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Sport: Sticky stuff isn't a scandal: Why vilifying pitchers is counterproductive for MLB

A sticky dilemma: MLB crackdown could put minor league pitchers in a bind

  A sticky dilemma: MLB crackdown could put minor league pitchers in a bind In one Double-A clubhouse this week, a group of pitchers was talking about the video of Gerrit Cole stumbling over a conspicuous non-denial of using a sticky substance called Spider Tack to impart an unnatural level of spin on his pitches. Unlike what he estimates to be 85% of the pitchers in pro ball, he doesn’t use illegal sticky stuff — the kind that is suddenly the center of attention in baseball despite an established history as an open secret. (Major leaguers have estimated between 75-to-100% of pitchers use it in recent stories about the concerning rise of sticky stuff influencing the sport.

Pitchers ’ use of sticky stuff — even the performance-enhancing superglue — and the forthcoming crackdown isn ’ t really a cheating scandal , it’s a belated reckoning that has more to do with aesthetics than ethics. It makes all the sense in the world, then, that MLB would move to eradicate sticky stuff as a first and ideally even subtle step in addressing the panic-inducing lack of offense this season. Doing so should make pitchers less effective in the same way that moving the mound back a foot might.

And the entire baseball world would be having a more productive conversation right now if it was focused on easing what is widely recognized as a dramatic transition instead of centering the idea of pitchers getting their just desserts. Fans, too. STICKY STUFF ISN ' T A SCANDAL : WHY VILIFYING PITCHERS IS COUNTERPRODUCTIVE FOR MLB . Pitchers ’ use of sticky stuff — even the performance-enhancing superglue — and the forthcoming crackdown isn ’ t really a cheating scandal , it’s a belated reckoning that has more to do with aesthetics than ethics.

Pitchers’ use of sticky stuff — even the performance-enhancing superglue — and the forthcoming crackdown isn’t really a cheating scandal, it’s a belated reckoning that has more to do with aesthetics than ethics. And the entire baseball world would be having a more productive conversation right now if it was focused on easing what is widely recognized as a dramatic transition instead of centering the idea of pitchers getting their just desserts. Fans, too.

Here are some things that are certainly true: The balance between pitching and offense is a sensitive scale that does not modulate itself and instead requires deft oversight, that balance — or lack thereof — is a critical factor in the ever-fluctuating flavor of the on-field product, the commissioner’s office not only can but should put a thumb on the scale, pitching has recently and increasingly established an upper hand, among the many advancements designed to optimize all aspects of the game is a sophisticated understanding of how tackiness improves spin and spin improves pitching, and, as such, curbing the use of foreign substances is one way to potentially curtail pitchers’ dominance.

He Made Sticky Stuff for MLB Pitchers for 15 Years. Now He's Speaking Out.

  He Made Sticky Stuff for MLB Pitchers for 15 Years. Now He's Speaking Out. Aces texted him and hurlers across baseball used his “stuff.” After the Angels fired him, this clubhouse attendant wants to know why he’s the lone fall guy. “Bubba, you got a minute?”The question caught Brian Harkins by surprise. It was March 3, 2020, and he was finishing a load of laundry at Angels spring training in Tempe, Ariz., the sort of tiresome, thankless task that defined his lifelong career of behind-the-scenes baseball work. He was entering his 31st season as the Angels’ visiting clubhouse manager and his 39th overall with the team.

Pitchers ’ use of sticky stuff — even the performance-enhancing superglue — and the forthcoming crackdown isn ’ t really a cheating scandal , it’s a … Let's Check In On The MLB , Where Everything Has Changed.

Baseball would be better off listening to its pitchers . This doesn' t need to be a cheating scandal .

It makes all the sense in the world, then, that MLB would move to eradicate sticky stuff as a first and ideally even subtle step in addressing the panic-inducing lack of offense this season. Doing so should make pitchers less effective in the same way that moving the mound back a foot might. (Or limiting pitching staffs, or some other form of pitching restrictor plates) That there is already a rule about foreign substances on the books made it the easier, or at least more obvious, option.

But — hear me out — the existing rule is in some ways a red herring for how that ban should be implemented.

MLB is effectively creating a new rule

It is morally neutral to put something sticky on a piece of equipment for a game. There are absolutely actual issues of real-world morality that intersect with sports — exploitation, racism, homophobia, to name a few.

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  Royals' Andrew Benintendi on IL with fractured rib Kansas City began Monday's action at 30-34 and in third place in the American League Central standings, 10.5 games back of the first place Chicago White Sox. Subscribe to Yardbarker's Morning Bark, the most comprehensive newsletter in sports. Customize your email to get the latest news on your favorite sports, teams and schools. Emailed daily.

Beginning Monday, Major League Baseball is ramping up efforts to stop pitchers from doctoring baseballs. Here's how the enforcement will work. The league says it saw more evidence of sticky stuff on baseballs than it first imagined, so it wanted to act before the game devolved into a three-true-outcome experience more than it has. Strikeouts are way up while batting averages have come down even more. The threat of the crackdown appears to be having an impact as June has been a better month for balls in play, although the warmer weather also can play a part in offensive improvements.

