Baseball scandals tend to follow a similar arc.
Whispers turn into rumors, picking up steam until they form a narrative. Major League Baseball evinces little knowledge, while a small handful of whistleblowers either passively or aggressively bemoan a loss of competitive integrity.
Eventually, the game is warped to the point jobs are at stake or the product deteriorates, at which point the game’s 30 owners and the governing body are motivated to act.
And that’s the stage at which MLB finds itself in the case of foreign substances rendering fastballs nearly unhittable: Snoop around and find out.
As MLB prepares to ramp up its inspection of doctored baseballs as well as the uniforms, gloves and persons of the pitchers gooping them up with stick, the process is reminding some observers about other sordid discoveries from the recent past.
“I remember the steroid era,” says Marlins manager Don Mattingly, a Yankee from 1982-95, “and I don’t know if I’m naïve, but I was like, ‘Ah, not many guys are doing that.’ And obviously the testing came out (in 2003) and it showed a lot of guys were doing that.
“It sounds like this may be the same type of scenario – we’re not quite sure how big the scope is and how far it’s (gone) – but I do know there are steps to kind of correct it and get it back to an equal playing field for everyone.
“For the pitchers who don’t do it and for the hitters themselves.”
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For all the whispers, anecdotes and actual incidents that have accompanied a dizzying spike in pitchers’ spin rate – the greatest benefit, when married with modern data analysis, of foreign-substance use – perhaps none resonate as much as a quartet of minor-league players suspended after being caught with sticky stuff on them.
In this case, like the so-called steroid era, the perception exists that loading up with resin, pine tar or various sunblock products gets you to the majors and helps you stay there – even if reality may be a little more nuanced.
Certainly, the leap in spin rates among individual pitchers and in some cases entire staffs is not helping baseball’s worst offensive era in a half-century. It is exacerbating a problem for which there are numerous symptoms, many of them data-driven, such as hyper-accurate defensive positioning.
“I think the bigger problem is the shift taking hits away more than having stick on the ball is,” Pirates outfielder Bryan Reynolds said Friday when asked if he was eagerly anticipating MLB’s expected crackdown.
“It seems like there’s definitely less offense than in years past. I don’t know if (foreign substances) are to blame or not but yeah, I don’t know,” says Angels infielder David Fletcher.
Reynolds and Fletcher’s anodyne responses aren’t too surprising given they’re among the hundreds of hitters who in, um, a sticky spot.
My friend, my enemy
The steroid era was marked by a collective shift in mindset among players who saw PEDs enrich dozens of their colleagues, though not without significant health risks, both physically and mentally. Hitters juiced. So did pitchers. Eventually, it just seemed easier, safer, to put everyone on the same level. Easier to lead the league with 40 home runs than 50 if the latter involved jabbing a needle in your posterior.
In the sticky substance flap, sure, hitters want to eat. Yet while they’d surely not mind rules-flouting opponents get busted for doctoring balls, they also know many of their teammates are doing the same thing.
Best not to rail against the cheaters when it’s possible the worst offenders are just across the aisle from you on the team bus.
“I guess you see it across the league where some guys are blatantly using it, but it doesn’t really affect me that much as a hitter,” Dodgers catcher Will Smith said Friday when asked the impact of a foreign substance crackdown. “It will be interesting to see what they do with it. I don’t know what’s going to happen with it.”
The Dodgers pitching staff Smith handles, according to a Sports Illustrated analysis, has seen the biggest collective leap in spin rate this season. That’s perhaps not too surprising given the signing of Trevor Bauer, the game’s data revolutionary and original substance whistleblower.
It was Bauer who strongly insinuated, way back in 2018, that Astros pitchers were blatantly cheating, with spin-rate spikes once recently-acquired pitchers arrived in Houston. He later estimated some three-quarters of major-league pitchers were using substances beyond the realm of acceptable practice and then, as if proving his point, spiked his own spin rate into the stratosphere in winning the 2020 NL Cy Young Award.
Like the Pied Piper of spin, Bauer’s Reds in 2020 also fashioned huge spikes in spin rate and now his Dodgers are seeing a similar bump, not all attributable to his mere presence.
Still, like the early days of the steroid reckoning, it’s largely see-no-evil, hear-no-evil.
“I’ll be honest with you, I haven’t really thought about it,” says Braves manager Brian Snitker, whose club will face Bauer on Sunday. “I haven’t seen any evidence on balls I’ve gotten. The other night, guys even thought the balls were a little slick.”
“Only thing I’ve seen was they took that kid’s hat.”
That “kid” would be St. Louis Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos, whose cap was confiscated by Joe West when the venerable umpire spotted a dark dot on the brim of the cap. Just more evidence, along with the dozens of balls MLB has accumulated with funny smudges and marks.
In coming weeks, West may look like a pioneer, with umpires expected to be on the front lines of compliance. Managers, usually enraged that an ump or an opponent would “undress” their own pitcher on the mound, may just have to go along with it.
Gloves, caps, balls, pants – they all might be tossed into plastic bags and shipped to New York, this Wild West era of the game suddenly taking a turn toward a CSI episode.
“I haven’t paid much attention,” says Brewers ace Brandon Woodruff, whose 1.27 ERA ranks second in the National League. “I don’t really typically look at what’s going around the league. If there’s something internally that’s said, I’ll listen, but I think I’m so worried about how am I going to get hitters out as opposed to what else is going on.”
Nope, nothing to see here. At least not yet.