Major League Baseball is once again at the forefront of sports news for all the wrong reasons. Complaints and evidence dating back years of pitchers using illegal foreign substances to enhance spin rates and make their throws unhittable have prompted an outcry from batters and fans.
By letting cheating escalate to this scale, MLB and Commissioner Rob Manfred showed their ineptitude and unwillingness to confront the sport’s dark reality.
The ongoing pitching scandal is far greater in scope and impact than the elaborate Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal that won the franchise the 2017 World Series.
The national media began picking up on the story after umpire Joe West noticed a dot on the brim of St. Louis Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos’s hat. West had Gallegos remove the cap and confiscated it. Cardinals manager Mike Shildt didn’t take kindly to West’s process, getting in an argument with the umpire that resulted in his ejection.
At his post-game press conference, Shildt teed off on MLB and its inconsistent policing of pitchers.
“This is baseball’s dirty little secret,” Shildt said. He defended Gallegos, claiming the hat accrued debris over time. Shildt also acknowledged that his reliever might’ve used rosin that could’ve mixed with sunscreen. None of which MLB is interested in punishing players for because hitters prefer pitchers have a reliable grip on their throws.
“Major League Baseball’s got a very very very tough position here because there are people that are effectively, and not even trying to hide, essentially flipping the bird at the league with how they’re cheating in this game with concocted substances,” Shildt said. “There are players that have been monetized for it. There are players that are obviously doing it, going to their glove. There’s clear video of it. You can tell the pitchers that are doing to it because they don’t want to go to their mouth.”
In March, MLB began notifying teams it would use Statcast data to check for anomalies and increased spin rate. As early as 2018, pitcher Trevor Bauer began hinting that certain clubs were using illegal substances to increase spin rates. By February of 2020, the Cy Young winner theorized that 70% of pitchers used illegal sticky substances.
If MLB knew some teams might be using sticky concoctions as early as 2018, how come the league allowed it to fester and become an epidemic? Shildt believes that in trying to avoid another public relations fiasco, baseball stumbled into one.
“Understandably, and I know this comfortably, that Major League Baseball is trying their best to do it [police pitchers using illegal substances] in a manner that doesn’t create any black eyes for the integrity of the game that we love,” Shildt said. “But speaking of integrity, how about the integrity of the guys that are doing it clean?”
“So, you want to police some sunscreen and rosin? Go ahead,” Shildt said. “Get every single person in this league. Hit by pitches will just continue to go up, balls will get away, but why don’t you start with the guys that are cheating with some stuff that’s really impacting the game?”
Shildt isn’t overstating the impact of sticky substances on baseball. In an article for Sports Illustrated, Stephanie Apstein and Alex Prewitt noted that the league-wide batting average is .236, a historic low. Statcast revealed that four clubs increased their spin rate (rotations per minute) by over 3% from last season, and seven clubs went up by over 2%. The average increase across the league is 0.52%.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are attempting to spin their way to back-to-back World Series titles. Los Angeles’ pitchers have a spin rate this year 7.04% higher than last season’s mark. The easiest explanation for the monumental jump is to point the finger at someone who has known about the cheating for years: Bauer.
The Dodgers signed Bauer to a three-year, $102 million deal this offseason after he won the 2020 National League Cy Young and led the NL in ERA. He’s pointed out in the past that illegal substances can easily add 300 or more RPM to a pitcher’s fastball.
Several executives and players anonymously spoke to Sports Illustrated about baseball’s latest scandal.
“It’s like steroids,” said an NL reliever. “For us that refuse to use sticky [substances], we get pushed out, because ‘you don’t have great spin rate.’ Well, no shit, because I don’t cheat.”
Sources commonly compared the use of sticky substances to MLB’s steroid era, something Bauer mentioned in 2018.
“People need to understand the significance of spin,” a team executive told Sports Illustrated. “It is every bit as advantageous as a [performance-enhancing drug]—except it has been sanctioned by the league and there are no [harmful] consequences for your body.”
MLB owners held meetings for two days in early June to plan a counterattack against the newest threat to baseball. Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported the owners discussed three areas of emphasis. The plans include emphasizing teams policing their players, calling for umpires to check and confiscate equipment, and increasing enforcement in the minor leagues.