This is a crackdown?

Liam Hendriks

If MLB’s worried about near-universal foreign substances while still monkeying around with baseballs, why doesn’t MLB develop and approve its own new fashioned medicated goo, as White Sox pitcher Liam Hendriks suggests? Easy—it makes too much sense, and it’s probably way above Rob Manfred’s pay grade.

Does baseball’s government really prefer the symbolic slap on the wrist over the far more symbolic realistic discipline? Did anybody really think a game administration that can’t bring itself toward realistic suspensions of headhunting pitchers was going to bring itself toward a realistic approach to the pitching stickums, sauces, and syrups?

This is baseball government’s idea of a crackdown: ten-day suspension, with pay. For a relief pitcher that could hurt a little bit more, since he usually pitches a short spell on three, maybe four days out of seven. For a starting pitcher, it could cost one start at minimum, two maximum, depending on when he was frisked, busted, and booked.

“This pitcher shakedown,” Thomas Boswell told an online chat with readers Monday, “is going to be a hoot.”

“One objection raised by some players and managers was the league’s listing of rosin as the only substance permissible for pitchers who want to create additional tackiness on the ball,” writes Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. ” . . . A combination of rosin and sunscreen can be more effective in enhancing grip without producing the massive jumps in spin rates that occur with pine tar and especially advanced substances such as Spider Tack. But the [MLB crackdown] memo explicitly lists sunscreen as a prohibited substance.”

“Don’t think everything is going to be perfect,” says umpire Joe West, a man about whom it could be said in that context that it takes one to know one. “It doesn’t happen that way.”

Indeed. And then there was the little matter of Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow suffering a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament Monday night—after he quit using mere sunscreen to help him grip this year’s dubiously made baseballs and changed his normal motion to accommodate.

“Injuries already are a major problem in 2021,” Rosenthal writes. “It’s possible some pitchers will stay healthier if they adjust to the diminishment of their stuff by throwing with less effort to gain more command. It’s also possible others, perhaps trying to make up for lost spin, will suffer a fate similar to Glasnow, who is one of the top pitchers in the sport.”

The memo says the only acceptable substance helpmate for putting a little more friction on the ball is rosin, but Athletics manager Bob Melvin told Rosenthal not so fast: “Rosin on a cold night doesn’t work.”

One of Boswell’s Monday chatters posted a real money question: “Would severely restricting pitchers’ ability to doctor balls be as simple as requiring them to pick up and deposit a cap into a bucket before and after each inning?” Would it? And maybe a better question might be, if the pitchers are stripped of their syrups, will that mean automatically that the hitters are going to abuse them all over again?

These days pitching can be problematic enough. Too many hard-throwing pitchers with speed to burn and no clue of exactly where to put their pitches. With 861 hit-by-pitches as of this morning, one batter’s getting drilled every twenty innings pitched on average. There’s one wild pitch every twenty innings played, too.

And, with the three-batter minimum still in force for relief pitchers, unless they came into a jam and finished the previous inning, managers are throttled from getting a particularly wild pitcher out when it’s obvious he has no control but might inflict serious damage with a ball. Even a de-juiced baseball can cause serious injuries.

Padres reliever Austin Adams leads the Show with eleven hit batsmen. With 24 innings pitched as of this morning, that’s 46 percent of the time a batter’s taking one for the team against him. Numerous position players have told several writers in recent weeks that if the syrups are keeping pitchers from wildness the syrups don’t really bother them. Not even if they’re looking as though they swing pool noodles instead of bats.

That’s the pitchers who aren’t trying to put holes in hitters’ heads. But baseball hasn’t exactly been that firm on the genuine headhunters, either.

If the Show’s government isn’t willing to send stronger messages against the real headhunters—suspending starting pitchers ten starts instead of ten days; or, suspending such relief pitchers according to their average weeks’ work assignments—what made anyone think it was going to do something truly substantial against pitchers brewing syrups not to handle the ever-monkeyed-around-with baseball more reasonably but to get every last little subversive edge they can get?

Where do you draw the line? It doesn’t appear Manfred and his crew have so far. If blending rosin and sunscreen alone improves a pitcher’s grip without giving a shot of rocket fuel to his pitch spin rate, as Rosenthal observed, why on earth did the anti-syrup memo show the crew decided sunscreen should be on the verboten list?

Manfred’s critics often enough accuse him of knowing about as much about baseball as a butcher knows about neurosurgery. This crackdown, such as it might be, is liable to get him as many further such accusations as it might damnation with faint praise.

There was already a rule in the book against foreign substances on the ball. What took Manfred and his crew this long to decide to enforce it, when the new syrups were around before this season? But then you’d have to ask such questions as why Manfred and his crew can’t order umpires to call and enforce the written strike zone and knock it off with their individual zoning laws.

Regardless of such conditions as the balls themselves, or the actual or alleged approaches and attitudes of batters at the plate, there’s one thing that’s as much a baseball tradition as the ballpark hot dog—pitchers will look for any break they can get against batters, whether it’s actual subterfuge or just planting the ideas into the batters’ heads that they’re up to something subversive on the mound.

