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Major League Baseball is Major League Baseballing Things Again

How Baseball's Foreign Substance Problem Turned Into a Public Spectacle

The last time I wrote published words, it was about how Major League Baseball, with the current declining numbers in the game, was very clearly not ready for a juiced ball. A majority of my thoughts came from the still-declining offensive numbers in baseball and the heavy over-reliance of three-true-outcome baseball (36.1% of plate appearances are ending in three-true outcomes in 2021).

The other main factor? The ball’s positive effect on pitchers, combined with the still apparent usage of foreign substances. In that previous article, and on the record for college radio, I stated “if [foreign substances and pitcher dominance] were not tackled before any thought of the juiced ball, it would lead to very messy and pitcher-friendly results.”

It is now June 10, at the time of this writing, and we are seeing very messy and pitcher-friendly results. Of course, the commissioner’s office, led by Rob Manfred, is doing what it does best: completely drop the ball. That part is nothing new for the league, especially over the past two years:

  • The lack of player punishment for the Astros’ scandal, then halfway caring if any other team was doing what the Astros are doing, then calling the World Series trophy a piece of metal
  • Completely trampling themselves during negotiations to have a 2020 season in the first place, almost guaranteeing a lockout — if not a strike — in 2022
  • Take baseball away from ESPN — to the delight of many — while La Liga and the NHL join the network, and the NFL expand their presence
  • Allowing the Rockies to trade Nolan Arenado damn near for the fun of it
  • Couldn’t come to an agreement to keep the universal DH in 2021 because the expanded postseason is THAT important (by the way, league wOBA in 2021 jumps from .310 to .314 if you remove pitchers)
  • Having an absurd amount of blown calls this season, including some prominently featured on baseball’s only exclusive telecast, and not holding one umpire accountable so far this season

Despite MLB’s growing viewership, the league has dropped the ball so many times in getting there, to a point where I’m heavily starting to believe that the Quavo bar You get the bag and fumble it was specifically directed at Manfred and baseball.

Trevor Bauer, whose already elite spin rate spiked over the past two seasons, will now face extra scrutiny as Major League Baseball attempts to remove foreign substances from the game. (Photo via Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

This entire situation, the unjuiced ball and foreign substances, that is taking over the relative baseball world is no different. First, there is the belief that Major League Baseball changed the ball without telling anyone beforehand. This time around, there was the memo sent in early February that MLB would tamper with the baseball to try and reduce home runs, but that’s just a week or two from spring training and less than two months from the start of the regular season. This isn’t the league testing a pitch clock out of nowhere, or instituting rules on the types of bats you can use, this is messing with the round sphere that makes playing the game of baseball possible in the first place. That would be akin to the NBA changing the basketball to a ball that almost every single player in the game absolutely hates (which actually happened).

I’m not just blasting MLB for changing the baseball now; this also applies to when the baseball changed in 2017, then again in 2019 (and possibly in 2015). Not only was there no acknowledgment of the situation, Manfred and MLB denied tampering with the ball, blaming it on the company that they own. At any rate, there is almost no chance that proper adjustments could be made in any aspect within those two months, especially if there was no prior warning.

You combine that lack of transparency with the decision to remove foreign substances from the game for pitchers, and you have an absolute mess on the plate of Manfred. The league sent memos to teams a week before the start of the regular season that they would begin a crackdown on such substances. While it is in the rules that anything from body sweat and saliva to pine tar and spider tack, may not be used to alter the baseball, pitchers in baseball over the last several decades have altered the baseball in a number of ways to “get a better grip” on the ball, and pitchers and organizations realize that the right substances can influence the amount of spin on a baseball. It’s not like most teams secretly using technology to steal signs just for the Astros (and possibly the Rockies) turning the clubhouse into a trash can drum set to expose the issues, it’s an open secret that most, if not every, pitcher uses some substance in baseball (except former Cleveland reliever Percival Garner III, he says).

