Here we go. Major League Baseball’s era of sticky-substance enforcement begins Monday with Game 1 of the Braves-Mets doubleheader at Citi Field.
Shouldn’t the gambling community, of which MLB is now a member, get in on the action and start a pool over the first pitcher to get caught?
Actually, if you really want to strike it rich, try to predict the top unintended consequence of this necessary initiative.
Just as replay review created the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal and the introduction of Statcast escalated usage of illicit sticky stuff by pitchers, surely the crackdown on foreign substances will produce some butterfly effect that ultimately will have us slapping the collective sides of our heads in astonishment.
Already, there’s a leader in the clubhouse, after the Rays’ Tyler Glasnow asserted he suffered a significant right-elbow injury as a result of going without his standard sunscreen-and-rosin mix and changing his grip as he prepared for this new era.
Will it be an injury epidemic? Too large of a shift to offense? Some mad chemist turning rosin, the one grip aid still allowed (because sunscreen and rosin put together right can be just as effective as Spider Tack) into the adhesive equivalent of Walter White’s Blue Sky from “Breaking Bad”?
It’s an extremely difficult query to anticipate. Like any sport (though other sports don’t seem to generate the same sort of passion over rule/style alterations), baseball might have to settle for the immediate positive impact and then work to quell the negative repercussions whenever they arrive.
“We want to be thorough in how we look at it to make sure, there could be an unintended consequence [that we’d want to tackle],” Michael Hill, MLB’s senior vice president of on-field operations, said Friday in a Zoom interview. “But in the long run, when we get through this, I think we’re going to see a better version of our game.
“Watching one outing of a star pitcher and how he pitched, his strikeouts were down. He went eight innings. He got a W. More balls were in play, and that’s why, when we talk to our fans (via myriad surveys), that’s what they want. They want more action. They want fewer strikeouts. If the early returns are indicative of what we think is going to happen when enforcement really goes into play, then I think we’re well on our way of improving the game, which was the ultimate goal.”
Hill, of course, was referring to Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, who defeated the Blue Jays this past Wednesday in an impressive effort despite tying a season low with four Ks. For the two-week period from June 3 (when word got out of MLB’s intentions to imminently enforce) through June 17, virtually every offensive statistic increased relative to the season’s first two months (April 1-June 2). Batting average climbed substantially, from .236 to .247, and strikeout percentage declined, from 24.2 percent to 23.1. Average spin rates for fastballs, curveballs and sliders all dropped, though none of them by huge percentages.
Cole and his former UCLA teammate Trevor Bauer, who like Cole experienced a significant spin-rate drop, both were vocal on the upcoming enforcement, though at different volumes. Hill and former Yankee Raul Ibanez, who holds the same title as Hill, said they reached out to every current major league manager as well as a slew of current and former players for their input. MLB’s baseball operations office also includes former players Rajai Davis, Joe Martinez (a pitcher) and Bo Porter.
In its announcement this past week, MLB noted that batters were getting hit by pitches at an all-time high, refuting the longtime notion that pitchers primarily went to these substances for control purposes.
Said Ibanez: “Hit batters have increased significantly and because people are pitching at the top of the strike zone. It’s not just hit batters, it’s guys getting hit in the head, in the face area, and not just the balls that are hit by pitches, but the balls that are near misses.”
The percentage of hit batters stayed the same, 1.2, during the June 3-17 period; that’ll be a number to monitor going forward.
In all, it’s a bit messy, as these changes tend to be. Regardless, I do think there are some steps the game can take to limit future unintended consequences for any and all shifts in policy and practice:
- Improve the relationship between MLB and the MLB Players Association. More open lines of communication could produce better solutions while mitigating the in-house criticism. Of course, if this dynamic remains as toxic as it currently is, with the Mets’ Pete Alonso accusing the owners of altering the ball each year depending on the makeup of the upcoming free-agent class, then sticky stuff will drop down to the least of the league’s problems.
- MLB can add even more ex-players to its employ. If you can’t join ’em, then beat ’em, right? Without feedback from current players, intelligent retirees, plugged into the player community, can only help.
- Hire those in the know. Former Angels visiting clubhouse manager Bubba Harkins — let go two years ago for inventing a sticky concoction that appealed to many top pitchers, allegedly including Cole — shared his frustrations with Sports Illustrated this past week about being the lone scapegoat from this kerfuffle. He’s right, there should be zero scapegoats. Why not offer Harkins a job as a consultant, the same way MLB brought aboard Tony Bosch (and vouched for him to law-enforcement officials) to take down Alex Rodriguez and his fellow Biogenesis customers? Harkins is currently involved in litigation with MLB, yet I bet that would go away for the right price.
- Change to synthetic baseballs. How many of baseball’s headaches emanate from the sphere itself? Former Mets reliever Jerry Blevins wrote a guest column for The Post complaining about the slipperiness of the baseball. And remember the time spent discussing the ball when home runs peaked two years ago? A synthetic ball, put together with the players’ cooperation and not subject to the variability of the hand-sewn balls, could eradicate a significant percentage of these sorts of headaches.
“One thing I’ve learned through this process is that no two pitchers have the same view on our baseball,” said Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations. “That said, I recognize it’s an extremely important piece of equipment and that there is always opportunity for improvement. We’re going to be monitoring very closely the effect this policy change has, not just on the competition but player safety, too. If necessary, we’ll modify it. That would be irresponsible not to keep that option open.”
On one level, unintended consequences keep baseball fun, creating villains and whistleblowers and imbroglios. Probably more fun for those of us on the outside, though, than the participants and supervisors. So the folks inside will keep toiling away to solve upcoming concerns, hopefully boosted by the reality that, here in 2021, the game will be a cleaner watch thanks to the reduction of sticky stuff.