Even the mere allegation that this pitcher or that pitcher has something more than his fingers on a pitch can knock points off a hitting average and an earned run average alike. Hall of Fame Gaylord Perry once claimed he had extracurricular help almost any place he could think of around his uniform, but he wasn’t above putting the spitter on the brain first and foremost, either.

Maybe you won’t believe this, and maybe I can’t blame you, but when Candy Cummings first came up with the curve ball baseball’s overseers actually debated whether it was a newly-discovered skill or a deceitful trick. Imagine what they must have debated when the first knuckleball performed its first salsa on the way to the plate.

To this day, though maybe this coming “crackdown” might change it just a fragment (and that could be a big maybe), managers are as Boswell told his Monday online chatters: “Managers never ask—the guy could be on another team the next day, so why would he tell you his secrets. But managers always protect their pitchers—because there are so many skeletons in closets.”

That’s usually the main reason why managers aren’t in that big a hurry to swear out a search warrant for the other guys’ pitchers, too. The guy you had frisked, arraigned, cuffed, and stuffed today might be the guy joining your pitching staff at the trade deadline if not sooner.

Don’t forget: managers and their designated partners in crime (grounds crews and so forth) haven’t been immune to a little tricking and treating themselves. “Freezing the balls overnight to help your bad pitching staff, sloping the foul lines to help or hurt bunts (as suits your team) and turning the base path between first and second into a swamp with overwatering to inhibit base stealing have been around forever,” Boswell wrote sixteen months ago. “That slippery slope from brainy to gamesmanship to cheating exists in every sport.”

It also happens when the criminal mind spots an opportunity provided with the best of intentions. MLB installed replay rooms in both dugouts at the ballparks mostly because it was embarrassed by the blown Jim Joyce call at first base that denied Armando Gallaraga his perfect game. It turned to using the replay rooms as helpmates for old-fashioned sign-stealings (they still depended on baserunners sending the purloined numbers to the batters), and in due course to the flagrant extremities—the illegally-used computer algorithms, the illegal additional cameras, clubhouse monitors, and trash cannings—of Astrogate.

There’s a point to be taken when White Sox relief pitcher Liam Hendriks says, well, if MLB is concerned that mere grip enhancement on constantly monkeyed-around-with baseballs is turning into a few pitchers crossing the line to cheating, why doesn’t MLB do something substantial about it—and develop and distribute its own acceptable grip goop?

“I still think a universal substance needs to be added,” said Hendriks, who applauds the crackdown-to-be, to yet another Athletic writer, James Fegan. “Because if you’re coming into the ninth inning of a game, these balls have been sitting down for however long and they’re just pretty much dust. It’s interesting how everything is kind of ‘follow the rules, this way, this way, this way,’ but the balls are kind of left out the entire time and it’s controlled by the home team.”

There’s only one problem with Hendriks’s call. It makes too much sense. Of course, it would make a lot more sense if Manfred hadn’t misapplied his sacred pace-of-the-game crusade and decided the balls themselves have needed remaking/remodeling the past few seasons. Among other steps that make a klutz resemble Joe DiMaggio.

Manfred also doesn’t get that pitchers looking for edges with foreign substances (where have you gone, George Frazier: I don’t use foreign substances—everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.) have been around since the days of pitching underhand departed major league baseball.

“Only now, as the sport returns to its first full 162-game season since 2019, with a new baseball, does MLB find itself in hot water for years of feigned ignorance and not enforcing its own rules,” wrote yet another Athletic writer, Brittany Ghiroli, earlier this month.

This time though, the league hasn’t just been slow to stop the sticky substances, it has — perhaps inadvertently — made the problem worse.

Consider this: The players don’t get a say in the constant tinkering to the baseball, the latest version of which has higher seams and — as early as spring training — was already being buzzed about for its ability to favor pitchers with movement . . . [W]ho enabled the system that allowed these pitchers to cash in? Who decided to ignore the sticky stuff for years? Was the initial hope that the entertainment value—like performance-enhancing drugs — would perhaps translate into more eyeballs and excitement for the sport? Does anyone think asking professional athletes to police themselves and follow the rules when there are millions of dollars and livelihoods at stake would work?

. . . Here we are in early June, with the league moving quickly to resolve things, preparing to give umpires the power to inspect all pitchers without warning in order to not show any favoritism toward certain players or teams. The onus now, all of a sudden, is on upholding the integrity of the game. But what took so long?

Whatever new rules or regulations are put in place will be to enforce an existing rule. And while it’s easy to pile on the pitchers and pitching coaches and teams who knowingly broke the rules, the blame should not start there.

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.

Commissioner Nero thinks a ten-day suspension with pay is really going to fix the problem? I’d like to be proven wrong, but I have the feeling I got the first three words of that sentence wrong. Especially since, to most of us mere saps, there’s a word for ten days off with pay—vacation.

Is Alonso’s alarm a little sticky?

Pete Alonso

The Mets first baseman couldn’t care less which pitches have which syrup on the ball—he thinks, not implausibly, that there’s a larger ball-manipulation manipulation involved.