“Is it a coincidence that Gerrit Cole‘s spin rate numbers went down [after his start against the Rays’ Thursday] after four minor leaguers got suspended for 10 games? Is that possible? I don’t know. Maybe. At the same time, with this situation, they’ve let guys do it.”  – Josh Donaldson

Once again, a sticky situation has evolved under the tutelage of a Major League Baseball Commissioner. (Photo via Arturo Pardavila III/Flickr)

So why is baseball electing to take a harsh stance on this now, in early June, essentially giving pitchers two weeks to clean up their act, after promising to do so in April, even collecting baseballs from Trevor Bauer starts, after decades of knowledge that this was a thing? Is it possible that this hasty decision to actually start punishing players — aside from the occasional Michael Pineda incident — is a cover for the baseball randomly changing that is leading to a near-record low offense in baseball? Have hitters had enough of seeing such dominance and, similar to pitchers telling the league about hitters on PEDs during the steroid era, have begun to “snitch” on their pitcher counterparts? Both? There’s certainly context clues for all of that to be the case. What is the point of creating yet another public spectacle in baseball by electing to make these haste changes in the middle of the season?

It is not a secret by any stretch that Gerrit Cole, MLB’s fan-proclaimed co-poster boy (with Bauer) for this entire story, has used foreign substances in the past. It was apparent with the rise in RPMs during his time with the Astros, when Trevor Bauer accused the team of using the substances, and there was more suspicion when he was named in a lawsuit by Bubba Harkins, a former Angels employee known for creating such substances. Still, when Ken Davidoff of the New York Post asks if Cole has used spider tack and the All-Star pitcher turns into every student that is randomly called on in class by a teacher, that’s because baseball had allowed the practice to go on for so long. With this wild tactic, you now put every single star pitcher, from Cole to Bauer to Darvish to deGrom — yes, Jacob deGrom — on notice, especially in the eyes of fans, for something that seemed to be allowed by baseball for years. How is that fair?

To summarize: MLB changed the ball without notice, leading to declining offense. After realizing that this alternative to home runs for days was not good, MLB is trying to make another haste change that they were supposed to have made sometime in April. That, alongside hitters like Josh Donaldson threatening to expose MLB pitchers, is leading to a very hasty change for pitchers to clean up their act, all in the middle of the season. No major league player had been caught and suspended for “sticky stuff” since Brian Matusz, but it seems like, out of nowhere, at least a few will face punishment throughout the remainder of the season. And, of course, Cole and Bauer are going to be the “face” of the scandal because of past accusations (and being big-money pitchers in the two largest markets in America).

By the way, both Mike Trout‘s comments about “leveling the playing field” (from the player who has posted 170 wRC+ seasons in his sleep) and Pete Alonso‘s very telling accusation shows any hope for a lockout-free 2022 is very low at this point.

Does this all go against the main premise of the last article I wrote, when I said that baseball wasn’t ready for the unjuiced ball and that baseball had to tackle pitchers and foreign substances first? Yes, it does. But when I wrote that article, it was with the belief that, like most sport-altering changes, those changes should be made over time and not after an owner’s meeting on June 3 in the middle of what might be a compromised season anyway.

Long story short, it is once again the ignorance of Major League Baseball’s league office that is making the league and the sport a spectacle in the same way they did the steroid era, where it was swept under the rug to save baseball (also caused by a strike). There have been great performances in 2021, from the no-hitters to the breakouts of Jesse Winker and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and the San Francisco Giants randomly turning into a West Coast, 21st-century version of The Last Dance, among others.

Yet, all of that is being overshadowed by a constantly changing baseball, the sudden want to punish players for foreign substances to compensate for a baseball they constantly change, the latter subject becoming a public spectacle (in part due to comments by players and managers), providing even more reason to believe that we will not see professional baseball at the highest level in 2022 until June.

It should start with the league that allowed it, which — again — has waited and waited until a problem blew up to actually address it. Just like steroids. Just like the video review room. How did we get here? By the sport closing its eyes and looking away from the problem, game after game, year after year.

Brittany Ghiroli, The Athletic | Blame for MLB’s sticky substance controversy falls first on the league

Follow Payton Ellison on Twitter (@realpmelli14). He is quite sick and tired of baseball trampling itself.

Payton Ellison

Payton Malloy Ellison is a current Journalism senior at SUNY New Paltz with goals of becoming a sports journalist and broadcaster. He has been writing semi-professionally about sports for four years, starting with monthly coverage for the NBA and Major League Baseball on Grrindtime. Recently, he has written and edited articles produced live content and assisted in growing the brand of Diamond Digest. When it comes to broadcasting, he is the sports director for the New Paltz campus radio station, WFNP The Edge, and provides play-by-play and color commentary for SUNY New Paltz basketball.

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