Baseball's latest scandal isn't SpiderTack, it's Manfred

Welcome to another of what some critics on Facebook will no doubt call a hit piece on Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred. Call it what you will. It's no secret that we here at HQ do not think highly of the job Manfred has done or the manner in which he's done it.

What brings it up today is the latest baseball scandal, the widespread use by pitchers of foreign substances that aid them in gripping and spinning the ball. This is and always has been (well, since 1920) illegal, but for a decade or two pitchers have exploited a lack of enforcement to make some degree of sticky goo a near-universal tactic, whether it be the common mixture of sunscreen and rosin (the result of which "could be used as foundation for houses," in the words of one American League pitcher), boiled-down cola, pine tar, or commercial glue. And since they've been getting away with it for so long, some have upped the stakes, using stronger and stickier concoctions that allow huge jumps in spin rates and tilt the balance of power in the game away from batters and significantly in favor of pitchers.

Today's Major League statistics are in some ways shocking—the average MLB player in 2021 bats .238/.313/.399 and strikes out 24% of the time, a significant drop even from last year's mini-season (.245/.322/.418, 23.4% K rate). But even discounting 2020 with all of its oddities and outliers, the decade from 2010-2019 saw batting-average consistency across the Majors, with season averages ranging from .257 to .248 with .255 the most common season result. (Strikeout rates are another story—2010’s average K rate was 18.5% and increased each year except 2015, when it held fast at 20.4%, but there are factors beyond super-spinning sliders and augmented fastballs in play there; the home-run-or-bust style of hitting is just as much to blame for all the strikeouts.)

2010 .257 18.5
2011 .255 18.6
2012 .255 19.8
2013 .253 19.9
2014 .251 20.4
2015 .254 20.4
2016 .255 21.1
2017 .255 21.6
2018 .248 22.3
2019 .252 23.0
2020 .245 23.4
2021 .238 24.0
2021 figures through games of 6/18/21

2010 was known at the time as "The Year of the Pitcher." Little did we know.

Of course, this was on the heels of the steroid era and outsized offense. Widely considered to encompass the years of 1993-2005 (though use still persists in smaller numbers even now), the doping years skewed things starkly the other way, with the MLB average routinely approaching .270 and peaking in 1999 at .271 (’99 K rate? 16.4%.) So we'd have to go back to the ’80s and early ’90s for a baseline normal, but can we? The game was very different then in terms of strategic thinking, home-run-or-bust was not a common approach, no one had heard of the infield shift, and no big-league games were played at mile-high altitude. (For what it's worth, league averages from 1981-1992 were comparable to those in the 2010s, consistently falling in the mid-to-high .250s with an outlier of .263 in 1987; highest K rate was 15.5%, though.)

One thing stands out regarding those spans of time, and that's who was in charge of the game. Bud Selig executed his coup d'état to assume the role of Commissioner in 1992. From that point on, the Commissioner was no longer looking out for the best interests of the sport as a whole, he was looking out first and foremost for the immediate financial interests of team owners. Selig's aggressiveness in negotiating with the players' union backfired spectacularly and gave us the infamous 1994-’95 players' strike and the first year without a World Series in a century. Then came steroids and HGH and so much attention was being paid to home run records that Selig and company did not care that performance-enhancing drug abuse had become rampant—it was making for all those great home-run chase headlines! Look the other way and exploit it as much as possible! Selig was eventually forced to acknowledge that PEDs were, in fact, a bad thing and needed to be policed, but it took way too long to get there and set a troubling precedent for inaction from baseball's leadership on anything not directly tied to getting more money for club owners.

When Selig finally left the stage in 2015, most fans were relieved. The clown prince of baseball crime was gone, maybe things will improve. Well, not so fast. Selig's replacement looked at his record of failures to act on problems, toadying for ownership groups, hostility to players, and rule-muckery and said "hold my beer." Rob Manfred achieved in very short order what might have seemed impossible when he started: He unseated Bud Selig as worst commissioner ever.

There are myriad reasons Manfred is a nightmare for the game, but on this subject he's merely working off the Selig playbook. Which is to say: Do nothing about a known problem as long as you feasibly can, let it fester and explode to untenable proportions before acknowledging it, and then try to clean up the giant mess that predictably results while suffering the negative press of scandal.

We've gotten to stage three of that plan. Good job on facilitating stages one and two to perfection.

Manfred has begun stage three by issuing a memo to all MLB and minor-league players announcing that his office has become aware of the widespread use of goop and that the rules will start being enforced. "I understand there's a history of foreign substances being used on the ball," Manfred said, "but what we are seeing today is objectively far different, with much tackier substances being used more frequently than ever before. It has become clear that the use of foreign substance has generally morphed from trying to get a better grip on the ball into something else—an unfair competitive advantage that is creating a lack of action and an uneven playing field." Manfred undercuts himself with the admission that he "understands there's a history" of violating rule 6.02, basically admitting that he ignored it until his indifference allowed a manageable cancer to metastasize into the current monstrous tumor. And "generally morphed"? Substitute "been allowed to proliferate" for a more accurate sentence.

