributed to this story

(Top image: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; Photos: Jamie Squire / Getty Images; Jason O. Watson / Getty Images; Tom Szczerbowski / Getty Images)

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Chase Elliott calls out NASCAR for sharing fight video

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Chase Elliott calls out NASCAR for sharing fight video

Chase Elliott, NASCAR’s most popular driver, had pointed criticism for NASCAR after the sanctioning body issued a record fine earlier this week against Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for his role in a fight following last Sunday’s All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro.

Elliott was aware Stenhouse had been fined for throwing a punch at Kyle Busch, but the 2020 Cup Series champion did not know the exact amount before being informed during a press conference Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the site of Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.

Stenhouse was fined $75,000, the largest fine issued in NASCAR history for a driver fighting. Elliott appeared in disbelief upon learning the exact dollar figure.

“Seventy-five thousand? Wow,” Elliott said. “I heard he got fined, but I didn’t know it was $75,000.

“Yeah, that’s a lot. That’s a lot of money. That seems wild to me.”

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The stunned reaction by Elliott stems from the fact that NASCAR fined Stenhouse despite actively sharing footage of the fight across its social media channels. What Elliott took exception to is what he sees as a double standard where NASCAR has touted the fight multiple times, yet not only penalized Stenhouse but did so by handing down a record fine.

“That seems like a lot for that situation,” Elliott said. “You’re going to fine him, but you’re going to promote with it? Like what are we doing? That’s a little strange to me.

“That’s a lot of money to fine a guy. It’s not OK, but we’re going to blast it all over everything to get more clicks. I don’t really agree with that.”

Elliott is not the only driver to raise the issue. Daniel Suarez posted a similar sentiment on X.

“If it’s so wrong then why is it all over NASCAR social channels?” Suarez posted. “We should be allowed to show our emotions, I don’t get it.”

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Stenhouse confronted Busch following the All-Star Race after Busch appeared to intentionally wreck him on the second lap of the non-points event for what Busch thought was an overly aggressive move on the opening lap.

Upon completion of the race, Stenhouse waited for Busch at Busch’s Richard Childress Racing hauler, a span of 90-plus minutes from the time he crashed until the confrontation. After Stenhouse and Busch had a short, heated exchange of words, Stenhouse punched Busch in the head. That triggered a fight between their respective teams, which included Stenhouse’s dad charging at Busch and starting a physical confrontation between them.

Busch was not suspended for his actions. NASCAR suspended Ricky Stenhouse Sr. indefinitely, while also suspending two members of Stenhouse Jr.’s JTG Daugherty Racing team, mechanic Clint Myrick for eight races and engine tuner Keith Matthews for four races.

Although NASCAR has not always penalized drivers who fight, the difference, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Elton Sawyer explained Wednesday, was that Stenhouse had ample time to cool down before initiating the fight.

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“I will say when you wait, you know, 198 laps and you make those decisions that were made, we’re going to react to that,” Sawyer said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “There could have been different decisions made.

“We want the two drivers to be able to have their time to express their differences. But again, once it escalates to where there’s been a physical altercation there, again, we’re going to react.”

Busch was not penalized because NASCAR could not determine that he intentionally wrecked Stenhouse.

NASCAR’s decision to suspend Stenhouse Sr. was consistent with NASCAR’s policy that non-competitors are not to involve themselves in confrontations.

Required reading

(Photo: Sean Gardner / Getty Images)

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