Baseball mitt and ball

Major League Baseball’s Sticky Problem

The Biggest Scandal Since Steroids

By Ron Kuchler

Baseball mitt and ball
Photo Credit Shutterstock

Over the years, the two biggest difference of opinions I have had with college friends has been over politics and steroids. For the time-being, let us focus on the second issue, steroids. When baseball destroyed itself with the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, and the one-time the Montreal Expos were a realistic World Series contender, the sport required a marketing miracle to bring back long-time fans. That miracle appeared in the form of the long ball, the home run. 

Beginning with the ’96 season and running well into the 2000’s, home runs were hit in greater numbers and, on average, further than ever. Between 1998 and 2005, there were over 5,000 home runs slugged leaguewide each season. The previous season high was 4,962 in 1996 and prior to the strike of ’94 the league high was 4,458 in 1987, but that was an anomaly, as the league average in the 80s and early 90s was in the low 3,000s. 

It is well-documented that the faces of 90s/00s home run barrage – Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire – were presumed to have received help from steroids and/or PEDs. My contention back then, as it is now, that the players who did not partake in the use of illegal substances – illegal under US government law but that is a whole other argument – were unfairly penalized. The stars of the day who did not use, Tony Gwynn for example, no longer received the accolades from the fans or the media for their on-field results. Due to steroids, fringe major league players were putting up Tony Gwynn numbers. Tony Gwynn’s numbers were negatively impacted by pitchers who used steroids as they unlocked greater power and, more important, durability. 

Imagine the ability to throw fastball after fastball without the worry of arm fatigue. Wait, isn’t that what we are experiencing today with pitchers who are consistently throwing in the high 90s and low 100s? Not exactly. The guys throwing the heat today still suffer from arm fatigue, late in the game, or require an extra day of rest between starts. Back then, the guys on steroids could throw 9 innings and go back out on 3 days’ rest, if necessary. 

But pitchers? What do they have to do with home runs? Everything and nothing. It is pitching today that has put MLB in a sticky situation. Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, batters on steroids could catch up to the high heat as their bat speed increased. Today, batters have discovered the magic of the ‘launch angle’, revealed by George Costanza in the ‘90s sitcom Seinfeld.

“Hitting is not about muscle. It’s simple physics.
Calculate the velocity, V, in relation to the trajectory, T,
in which G, gravity, of course, remains a constant.”

For the past several seasons, launch angle has led to an explosion, once again, in the long ball, the home run. In 2019, Pete Alonso of the New York Mets broke the MLB record for home runs by a rookie, set by Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees in 2017, who had broken the record previously held by … Mark McGwire. Note the leaguewide home runs by year:

  • 2016 – 5,610
  • 2017 – 6,105
  • 2018 – 5,585
  • 2019 – 6,776

Pitchers needed to STRIKE back. Their collective egos were in tatters. What could they do to offset this assault? Managers noticed that as more players were swinging for the long ball that resulted in a greater number of balls in play to their power side. So, managers employed the shift to reduce the number of base hits. However, this did not solve the home run problem. What could pitchers do, perhaps with the assistance of their peers and coaches, to reduce the glamour of home runs? They elevated the glamour of the STRIKE OUT.

And, with the employment of the shift and the rise in strikeouts, baseball has put itself on the verge of cancelling itself. Not exactly, the engagement of modern technology in the game has played a huge part as constant stoppages for potential challenges have killed whatever pace of play the game ever had. That is a story for another issue. How did pitchers elevate the glamour of the strike out? They increased the frequency of strike outs, akin to how batters increased home run frequency.

Unlike today’s batters who are hitting home runs more frequently, and legitimately, pitchers are cheating to increase strike outs. How? Pitchers are applying foreign substances to the baseballs which dramatically affect the movement of the ball.

In a January 2021 LA Times article, they blew up the scandal when they covered a California court case between a former employee of the Los Angeles Angels who was suing the Angels and MLB for his dismissal for providing ball-doctoring substances to pitchers. In the lawsuit cited by the LA Times, the former Angels employee claims Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez, Corey Kluber (who threw a no-hitter earlier this year and was not overly excited about it – maybe now we know why), and Adam Wainwright all benefitted from foreign substances. The lawsuit would eventually end up dismissed by the judge. However, before the suit was dismissed, the former Angels employee provided to the court this text message he says came from Gerrit Cole in 2019…

“Hey Bubba, it’s Gerrit Cole. I was wondering if you could help me out with this sticky situation. We don’t see you until May, but we have some road games in April that are in cold weather places. The stuff I had last year seizes up when it gets cold.”