Just when you might have started thinking the sticky skirmish over pitchers and their new old-fashioned medicated goo was a mess as it was, here comes a new ingredient in the controversy. It may or may not stick, but it may or may not be entirely out of bounds, either.

Pete Alonso, the Mets’ slugging first baseman, doesn’t want the pitchers to be unstuck. More significant is his thinking as to why the balls themselves have been manipulated in recent seasons: nothing to do with the way the game’s played on the field, and everything to do with playing games with free agency.

“I think the biggest concern is Major League Baseball manipulates the baseball year in and year out depending on free agency class or guys being in an advanced part of their arbitration,” Alonso told a videoconference call including New York Daily News reporter Deesha Thosar, before the Mets met (and murdered) the Orioles in Baltimore Wednesday.

I do think that’s a big issue, the ball being different every single year. With other sports, the ball is the same, like basketball, tennis, golf, the ball is the same. That’s the real issue, the changing of the baseball. And maybe if they didn’t, the league didn’t change the baseball, pitchers wouldn’t need to use as much sticky stuff.

Alonso’s take doesn’t have hard, tangible evidence, but neither does Thosar dismiss him out of hand.

“It’s been widely believed that MLB has manipulated the baseball for years now, but the league is never forthright about it,” she wrote. “In 2019, the alleged juiced ball led to the highest home run rate in MLB history. This year, the league sent a memo to all thirty teams just before spring training, explaining that the ball would be altered this season to sail one to two feet shorter on fly balls hit over 375 feet. In other words, fewer home runs.”

“Forthright” and “baseball government” are too often about as synonymous as “celibacy” and “promiscuity.”

Back in 2019 the pitchers suspected and spoke up about the balls being “juiced.” This year the balls are supposed to have been de-juiced. Whatever they’ve been or not been this time around, enough pitchers are looking for every way they can think to control them when they throw them. That’s Alonso’s story, and if you’ll pardon the expression he’s sticking to it for now.

Thosar adds that Alonso’s “candid stance” doesn’t exactly jibe with MLB’s wants, either. Not just because the sport is about to unwrap what’s been speculated to be a firm crackdown on the pitchers’ sticky syrups, either.

“[T]hough it was already expected, it’s becoming all the more obvious that there will be a fight between the Players Association and MLB with the sport’s current collective bargaining agreement set to expire in just six months,” she reminds us. “Both sides have been publicly combative in recent years, and many around the league believe a potential strike could be in play.”

As though the owners were strangers to manipulating, undermining, or wrecking the free agency market before, you know.

Not those straightforward owners whose forebears abused the ancient reserve clause into making players chattel; forced a strike or two with harebrained ideas about compensation pools; colluded to suppress legitimate free agency markets; and, forced a truly ruinous strike (and a cancelled World Series) by trying to strong-arm players into stopping them before they over-spent, mis-spent, or mal-spent yet again. Not them.

Alonso admits he’s not thinking hard-line about the pitchers’ stickum, gripum, syrup, honey, wax, whatever,  because he’s even more concerned about batter safety at the plate—particularly after every Met player, coach, official, and fan had the daylights scared right out of them when Kevin Pillar took an out-of-control fastball right smack in the sniffer last month.

Even if you admit that the subtexts include too many baseball organisations hunting speed first and control on the mound almost as an afterthought, Pillar’s proboscis is only a fraction’s distance from the sport facing another Conigliaro tragedy—if not another Chapman one.

“I would rather [pitchers] have control,” Alonso told Thosar. “I don’t care what they use.”

For me, I use pine tar to hit. I have lizard skin, I have batting gloves. I have the most advantage when it comes to holding onto my bat. So I wouldn’t care. On our on-deck bag we have a pine tar rag, we have a pine tar stick, a special sticky spray with rosin. I mean you name it, we have it.

“I wouldn’t care if they had that behind the mound to help hold onto the ball, because when we start getting into these hotter months, guys start to sweat. And let’s say if they lose a fastball arm-side, I mean we all saw what happened to Kevin Pillar. That’s scary. We’re lucky that he only had a broken nose. It could be a lot worse depending on where it hits a guy.

It was a lot worse when Tony Conigliaro got hit in the eye by an errant Jack Hamilton fastball in mid-August 1967. A comeback or two to one side, Conigliaro was never really the same player again, his eyesight damaged for life—and we’ll never know whether continuing aftereffects of that drill led to the stroke that sent him into a coma for the last eight years of his life. (He died at 45.)

It was a lot worse than that when Ray Chapman got drilled and killed in a time when batters wore no helmets and pitchers were just about allowed to put anything on the ball they could think of—until the fear that an out-of-control Carl Mays spitter did the dirty work prompted a formal ban on spitters and other kinds of ball doctorings.

Which didn’t stop the mound’s Houdinis and Copperfields, of course. News flash: Various pitchers have continued looking for various edges—sometimes even using various edges—on their pitches all these decades since. Depending upon the atmospheres of enforcement, managers have either 1) let it ride because a few of their own men might be loading or scuffing; or, 2) called for immediate arrests and arraignments because . . . a few of their own might be subjects of sworn warrants.