As sticky stuff has started to turn into more of a scandal , the narrative has largely been that there’s little-to-no policing — mutually assured destruction keeps managers from calling out opposing pitchers , so umpires largely just look the other way. That isn ’ t always the case, however. So far this season, four minor league pitchers have been suspended 10 games for violating the foreign substances rule. They’re not the first to be popped for it in the minors, where players don’t have the power of a union to grieve (or threaten to grieve) punishments, but MiLB isn ’ t actually sure how many pitchers have been

Breaking the rules is bad, too, because it disrespects the social construct required for sports to work. It is, in other words, unfair. And yes, there is a written rule (actually, two) prohibiting the use of foreign substances on balls. But the social construct engendered by players, teams, umpires and the league was to behave as if there was not a rule. The issue, in fact, is that the total lack of an effective rule has begun to perceptibly alter the balance between pitchers and hitters. (Until very recently, the “open secret” of sticky stuff was mostly marveled at in the media. A 2012 story explored why there wasn’t more ball doctoring at the time.)

In the memo sent by MLB senior VP Michael Hill to teams earlier this week, a copy of which was obtained by Yahoo Sports, he writes that the league determined after two months of closely monitoring the situation, “the use of foreign substances by pitchers is more prevalent than we anticipated.”

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  MLB updates COVID protocols for vaccinated players, staff Most notably, fully vaccinated individuals will no longer be tested for COVID-19 unless they have symptoms or have been exposed to the virus. © Omar Ornelas via Imagn Content Services, LLC The handling of fully vaccinated individuals drew some attention last month after Nationals starter Erick Fedde tested positive for the coronavirus. Fedde, who had been fully vaccinated and was asymptomatic, was forced to go on the injured list. (Between his initial isolation period and subsequent rehab, he ultimately missed just more than three weeks of action.

Starters will be inspected for “ sticky stuff ” more than once per game and relievers will be checked either at the end of an inning or when they’re removed from the game. The Braves and Mets played MLB ’s first game of the day, so, after the first inning, when deGrom walked off the field after retiring the side (that’s 34 Earlier this month, as the sticky stuff scandal exploded, a Dodgers fan posted a video on Twitter of deGrom's touching the inside of his glove on the mound and accused the Mets ace of cheating. deGrom’s teammates rushed to his defense and were unanimous that deGrom is clean.

I don’t know what they anticipated, but it was enough to merit closer observation, and then the actual amount was something more than that. And, for the past six years, no big league pitchers were punished for it — the same cannot be said for minor league pitchers or clubhouse attendants — despite high-profile attention on the matter in recent seasons.

I’m harping on the apparent ubiquity — which has been impressively and extensively cataloged in the media — because it’s hard to say something is “unfair” in the sense that it affected competitive integrity if everyone either was or could have been doing it. The use of sticky stuff, as encouraged by teams themselves and incentivized by the very nature of a highly stratified sport, was unfair almost exclusively to the pitchers who didn’t use it.

a man standing on a baseball field: Rays ace Tyler Glasnow injured his elbow and raised concerns that the sticky stuff crackdown may have contributed. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images) © Provided by Yahoo! Sports Rays ace Tyler Glasnow injured his elbow and raised concerns that the sticky stuff crackdown may have contributed. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

Pitchers deserve to be heard, not vilified

The longstanding assumption is that batters used to tolerate the rule-bending because they saw the personal safety benefit in allowing pitchers to get a secure grip on the ball. Their patience started to wear out as it got harder and harder to make contact, with the increasingly scientific use of sticky stuff at least partially to blame. Now, pitchers are making an argument that the total ban of extra tackiness poses an additional health risk. Clean-handed pitchers are squeezing baseballs — some like chalky pearls in especially dry environments — harder, creating new strain on already maxed out muscles of their arms. Or at least that’s how it feels to pitchers like recently injured Rays ace Tyler Glasnow who admit to going cold turkey in game situations for the first time.

Less sticky stuff, more hits? What to watch to understand the effects of MLB's crackdown

  Less sticky stuff, more hits? What to watch to understand the effects of MLB's crackdown The sudden removal of sticky stuff from pitchers’ hands across the game, after most used it without worry for years — if not their entire pro careers — will change the game on the field and in the box score. In the immediate short-term, BetMGM trader Darren Darby says the increased enforcement won’t change day-to-day handicapping — citing the uncertainty around which pitchers would even be affected, and bettors’ established proclivity for betting overs. As it plays out over the second half of the season, though, we might be able to observe substantive, actionable changes. Here are the key things to watch.

MLB’s release about the crackdown pointed out that hit-by-pitches are up in the most recent, stickiest seasons and reasoned that “the foreign substance use appears to contribute to a style of pitching in which pitchers sacrifice location in favor of spin and velocity, particularly with respect to elevated fastballs.” That rings true, although I’m not confident the inverse will hold.