With violations of the rule near-ubiquitous, a vocal faction around the game favors the simple solution of legalizing goop for pitchers. Except not really, because a significant portion of that cohort also says some of the more extreme products, like Pelican Grip and SpiderTack, cross a line. The faction that maintains the rules should be followed and enforced, that if a pitcher can't get outs without sap on his fingers then maybe he's not good enough for the big leagues, now faces a culture that expects to be allowed to cheat as well as a leadership structure that doesn't know what to do and is almost always focused on the wrong priorities.

Tampa Bay pitcher Tyler Glasnow shared his less-than-righteous outrage after injuring himself trying to compensate for the lack of goo. "My lifelong dream—I want to go out and win a Cy Young, I want to be an All-Star, and now it’s all just shit on," Glasnow said. "You tell me I can’t use anything in the middle of the year. I have to change everything I’ve been doing the entire season. I’m telling you I truly believe that’s why I got hurt." Of course, no rule changed in mid-season, he was just warned MLB would no longer be looking the other way. He knows he was cheating, he's upset because he was told not to continue cheating. He might even think that without being able to cheat, he can never achieve his "lifelong dream." After Glasnow's rant made the rounds, plenty of folks seconded his views, suggesting that some cheating should be permitted. For example, recently retired pitcher Jerry Blevins said this: "Pitchers used sunscreen & rosin every day (myself included) for control of the baseball. Other pitchers used foreign substances to enhance the spin rate. The old, ‘give an inch, take a mile.’ It went too far. This is why we can’t have nice things."

And there've been big rewards to be had for some of these cheaters. One of the acknowledged violators, Dodger pitcher Trevor Bauer, has parlayed his deliberate and studied use of foreign substances into a $102,000,000 three-year contract. "I’ve been chasing spin rate since 2012," Bauer wrote in February of 2020 at The Players' Tribune. "For eight years I’ve been trying to figure out how to increase the spin on my fastball because I’d identified it way back then as such a massive advantage.... I haven’t found any other way except using foreign substances." He wrote that as part of a piece criticizing the Houston Astros for not just their sign-stealing ways but for using sticky stuff on the baseball. "Baseball will never address that problem unless it has to," he continued, "because I would guess 70% of the pitchers in the league use some sort of technically illegal substance on the ball. It’s just that some organizations really know how to weaponize that and some don’t. So the Astros are super advanced analytically and they know how to weaponize it." Recognizing that the practice wasn't going away, Bauer joined in and just went with it, evidenced by a 17.1% increase in his fastball spin rate from 2019 to 2021. "I just want to compete on a fair playing field," he told the LA Times. His manager, Dave Roberts, didn't have a problem with it. "People push limits," Roberts said. "That's just the way the world works."

Gerrit Cole is thought to have adopted a foreign-substance arsenal when he joined the Astros in 2018; he parlayed his success in Houston into a mammoth nine-year free-agent contract with the Yankees. The other day, a reporter asked Cole point-blank if he uses goop, specifically SpiderTack, when he pitches and his response was a helping of word salad worthy of a corrupt candidate for Congress. "I don't quite know how to answer that, to be honest," Cole said. "There are customs and practices that have been passed down from older players to younger players, from past generation players to this generation of players. I think there are some things that are certainly out of bounds in that regard, and I've stood pretty firm in terms of that, in terms of the communication between our peers and whatnot. Again, like I mentioned earlier, this is important to a lot of people that love the game, including the players in this room, the fans, including teams. If MLB wants to legislate some more stuff, that's a conversation we can have because ultimately we should all be pulling in the same direction." Notice the complete lack of an answer to the question.

The bottom line is that Bauer was right. Baseball clearly was not going to do anything about the rampant abuse of the foreign-substance rule unless it was forced to. Because Manfred is incompetent/uninterested in acting in the best interests of baseball. Regarding Manfred's memo warning of the coming crackdown, Bauer tweeted, "Hard to hear [the commissioner's office] talk about 'competitive integrity' when they have no integrity to begin with." White Sox pitcher Carlos Rondón cited Manfred's lack of response to the Astros' sign-stealing scandal, saying "It's hard to see this, giving out 10-game suspensions for cheating [with foreign substances] but you give the Astros no suspensions at all.... [You crack down on pitchers but] you can't suspend the team you actually knew was cheating during a playoff game, that's on you."

It could end up being difficult convincing this generation of pitchers that using goop of any sort is unfair and properly banned and in the interest of labor peace, and given the Commissioner's general ineptitude, some form of sanctioned-cheating compromise is coming. The Asian leagues use a baseball manufactured by Mizuno that comes out of the box precoated with a proprietary polymer substance that gives the surface of the ball some minimal tackiness; maybe going to that style of ball would satisfy enough of them to avoid legalizing, say, pine tar for pitchers—which would undoubtedly just focus those who "push limits" to disguise their SpiderTack as pine tar and solve nothing.

No one respects Rob Manfred. To ownership he is a loyal and spineless toady. To players he is an enemy of fair play. To fans he is a bull in a china shop, wreaking destruction on the game. At least Selig inspired the fear of a despot; Manfred inspires nothing but contempt.


What's your take on pitchers using sticky stuff as grip/spin enhancers?


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