Today’s honeyballers just might be the spiritual great-grandchildren of Hall of Famer Whitey Ford, whose late-career tricks and treats included a secret sauce of rosin, turpentine, and baby oil he said helped him grip his breaking balls better, har har. Depending on the depth and substance of the coming crackdown, today’s brewers won’t be too quick to plead the Ford defense: “Better ideas, driven by you.

Nobody among baseball’s government wants to admit to another dirty little secret: Among its other self-inflicted problems, the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers makes it impossible for a manager to get an out-of-control pitcher the hell out of there, before he does worse than Genesis Cabrera did to Bryce Harper and Didi Grigorius opening a relief inning back-to-back last month. Grigorius got it in the ribs. Right after Harper took one off his honker onto his wrist—and Harper hasn’t been the same hitter since.

Even a de-juiced baseball can still break a human beak.

Does Alonso have tin foil under his hat? Or, is he onto something substantial? He’s implied what The Athletic‘s Brittany Ghiroli comes right out to ask, then answer, in part:

[W]ho enabled the system that allowed these pitchers to cash in? Who decided to ignore the sticky stuff for years? Was the initial hope that the entertainment value — like performance-enhancing drugs — would perhaps translate into more eyeballs and excitement for the sport?

. . . The onus now, all of a sudden, is on upholding the integrity of the game. But what took so long?

Whatever new rules or regulations are put in place will be to enforce an existing rule. And while it’s easy to pile on the pitchers and pitching coaches and teams who knowingly broke the rules, the blame should not start there.

It should start with Commissioner Nero. Ever fiddling—with unneeded rules, with refusing to enable the needed one or two, with the baseballs themselves—while baseball burns.

Strange brew? Or, Whitey’s great-grandchildren?

Whitey Ford

Could the late Hall of Famer Whitey Ford have been the great-grandfather of today’s scientific pitching brewers?

She’s some kind of demon messin’ in the glue
If you don’t watch out, it’ll stick to you–to you
What kind of fool are you?
Strange brew, kill what’s inside of you.
–Cream, in 1967,
the year before the Year of the Pitcher.

Oh. The horror. Pitchers looking for every last edge they can find—by hook, crook, and anything else they can get onto their hands and onto their pitches. What is this game coming to? It’s coming to a head that looks at once like a throwback and a future shock, that’s what.

Before the doctored ball was outlawed officially in 1920, pitchers did whatever they could think of to baseballs short of injecting explosives. Come to think of it, you could think of a few comedians who would have loaded a ball to go boom! on contact. Not the kind of boom! you associate with Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, or Ronald Vladimir Tatis, Jr., either.

Almost two months ago I observed that today’s apparent metastasis of pitchers using some new old-fashioned medicated goo (assorted elixirs of pine tar, rosin, sunscreen, glue, and who knows what the hell else) was liable to create baseball’s next cheating scandal.

As for those who still think pitchers stopped looking for every last edge they could find just because ball doctoring was banned formally after the Ray Chapman tragedy of 1920, you may find many of them lining up to place bids on that Antarctican beach club.

Sports Illustrated‘s current cover story is headlined: “The New Steroids.” The photograph shows a pitching hand gripping a ball with something running down upon it that could be taken for anything from bee honey to Log Cabin syrup to teriyaki sauce and back. I’ve heard of certain pitchers having certain hitters’ breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and vice versa), but that’s ridiculous.

SI reporters Stephanie Apstein and Alexs Prewitt may quote an unnamed Show executive as saying, “This should be the biggest scandal in sports”—but is it hard to take seriously when it’s illustrated by something flowing down a ball that looks less like a sunscreen-rosin-tar froth and more like what you have on your breakfast pancakes.

It’s also hard to take seriously, above and beyond the apparent extra creation that goes into this 21st Century version of gunkball, because the wet one has been called “the biggest scandal in sports” more than once over baseball’s life. When Roger Angell lamented the Year of the Pitcher when it finally ceased, he mentioned, not quite in passing, “the persistence of the relatively illegal spitter.”

And that was in 1968. A decade later, the advent of Hall of Fame relief pitcher Bruce Sutter and his split-fingered fastball (really a refinement of the forkball Pirates relief legend Elroy Face made a work of art) caused some inside and outside the game to believe the pitch’s spitter-like break made the real spitter superfluous—even while they couldn’t decide whether to condemn or laugh with Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry’s actual or alleged grease balls.

What the hey, there were those who thought Hall of Fame reliever Mariano Rivera’s devastating cutter—the “cut” was in Rivera’s grip—made the spitter superfluous if you could learn and throw it the way The Mariano did. You could also fill a stadium with the hitters who’ve thought pitchers who owned them while getting murdered otherwise were treating them in particular to a few little tricks.

Nobody doubts that pitchers today have an upper hand—whatever they happen to have in hand, in glove, or under their hats. Apstein and Prewitt get all manner of comment about it, from a very few willing to speak on the record to an awful lot who insisted on anonymity for possible fear of hitting the unemployment line.