Meanwhile, many fans’ reactions to pitchers’ complaints have been that they deserve what’s coming to them. I’m sure everything they say is self-serving, I just don’t see why that invalidates it. Tuning out testimony because it’s based on first-hand experience only makes sense if you view the current controversy as a criminal trial against pitchers.

Still, this whole thing would be an easier argument to make if I focus exclusively on those grip-enhancing-for-the-sake-of-safety side of things. The ostensibly less egregious — although always technically and soon-to-be practically equally verboten — concoctions like a blend of sunscreen and rosin or pine tar are the proverbial inch that MLB gave, inspiring pitchers to take a mile in the form of house blends and Spider Tack. But the idea that there are gradations of guilt tied to how “performance-enhancing” a particular substance proved to be misunderstands tacit approval and competitive natures.

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  Fantasy Baseball Today: Marlins call up top prospect Jesus Sanchez, Luis Castillo heating up, waiver options On Fantasy Baseball Today, we recap everything you need to know from Tuesday's actionCastillo wasn't the only impressive pitcher on the mound Tuesday as Taijuan Walker, Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, and Frankie Montas all turned in quality starts. I owe an apology to Walker, who I recently said you should try and trade for anything. Boy, was I wrong. Walker struck out a career-high 12 batters over seven innings on Tuesday and has now allowed one walk or less in six of his last eight starts. If he can keep this level of control up with generating soft contact, he may be on to something.

Everything athletes do is designed to enhance their performance! It’s only a pejorative if you use it to describe something illegal and dangerous like drugs with adverse long-term health effects! Moralizing around the idea that guys did this specifically to get an edge — to get an advantage over batters and one another — is just pearl clutching.

The self-evident and also eminently provable truth is that pitchers use sticky stuff because it makes them better at pitching and because they could. Changing the parameters so that they cannot use sticky stuff for the specific purpose of making them worse at pitching is perfectly reasonable and within the league’s purview!

But leveraging the letter of the law to rush a belated overreaction without soliciting substantive input from the pitchers themselves — even if it’s because there was pressure to do so by other players who had become frustrated and suspicious — is an irresponsible tactic by the league. They could have, should have, or maybe even did know that doing so would mean branding some of their best players with a scarlet letter and sowing dissension.

Nowhere does MLB explicitly call the pitchers it regularly hypes for their unhittable stuff “cheaters” for engaging in what it likely took to make those pitches so beguiling.

(In fact the release quotes commissioner Rob Manfred advising against blame casting and calling this new step “a collective shift.”) And if you look in the right places, the coverage has been careful and considered. But over the past few weeks, the pervasive tenor of a salacious cheating scandal has reached an acrimonious fever pitch that threatens to obscure the pedantic nuances of what is, in spirit, a new rule that should have merited the same cautious rollout as any other.

MLB Power Rankings: Rays, White Sox Fall as New No. 1 Emerges

  MLB Power Rankings: Rays, White Sox Fall as New No. 1 Emerges The top 10 saw a bit of a shakeup after the Rays and White Sox faltered in what was another eventful week. View the original article to see embedded media.The rhythms of a six-month baseball season can create a quirky paradox. The day-in, day-out schedule means there's always something new to react to, while the magnitude of a single game is relatively insignificant when it’s just one out of 162. No franchise plays out this offbeat balance better than the Yankees.

I suspect the coming crackdown is just the beginning of this new chapter in the sticky stuff story. In the event that it is imperfect — that an absolute ban is unsustainable, that umpires find the work of in-game policing to be inexact and managers find that unfair or infuriating, that pitchers get hurt because of squeezing the ball too hard, or get hurt and think it’s because they had to squeeze the ball too hard, that batters are hit by more pitches, that strikeouts are still mind-numbingly prevalent, that spin rates still spike and suspicion still percolates — it will be critical to have a collaborative, good-faith space to work through the kinks.

To claim that pitchers abdicated their right to be useful in creating a new culture around sticky stuff by virtue of their participation in the previous culture is punitive for punitive’s sake. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by alienating the stakeholders with the most intimate understanding of the issue except to project a tough-on-crime, squeaky clean image.

Your favorite pitcher probably used sticky stuff, but you don’t have to call him a cheater.

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Why a new baseball may be the ultimate solution for MLB's sticky stuff problem .
The sticky stuff crackdown has produced just an absolutely bonkers reduction in spin rates across the league. The Nationals ace was particularly incensed Girardi had called for an additional check because, just moments before, a fastball had slipped out of his hand and nearly drilled Alec Bohm in the head. “I had zero feel of the baseball tonight, whatsoever,” Scherzer said. The next day, he found unlikely allies in the Phillies brass. “We’ve been talking about [a more consistent baseball] for years,” Dave Dombrowski, the Phillies president of baseball operations, said.

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