Do you know how much media coverage this story received? Far less than Hunter Biden’s laptop or the covid-19 lab leak. That is how much. MLB was not ready to spin another scandal and their ‘bought and paid for’ media partners went happily along. 

Personally, when I first read this story back in January, I took a keen interest and shared this opinion. 

“Baseball over the past 5 years has quietly authorized the use of rosin blends to give pitchers better control of the ball which has led to increased spin rates which makes the ball break more. It is the same thing as in the 90s when MLB knew about PED use but turned a blind eye because it helped the sport come back from the ‘94 season cancellation … Yet, other than a brief mention, all networks and writers who cover MLB have completely buried the story.”

On February 26th, Joel Sherman of MLB Network and the NY Post wrote a column on Rule 6.02, the application of foreign substances to baseball. In his column, he does not discuss the LA Times story. Instead, he focuses on the difficulty of enforcing the rule. 

Sherman writes a follow-up column March 23rd. I wonder if he received the green light from MLB honchos to discuss the Angels’ employee lawsuit. He doesn’t mention the lawsuit until the final paragraph in his column. He does share an interesting tidbit of information from Trevor Bauer’s appearance on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” in 2020 when Bauer said that in his estimate 70 percent of MLB pitchers apply foreign substances to baseballs. 70 percent! 

ESPN picks up the story in April and notes that Trevor Bauer and his manager Dave Roberts claim that Bauer is being singled out, and more of his baseballs are thrown out for review than other pitchers. Bauer does not help his case with this quote, which was in response to MLB’s memo they were going to be enforcing Rule 6.02, 

“If I throw a pitch and it gets thrown out and tested, and then has a foreign substance on it, how do they know that it came from me and not from the catcher’s glove or the third baseman’s glove or on a foul ball?”
 Bauer said in his video. “What if it happened to hit the handle of a bat where a hitter has pine tar, or whatever other substance he wants — which is completely legal so long as it doesn’t go too far up the bat? How are they gonna tell that that was me and fault me for using a foreign substance when it could’ve come from any host of other places that are legal?”

Joel Sherman of the NY Post acknowledges the damage doctoring of baseballs has done to the game in his June 2nd column when he writes, 

… MLB lost among its most treasured assets: the value and significance of home run achievements… We now threaten to do the same with pitching.” 

He then goes on to offer his opinions on how to police the game and enforce rule 6.02. All of which appear as if they were written by the MLBPA in conjunction with MLB. 

A couple days after Sherman opined on the subject, SI put out a column on the matter. Their headline, “This Should Be the Biggest Scandal in Sports”. They quote a retired MLBer whom claims that 80% to 90% of pitchers are currently doctoring baseballs with foreign substances. 

My only point in citing these professional sportswriters is, in my opinion, MLB only allowed the goose out of the bag (their MLB mouthpieces – the Baseball Writers of America) after it was an obvious epidemic and was killing the sport. This was a huge story back in January when the LA Times uncovered it. Instead of allowing players like Cole to skate free in Spring Training press conferences by stating he did not wish to discuss the matter, professional baseball writers should have pressed the matter and elevated the gravity of the problem. Perhaps, if these ‘independent’ professional sportswriters had done their job back in February and March, we would not be witnessing a leaguewide pandemic of Mendoza Line averages. 

Buster Olney of ESPN recently revealed that MLB owners agreed on a plan of action to combat the problem and it will be implemented by month end. MLB has previously said, on multiple occasions in prior years, it was going to enforce rule 6.02 and failed to do so. Why should we believe that this time it will be any different? I will close this. As much as the stigma of steroids has kept players like Bonds, McGwire, Clemens, Sosa and Rodriguez out of the Hall of Fame, shouldn’t potential Hall of Fame pitchers (Cole, Verlander, Scherzer) who are connected to foreign substances be kept out as well? It only seems like an equitable application of reasoning by the Baseball Writers of America who vote on their candidacy. 

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