No one doubts that advancements in pitching analysis and mechanical applications have led to the present fetish with the rates of spin the balls take out of the pitchers’ hands. Apstein and Prewitt round up a considerably widespread belief that, whatever that new-fashioned medicated goo is, it’s turning hitters already believed undoing themselves with the concurrent launch-angle fetish into guys who look like they’re swinging pool noodles and not bats.

It’s turning professional full-time hitters into pitchers at the plate, for crying out loud!

“More recently, pitchers have begun experimenting with drumstick resin and surfboard wax,” the SI pair write. “They use Tyrus Sticky Grip, Firm Grip spray, Pelican Grip Dip stick and Spider Tack, a glue intended for use in World’s Strongest Man competitions and whose advertisements show someone using it to lift a cinder block with his palm. Some combine several of those to create their own, more sophisticated substances. They use Edgertronic high-speed cameras and TrackMan and Rapsodo pitch-tracking devices to see which one works best. Many of them spent their pandemic lockdown time perfecting their gunk.”

We’ve come a long way from Pud Galvin, Happy Jack Chesbro, Ed Walsh, Eddie (Shine Ball) Cicotte, and Burleigh Grimes. Not to mention Preacher Roe, Lew Burdette, Whitey Ford, Mudcat Grant (who got away with a soap ball—it was said—until he once rubbed too much inside his gray road uniform and the warm sun foamed it too visibly through the flannel), Phil (The Vulture) Regan, Gruesome Gaylord, Don (Black & Decker) Sutton, Mike (Scuff) Scott, and Joe (Emery) Niekro.

Just picture assorted pitchers in their garages or even their kitchens throwing this stickum, that spray, the other glue, and some particularly choice liquids otherwise into the Mixmaster. (From your ancient history: that’s what we old folks called a food processor in the mid-20th Century.) With Vincent Price grins on their faces and Dr. Frankenstinker tightening the bolts in their necks.

Apstein and Prewitt cited numerous personnel saying the new gunkballs might help pitchers keep a grip on the new, reputedly lighter baseballs in use this season, but they also tend to sound as though they’re being ripped out of the pitchers’ hands. Kind of the present fraternity of hard, bullet-throwing pitchers is ripping the bats right out of the hitter’s hands, so it is alleged.

One unnamed American League manager swore to the pair that, “You can hear the friction.” They cited an unnamed, “recently retired” relief pitcher as comparing it to ripping a particularly adhesive Band-Aid right off the skin. “A major league team executive,” they add, “says his players have examined foul balls and found the MLB logo torn straight off the leather.”

Burdette and even Perry were suspected just as often of playing mind games more than they played real spitball games. What was true in Chesbro’s day seemed true in their day and beyond. Let the hitter think you’re loading up, and you’ve got two strikes on him before you even throw the first pitch. Spitter on the brain beats tobacco juice (Burdette’s suspected lube of choice) on the hide every time.

Do today’s mad pitching lab rats have a spiritual great-grandfather? It might be Hall of Famer Ford himself. Forget the legends of his late-career mud ball, ring ball (a rasp in his wedding ring enabling him to cut balls: “It was like I had my own tool bench out there”), and buckle ball. (His later catcher Elston Howard would scrape a ball on his shin guard buckles before returning it to him.)

He also had his own strange brew. The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe, then writing for SI himself, described Whitey’s secret sauce as a blend of rosin, turpentine, and baby oil. The lefthander was believed to keep the blend in an emptied-out roll-on deodorant bottle (Ban, perhaps?), claiming to use it for a better grip on his breaking ball, hee hee hee.

(Ford’s worst victim may not have been an enemy batter but his own Hall of Fame teammate Yogi Berra. Thomas Boswell once recorded that, knowing Berra was prone to nicking personal products like deodorant whenever he ran short, fellow Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle moved Whitey’s sauce to a shelf spot where Berra couldn’t miss. Minutes later, Yogi ran screaming into the trainer’s room to have his arms shaved free of his sides.)

Have Apstein and Prewitt unlocked the true secret to this season’s hitting crisis—you know, all homer/all the time, nobody settling for measly singles, blah-blah, woof-woof—if a crisis it truly is?

I spent Friday morning looking it up. There were 1,672 major league games played at the end of business Thursday night. There were 13,061 hits in those games—an average of 7.8 hits per game. Sixty-four percent of those hits were singles; thirty-six percent were extra base hits; fifteen percent were home runs. There was an average 5.0 singles per game and 2.8 extra base hits per game.

Maybe they’re not hitting as often as they used to, but I’m having a hard time believing that whenever the hitters are making contact they’re coming out exclusively as all-or-nothing bombardiers, too. Eight percent of all 2021 plate appearances through Friday morning ended in bases on balls; 21 percent of them ended in hits.

Maybe the pitchers and their goo, gunk, glop, and sticky balls are tying them up at the plate. But brace yourselves—24 percent of all 2021 plate appearances through Friday morning ended in batter strikeouts. They’re hitting almost as often as they’re striking out, ladies, gentlemen, and miscellaneous.

