Once again, MLB faces a crisis of its own making

By Tyler Kepner

Here is what the New York Yankees’ Gerrit Cole should have said last week when asked if he had ever used Spider Tack while pitching: “I follow all the rules that baseball is willing to enforce.”

That would have put the emphasis where it belongs.

On Tuesday, Major League Baseball formally announced “enhanced enforcement” of its long-standing rules prohibiting the application of foreign substances to baseballs. This continues the sport’s tradition of winking at scofflaws until the situation gets out of control.

Do we really think that the 1919 Chicago White Sox were the first group of players to take money for fixing games? Was Jackie Robinson the very first Black man qualified to play in the majors? Did nobody ever take steroids before Ken Caminiti admitted it? Did the 2017 Houston Astros invent the art of illegal sign stealing?

Of course not. And just like in those shameful episodes, MLB knew what was happening long before making a fuss about it.

“Yeah, there’s a rule on the books, but they don’t enforce that rule,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said Tuesday, adding that pitchers took advantage of the league’s indifference. “The game is now starting to catch up: this has become too much, this has gone too far, and how do we self-correct it? And the only way to correct all of it is to have people, I guess, go dry, and not use what they’ve used for generations.”

Starting Monday, umpires will check the gloves, hats, and fingertips of every pitcher who appears in a game. If those fidgety pitchers look suspicious as they tug their sleeves, hike their belts or scratch their heads, they can expect an additional umpire visit. Anyone found with a foreign substance will get a 10-game suspension (with pay), and their team will not be allowed to replace the player on its active roster.

If baseball follows through with its planned enforcement, expect a major shift in the culture of the game. In the century since the league banned the spitball, generations of pitchers have used gripping agents on the mound, mostly with impunity; it was so widespread that managers had an unwritten pact not to check each other’s pitchers. Those who were caught and punished had typically flouted the rules in such an obvious manner — think of Michael Pineda with pine tar smeared on his neck — that they basically goaded the opponent into asking an umpire to intervene.

The problem now is that pitchers have advanced from using pine tar to products like Spider Tack, a sticky paste meant to help competitive strongmen haul stones that weigh hundreds of pounds. It would have made sense to approve something besides the rosin bag to give pitchers a consistent feel and grip; say, a sunscreen-and-rosin mix. When a baseball feels slick — as it often can on cold nights, in particular — it’s a danger to hitters and pitchers alike.

To prepare for the new enforcement, many pitchers had already abandoned their usual methods. Tyler Glasnow, the ace right-hander for the Tampa Bay Rays, said he had long used a sunscreen-and-rosin mix but stopped doing so in his start last week. Forced to grip his fastball and curve much tighter, he said, he developed soreness “in places I didn’t even know I had muscles.” In his next start, on Monday, Glasnow felt his elbow pop. He was diagnosed with a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament and a flexor strain; even if he avoids surgery, Glasnow will miss months.

“To tell us to do something completely different in the middle of a season is insane,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. There has to be some give and take here. You can’t just take away everything and not add something. Pitchers need to be able to have some sort of control or some sort of grip on the ball.”

Now they cannot, because MLB ignored the evidence it should have been collecting long before this season.

In the 2016 season, there were 3,294 more hits than strikeouts in the majors. By 2018, strikeouts had narrowly overtaken hits. And if the 2021 numbers continue at the current rates, there will be about 5,200 more strikeouts than hits this season.

Baseball has stood by and let this happen, sometimes to a comical degree. In April 2017, Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals blocked a pitch in the dirt and searched frantically for it, only to see that it was stuck like Velcro to his chest protector. MLB determined there was no rules violation, and everybody had a good laugh.

Trevor Bauer, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, saw what was happening. He even showed it in the first inning of a start in April 2018, with Cleveland, when he raised his spin rate by about 300 revolutions per minute. Bauer had cited that figure as the increase a pitcher could get by using a gripping agent on the ball.

“There is a problem in baseball right now that has to do with sticky substances and spin rates,” Bauer told reporters then. “We might not have had the technology before to measure how sticky stuff affects the ball, how it spins, how it moves. But all that research is clear now.”

Bauer added: “It is the same argument that was used when steroids were going on in the game. If you just look the other way and you let some people do it, the people who chose not to do it are at a competitive disadvantage. And that’s what’s going on right now.”

As it was in the steroid era, baseball was more concerned with appearances than competitive disadvantages. When home run records started falling — and Congress started calling — MLB and the players union were finally motivated to institute drug testing with meaningful penalties.

Now, it seems, baseball is terrified by the product it has become. While it’s hard to share New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso’s belief that MLB routinely changes the baseball based on the next free agent class, the home run rate did spike significantly in 2015, just after it fell to a 22-year low. When home runs rise, strikeouts typically follow — but now there are too many strikeouts.

The result is a style of play that many longtime observers, inside and outside the sport, barely recognize. It is a style the league promoted by reacting too late to a trend that was clear all along.

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