It’s been the dirty little secret in baseball for years. Pitchers were doing something to baseballs to increase spin, which either helped with velocity or movement or both. This has been a factor in the far bigger problem than shifts for baseball, i.e. the inability for anyone to make regular contact against the devil magic pitchers have been producing.
There was little MLB could do. Unless it was going to check every pitcher every inning, which would destroy Rob Manfred’s furious and confusing crusade against games going over three hours, it was left helpless. Batters and teams were loathe to say anything themselves, because if they requested an opposing pitcher or ball be checked, they could be sure it would boomerang on them thanks to their pitchers doing whatever it is they do. It was mutually assured destruction.
Pine tar, sunblock, lube, you name it. Baseballs are Petri dishes/mini landfills. But the league is apparently going to try to get a handle on this.
A memo to all 30 teams went out that said MLB will be monitoring pitchers in various ways. Gameday compliance officers will be around batting cages, dugouts, and bullpens to see what there is to see. Baseballs will be randomly checked as well as purposely examined if there is suspicion of underhandedness.
And like any other totalitarian authority, technology will also be used. Any jump or change in spin-rate for a pitcher, from game to game or month-to-month, will cause greater examination. Which the league can monitor thanks to Statcast.
How much any of these can do is a guess at best. It’s unlikely that pitchers were openly slathering themselves in their goo of choice right in the pen or dugout. If the compliance officers can’t get a look at the clubhouse itself, well we know where the thieves den will be for pitchers.
Perhaps the third-party examinations of balls will get down to the microbe or quantum zone levels. But we’ve been studying baseballs for years now for changes in air resistance or seam-height to decode whether they’ve been juiced or not. If they’ve been covered in enough K.Y. jelly that they are retired to the local swingers’ club to live out the rest of their days gloriously, we’d probably know by now? It’s likely that pitchers have gotten to the point where they’re using stuff they know will disappear after a short amount of time (this is why so many athletes figured out cocaine was the way to go back in the day, after all). Again, it depends on how deeply the baseballs are examined.
It’s the monitoring of spin-rate that will be the most fascinating to watch. Pitchers will be doing their best to set a baselines like concussion tests, ones they can match under duress, as it were. And if there’s any changes, you can bet they’ll be screaming, “I changed my grip!” Which pitchers do all the time. And how would MLB prove that wasn’t true? Their story is they’ll be specifically examining the baseballs from a pitcher who shows an abnormal jump in spin-rate, but then it depends how exactly they’re testing it.
And what will they do with pitchers who have been at this for years? Not all are obvious like Bauer. Their spin-rates won’t change drastically. What’s the in with them?
What we’re all hoping of course is that this phalanx of MLB prying eyes catches someone like… oh, I don’t know, Trevor Bauer? Bauer had a jump in spin-rate from 2019 to 2020, conveniently his free agent year, on all of his pitches. What would MLB do in this instance? What’s the threshold of abnormal? What’s the jump in spin that trips the alarm? And what will the punishment be? None of that is known yet.
The hope with this memo is that pitchers will be warned off doing anything before it gets to any of these stages. That the mere presence of Big Brother watching will keep the tubes of stuff from ever opening. That sounds more hopeful than expectant. We’ve seen how far players will go to get an advantage when they know it’s against the rules (Houston, hello).
But MLB had to do something. While it makes all the noise about the rule changes aimed at shifts or getting base-stealing out of mothballs, the inability for hitters to make contact is the biggest issue in the game. Doctoring the ball feeds into that. While MLB has never expressed any desire to move the mound back, and it can’t limit how pitchers evolve into throwing the ball harder and harder with more and more break, this is something it can do. Let’s watch those contact rates...