“I’m tired of hearing people say that players only want to hit home runs,” Rockies rightfielder Charlie Blackmon has told Apstein and Prewitt. “That’s not why people are striking out. They’re striking out because guys are throwing 97 mile-an-hour super sinkers, or balls that just go straight up with all this sticky stuff and the new-baseball spin rate. That’s why guys are striking out, because it’s really hard not to strike out.”

Let’s have a parallel awakening. There just might be another, legitimate reason why the hitters can’t buy base hits no matter how they shake off the launch angling and just make contact—which they’re actually doing 47 percent of the time. The reason isn’t coming strictly from the pitcher’s mound . . . or his kitchen, garage, laboratory, double-secret research facility, or friends at Dow Chemical.

You heard me. Now hear Baseball Prospectus writer Robert Arthur, who published an essay Friday morning with the following headline:


It doesn’t say “hundreds.” Arthur’s acute research also doesn’t say it’s all or even mostly the fault of those human Green Monsters crowding either side of the infield in shifts, either.

“Across the board, fielders at every position have backed away from home plate, a change so pervasive and consistent it was unlikely to come from chance alone,” Arthur writes. “I found that two positions were affected more than any other–third basemen and center fielders–and that those two positions, perhaps not coincidentally, have also driven the greatest share in the decrease in [batting average on balls in play] since 2015.”

Arthur’s findings include an analysis in which he discovered that third basemen and middle infielders have tended to play deeper with or without shifting and that outfielders are generally playing somewhat deeper almost regardless of whether the man at the plate is a spray-hitting savant or a bombardier—and not just in such alignments as the so-called “no doubles” defense, either.

A week earlier, Arthur published another essay in which he argued, persuasively “[I]t’s hard to prove definitively, [but] improved defensive tactics look like they may be partially to blame for the historic falloff in BABIP. Just as batting average was drying up, teams look to have been repositioning their fielders across the board, pushing nearly every position back a few steps. The positions that moved back most—third basemen and center fielders—appear to be responsible for almost the entire decrease in BABIP in the last few years.”

Let Commissioner Rob Manfred and his lieutenants crack down on the goo-gunk-glop-stickum-ballers. Just be sure you’re going after the real Houdinis, not just the guys who want nothing more than a better grip on these ridiculously lightened balls in use this year. And use the discretion that (of all people) Joe West did near the end of May, when all he did was order Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos to change hats and thus rid himself of the one with a little sunscreen on it.

Oh, sure, West ejected manager Mike Shildt for defending his player, and Shildt did fume post-game that they were picking “the wrong fight” because just wait until you see how much syrup is getting onto how many balls from how many pitchers. But at least Country Joe didn’t try suggesting Gallegos was up to anything more than either a good tan or ultraviolet protection, either.

You want to police some sunscreen and rosin? Go ahead,” Shildt challenged. “Get every single person in this league . . . Why don’t you start with the guys that are cheating with some stuff that’s really impacting the game?”

We’ve come a long way, too, from the day when Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver visited the mound during a jam to counsel his pitcher Ross [Skuzz] Grimsley—suspected of using his abundance of hair grease for subterfuge. “If you know how to cheat,” Weaver told Grimsley, “now’s the time.”

Don’t kid yourself that even an earnestly firm crackdown is really going to re-level the field. Especially when organisations still prefer to find human howitzers who can throw the proverbial lamb chops past a full pack of wolves without knowing where the balls are going in the first place. Especially, when wiping out today’s syrup balls won’t wipe out the tradition of pitchers looking for, finding, and deploying every last slippery cutting edge they can find to get one up on those naughty hitters—who aren’t as contact challenged as you think.

And, especially when fielders are being positioned with more deftness than even the U.S. Navy needed to win the battle of Midway.

The original spitball ban and the plain-language rule against ball-teration don’t stop the mound’s Jekyll Hydes. All a hitter can do for now—and maybe for all time—is call upon one tradition that’ll never be obsolete. Keep your eye on the ball. Wait for the one that doesn’t break. And hit it on the dry side.

That new old fashioned medicated goo

Trevor Bauer

Trevor Bauer doesn’t like being singled out for medicating his pitches.

Good golly Polly shame on you
Cause Molly made a stew that’ll make a new girl out of you
So follow me, it’s good for you
That good ole fashion medicated goo
Steve Winwood, Jimmy Miller (for Traffic)

Ahhhhhhhhhhh, this is more like it, you can hear more than a few people thinking. Just like the Good Old Days. The Good Old Days in question here being the days when more than a few pitchers were suspected of putting more on their pitches than just their fingers.

The kind of potential cheating scandal that inspires wink-winks, nudge-nudges, not pontificating protest and near-universal outrage. The kind involving whether one of baseball’s more (shall we say) outspoken pitchers is giving the (shall we say) treatment to his pitches, thus to the batters, and maybe to the game itself.

