On doctoring baseballs

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Late last week, Sports Illustrated published a piece you should devote a few minutes to, on MLB pitchers doctoring baseballs well beyond the rates everyone had accepted just a few years back. I will say that the framing of the piece, both on social media and in the headline and all of those attention-grabbing areas, is a bit comical: as more than one person pointed out after publication, “This should be the biggest scandal in sports” as the quote to pull and feature the day after the NFL said they were going to stop using racial biases for their concussion protocol is funny, but more like Jokerfying your existence funny, not ha ha funny. And Bradford William Davis put up a whole thread on Twitter of problems within MLB itself that are more significant than pitch doctoring, but hey, I get it: editors gotta sell that piece.

Anyway! Despite the framing, the information within the SI feature still makes for a good read that gives you a good sense of where the game, and MLB’s officials, are when it comes to pitchers slathering goop onto baseballs. For our specific purposes, though, I want to focus on one point in particular: that there is a trickle-down effect to the minors, where deciding to just go for it and perfect the craft of cheating, of hiding the evidence, and so on, could be the difference between making it to the majors and escaping poverty-level wages and, well, not doing that.

Three minor league pitchers tell SI they use sticky stuff and they don’t feel guilty about it. “We’re all trying to make the big leagues, and if that’s what it takes to get there, that’s what it takes,” says one. “They want the guys with the best stuff, and the guys with the best stuff are using something.” So he digs his fingers into his team-issued can of Tyrus, and he heads to the mound.

The SI piece also attempts an “illegal pitch doctoring substances are the new steroids” connection, and while it’s a little bit of a stretch in some ways, in others — like how it’s going to impact the game in the minors — it’s spot-on. There are no health issues or risks here, unlike with steroids, and while “to cheat or not to cheat” is certainly a moral issue, gooping up the ball has always been far more of a gray area than steroids were ever really considered to be. In the past, the unwritten rule was always to just make sure that a pitcher wasn’t messing with a ball to the point that he was openly mocking everyone involved, be it the opposing team or the umpires. Guys would get caught for being too obvious, basically, and everyone would have a little chuckle about the hat that looked like it got left out in the mud during a storm and move on. The reaction to steroids was, uh, not nearly as casual, even if there was a bit of a tape delay between peeking inside of Mark McGwire’s locker and Congress calling MLB in for a talking to.

So yeah, a comparatively easy decision to cheat when your health isn’t at risk, if the payoff to doing so is that you end up in the majors instead of in a mid-sized city where teams are buying you sandwiches without mustard but with day-old-looking tomato slices on them, for the sake of cost efficiency. MLB can suspend minor-league players left and right, but that’s probably just going to make for better, smarter cheating and cheaters, because again, the payoff is too good to let a little thing like missing two starts get in the way.

We’re yet to know what punishment in the majors looks like for doctoring the baseball to the degree that it’s reportedly being done these days, but there have been non-subtle hints for a few weeks now that we’re going to see punishments coming. Chances are good they won’t be worse than what the non-unionized minor leaguers saw, since the Players Association will have input on suspensions and what shape they’ll take in the future. And the PA’s input depends significantly on how much of a problem the players believe all of this is compared to MLB. We’ve gone well beyond the realm of hitters being fine with illegal substances being used to improve grip, considering that hitters barely have a chance up at the plate these days, so I imagine the hitters are pissed off, and pitchers can likely be talked into everyone putting their guns down on the ground at the same time, which is to say, I expect the PA will inevitably unite behind putting a stop to this, much like was done with the introduction of steroid testing.

What I do worry about is that all of this pitch doctoring goes way beyond just the players themselves, with coaches encouraging all of it, teams being totally fine with it and essentially an expectation as part of the game, helping put everything where it is now where it’s a problem. (Again, the steroids connection isn’t entirely without merit.) And yet, what we’ll likely see is no one in any position of authority punished, and instead, a few players punished in such a way that discourages the cheating just enough for MLB to fly a mission accomplished banner, as they are so quick to do whenever given the chance. Craig Calcaterra got into this today in his own subscriber newsletter and on Twitter, and I generally feel that when the two of us are on the same page that you should be, too, so there’s that.

From a non-labor point of view, I do hope this is taken care of on a larger scale. I don’t necessarily need pitchers getting banned for cheating, but some way to figure out how to return to the not-that-long-ago days where pitchers could cheat up to a certain point would be a welcome change. We don’t exactly need to go back to turn-of-the-century offensive levels, but something in between this 1968 cosplay bullshit and then would be nice, just to make the game more watchable. Sure, wondering if Jacob deGrom will ever give up a run again is fun and all, but it’s less impressive when the league is looking like they’re going to hit their lowest average since before the mound was lowered to balance out the divide between pitcher and hitter. So let’s hope this all gets sorted out for real, and not by MLB’s usual method of doing just enough to try to change the headlines until the next scandal hits.