Trevor Bauer has a few reputations, from misogynistic all the way back to the nutty professor. Now the Show’s government would love to know whether Bauer also deserves a reputation as a genuine throwback—to the lives and times when pitchers looked for every last edge they could get including but not limited to whatever they could think of to put on the ball, blissfully uncaring about breaking the law.

From publicly pondering since 2018 how often (not whether) pitchers are mixing up some new old fashioned medicated goo to get (hee hee) better grips on the balls, Bauer himself is now suspect. When he started for the Dodgers against the Athletics this week, umpires collected a fair number of balls he’d thrown that were claimed to be sticky and scuffy. How many depends upon whom you read on the subject.

Last month MLB sent its teams a pair of memos saying, essentially, “We’ve got our eyes on your balls.” None of that sneaky stuff. Keep the strange brews to yourselves. The season’s barely past a week old, and Bauer has already provided a crash course in pitch paranoia.

Not to mention a few arched brows, not because of whether Bauer has joined the society of spitballers but because of whether he’s been singled out particularly—and thus a victim of a little leaking subterfuge himself.

That one pitcher is drawing scrutiny over the foreign substance rules — in this case, Trevor Bauer — seemingly through leaks and innuendo is kind of gross,” tweets ESPN’s Buster Olney. “MLB should either step up and grab the steering wheel and publicly insist that umpires enforce the rule, or stand down.”

If Thomas Boswell was right to say in the late 1970s that cheating was baseball’s oldest profession, it’s also right to say that different cheats provoke different responses.

Find a team altering off-field cameras illegally and tying them to clubhouse monitors for sign stealing? It’s Astrogate. Find a team turning the MLB-provided video room into an illegal helpmate for old-fashioned sign-stealing gamesmanship (sending pilfered intelligence to baserunners to transmit to batters)? It’s Soxgate.

Find a pitcher putting a little goop, gunk, or glop on what he throws? Even the morally outraged can’t resist a little snicker. A little snicker, a lot of mad fun trying to catch him in the act and write standup comedy routines about it, and maybe a couple of gags—such as the time longtime manager Gene Mauch suggested Gaylord Perry’s Hall of Fame plaque should have a tube of K-Y jelly (Perry’s reputed substance of preference) attached. (Was it fellow Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson who once sent Perry a gallon of lard as a birthday present?)

The MLB memos told teams the Show’s government would review Statcast data on pitch spin rates closely enough to determine whether abrupt changes in pitcher’s career spin norms might suggest foreign aid. Which reminds me of George Frazier, the last man charged with three losses in a single World Series: “I don’t use foreign substances. Everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.”

The suspicion toward Bauer, who’s been outspoken about pondering himself whether some pitchers are mixing up the medicine to hike their pitches’ spin rates, didn’t come from a Statcast analysis but from suspicious umpires.

“Pitchers use tacky substances to improve their grip on the ball and increase movement on their pitches,” writes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal. “In November, The Athletic’s Eno Sarris quoted a coach with experience in several major-league organizations as saying, ‘Almost everyone is using something.’ A player-development executive told Sarris the benefits are ‘better than steroids’.”

Yet in the same article Rosenthal said that whatever is or isn’t found on Bauer’s balls (don’t even think about going there!), “it remains to be seen whether the league can prove he was responsible for their application, or whether any punishment imposed by commissioner Rob Manfred would stand.”

Ever since the spitter was outlawed formally after the 1920 season, there’ve been pitchers caught or at least formally suspected who thought of protesting, “It wasn’t me!” It wasn’t as out of bounds as you might think.

For decades it’s been known that Hall of Famer Whitey Ford—in his final years, anyway—benefited from his catcher Elston Howard scraping balls against his shin guard buckles before returning them to Ford. (“The buckle ball,” Jim Bouton wrote in Ball Four, “sang two arias from Aida.”) Howard was also crafty at scraping a ball on particularly wet dirt around the plate before sending it back.

Tommy John could claim plausibly that he didn’t actually put something on the ball or give it a scrape or a smudge. His particular specialty was finding scuffs on balls that were just in play and not yet removed from the game and then, as Boswell once noted, “turn[ing] the tiniest scratch into a double play grounder.”

Nobody ever quite knew what Hall of Famer Don Sutton was applying, but when he started a game against John late in both men’s careers, a scout in the press box cracked, “Tommy John and Don Sutton. If anyone can find one smooth ball from that game, he ought to send it to Cooperstown.”

If there was one pitcher who could claim even more plausibly not to use foreign substances, it was probably Phil (The Vulture) Regan, the mid-to-late 1960s relief star. Regan’s trick of the trade was his own propensity to sweat somewhat heavily; he’d let it run down his arm into his hand and go to work. At least, he did until a combination of an ump or two catching on plus Leo Durocher burning him out from overuse as a Cub ruined his late-career effectiveness.

A little over a year ago, the Angels’ longtime visitors clubhouse attendant Brian Harkins was fired after the Show’s government showed the Angels Harkins was mixing up a little froth for the opposing pitchers, a blend of pine tar, rosin, and maybe a couple of other things. Harkins sued the Angels and the Show for defamation; the suit was thrown out of court in January.

It was too simple to have a sad laugh over the Harkins case. Why on earth would he have been compelled to give opposing pitchers the breaks considering that the Angels haven’t exactly been known as a pitching powerhouse the last few seasons? Harkins himself claimed he did it for safety reasons, since mixtures such as his were longtime helpmates for rubbing up fresh, smooth, hard-to-handle balls before games.

That’s what then-Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers said, too, when he was caught on camera with a particularly vivid brownish smudge on his pitching hand in the first inning in Game Two of the 2006 World Series. (He pitched eight shutout innings in the game, running his shutout inning streak that postseason to 23.) When he went back out for the second inning, the smudge was history.

“It was a big clump of dirt. I didn’t know it was there,” Rogers told reporters after the game. “They told me about, but it was no big deal. It was dirt and rosin put together. That’s what happens when you rub [the ball] up.  I just went and wiped if off. I didn’t think it was an issue. After the first inning, it was fine. I felt I was pretty comfortable after that.”

Not everybody bought it, of course. Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci pronounced himself “deeply disappointed” that the only thing happening to Rogers that night was being told to go back and wash his hands before he continued eating the Cardinals for supper:

The entire world saw Rogers using what appeared to be a foreign substance on his pitching hand and he incurred no penalty, not even an inspection by the umpires of the offending hand we saw on TV. It was worse for the sport than if Rogers, like Jay Howell in the 1988 NLCS, was examined, ejected and suspended. [Too much pine tar on Howell’s hat had the Mets suspicious of the Dodger reliever—JK.] At least in that case there was enforcement of the rule book. This was just another example of the perverse culture in the game, this twisted code of “honor” among the scoundrels and cheats in baseball in which the act of calling somebody out for cheating is deemed worse than the cheating itself.

Seven years later, Verducci was a little more kind to then-Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester during the 2013 World Series: “This time of year, especially when it’s colder and the balls are slicker, pitchers need something on their fingers to throw the baseball without putting hitters at risk.”

But nobody thought Lester’s pitches were dancing, double-axeling, or singing “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” either. (Not for public consumption, anyway, so far as I remember.) “Somebody said they thought they saw pine tar on [Rogers],” Cardinals second baseman Aaron Miles told ESPN after that Game Two. “That’s about it. Whether he got rid of it, or he never had it in the first place, we don’t know. His stuff was good all game.”

Sutton was so proud of his defiance that he once said he “ought to get a Black & Decker commercial out of it.” He did, in due course. He also threatened to sue umpire Doug Harvey and the National League after being cuffed and stuffed on one occasion. Nobody thought to offer Joe Niekro a Maybelline commercial, after the knuckleballer was caught infamously (and hilariously) trying to confiscate an emery board when caught by umpires, but Niekro never contemplated taking it to court, either.

Niekro’s infamous capture came on a day he was struggling on the mound. Bauer’s outing against the A’s Wednesday wasn’t exactly something you’d call lights out—nothing like the near no-hitter he pitched in his first Dodger start—though it wasn’t a terrible outing, either.

He threw 110 pitches and only 61 percent were strikes. Of those strikes, 24 were called, thirteen were swinging strikes, and 67 were either fouls or balls put into play. He struck out six, walked four, and surrendered five hits plus two earned runs. He left with a 3-2 lead, two outs, and one on in the seventh after surrendering Matt Chapman’s leadoff home run, leaving Kenley Jansen to surrender the tying run in the ninth and Jimmy Nelson to surrender the winning run in the tenth.

If Bauer’s using any particular blend for a little extra oomph in his repertoire, he may not be as fearworthy as he and others think he looks. He might also have learned the hard way what happens when a suspect pitch is “hit on the dry side,” as the old-timers said about how to hit the spitter.

Remember: In baseball, talent won’t get you as far as skill, and for all its formal illegality and semi-formal outrage (and snickering) throwing a spitter isn’t the easiest skill, either. “For every career it salvages, there is probably another that it helps to ruin,” Boswell once wrote. “For every hanging curve that finds a bleacher grave, there is a spitter with too much spin that floats like a batting practise fastball into the batter’s power zone and disappears.”

If Bauer did try throwing Chapman (ahem) a creamy spitter, Chapman caught the dry side and creamed it over the left center field fence.

So how does Bauer feel about falling under particular scrutiny for sneaky services? He’s a little furious about being leaked when he may not be even close to the only pitcher in the game rubbing up with extra elixir for reasons above and beyond merely getting better grips on the ball. And he’s not necessarily wrong.

When he asks “[W]here are the articles about balls from every other pitcher being taken out of play in literally every other game this season?” he’s not wrong. Being un-shy about speaking out has its downside on the backside of its upside. Rightly, wrongly, the unapologetic controversialist paints his own back with a target.

He wouldn’t be Trevor Bauer if he dummied up, of course. But it’s awful tempting to ponder whether he, too, would think about throwing a ball to the plate with bolts attached to it. Actually—never mind. Bauer already has enough people thinking he needs to return to the lab every other day to have his bolts tightened.