For the second time in as many offseasons, a cheating scandal threatens to engulf Major League Baseball.
Last week, Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times reported on the latest developments in Brian "Bubba" Harkins' lawsuit against MLB and the Los Angeles Angels, who fired him as their visiting clubhouse manager last March.
Harkins says that the Angels made him a "public scapegoat" as part of last year's MLB-mandated crackdown on pitchers doctoring baseballs with foreign substances—such as the blend of rosin and pine tar known as "Go Go Juice" that Harkins was known to provide.
To help his case, Harkins submitted a January 2019 text from then-Houston Astros ace Gerrit Cole asking to "help me out with this sticky situation." Harkins also says that MLB has evidence that implicates Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez, Corey Kluber and Adam Wainwright.
All of this is coming out only one year after news of the Houston Astros' electronic sign-stealing scheme embarrassed MLB. The thought of one scandal following so closely on the heels of another—with a pandemic-shortened season in the middle, no less—must have some in the league office cringing.
But instead, what if the league just shrugged?
A New Spin on an Age-Old Controversy
The actual rules governing what pitchers can and can't do to the baseball are longwinded and yet, as MLB's glossary makes clear, also simple: "No player is permitted to intentionally damage, deface or discolor the baseball by rubbing it with any type of foreign item or substance, including dirt or saliva."
While these rules mainly exist to prevent spitballs or scuffed balls—which have long been known to have unnatural movement—there's traditionally been a gray area concerning the use of sticky stuff to get a grip.
Take what happened with then-New York Yankees ace Michael Pineda in 2014. The Boston Red Sox called him out for pitching with pine tar during an early-season game, but only because he wasn't being subtle enough about it after he had also less-than-subtly used the stuff in a previous contest.
"I could see it from the dugout," then-Boston manager John Farrell told reporters. "It was confirmed by a number of camera angles in the ballpark. And given the last time we faced him, I felt like it was a necessity to say something."
Regarding pitchers using pine tar in general, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz may have spoken for most hitters when he said: "Everybody uses pine tar. It's no big deal."
The general attitude then was that if a pitcher needed something to get a better grip, well, so be it. After all, a loose grip on the ball carried with it the increased likelihood of wildness and, in turn, an increased likelihood of injury via a wayward fastball.
"Pitching labs have since figured out there is a way to improve the spin rate: load up pine tar or a similar sticky substance on your fingers. With more tackiness, you can create more spin. It’s not exactly legal. Applying a bit of pine tar to your fingers is an accepted practice—enough so that the baseball is not slick—but applying too much or too conspicuously is verboten."
As for why pitchers should want their pitches to spin as much as possible, more spin equals better movement and/or increased deception. Such things shift the advantage to the pitcher in theory, and the numbers from recent seasons bear that out:
It would be one thing if only a select few were capable of reaching especially high spin rates, but that increasingly isn't the case. The league's average spin rate is getting higher every year, and the percentage of pitches that register at 2,500 revolutions per minute has more than doubled since 2015.
The most innocent explanation for this is simply that teams and individual pitchers value spin rate more than they used to, and therefore put in hard work to make it happen. To this end, the use of high-speed cameras to analyze pitch grips and release points is now commonplace.
Then again, it's naive to think that only elite hurlers like Cole and Verlander are trying to gain an edge through the use of foreign substances.
Hence the big question: How can MLB police rules that so many players are breaking?
The Pickle of Policing Pine Tar, Etc.
It wasn't long after Bauer presented his 70 percent estimation that MLB sprung into action and promised to more strictly enforce its rules. However, the threat was very much of the empty variety.
Upon obtaining the actual memo issued to clubs from MLB discipline czar Chris Young, Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer noted that it didn't actually highlight any changes to the procedures concerning pitchers using foreign substances. Enforcement would still be up to the umpires, with an automatic 10-game suspension for rulebreakers.
Knowing this, it's little wonder that no pitchers were actually punished last year.
After all, umpires didn't carefully inspect every pitcher who entered into a game. And while they could have carried out on-the-spot inspections at the behest of managers—a la Farrell and Pineda in 2014—any manager who insisted on such an inspection would have been risking his counterpart responding in kind.
As far as cheating methods go, this is where pitchers using sticky stuff differs from electronic sign-stealing and steroids.
The league adjusted to the latter by implementing testing and punishments, and to the former by restricting access to in-game video. These things resolved the problem off the field, which isn't really an option when it comes to foreign substances.
Short of banning anything that a pitcher could hypothetically use to get a grip, it's catch them in the act or bust. And if the 2020 season proved anything, it's that neither umpires nor managers are overly willing to take a more active role in policing the use of foreign substances within games.
That hints at an unspoken understanding that a lot of pitchers are guilty of it, and that any attempt to assert the rules would invariably lead to a cacophony of ejections and suspensions. Nobody should want that, MLB least of all.
Hence yet another question: If stronger enforcement isn't practical, maybe legalization and regulation are the way to go?
Legalize It, Don't Criticize It
As shocking as Bauer's 70 percent remark was and still is, he might actually have undersold just how widespread the use of sticky stuff is among pitchers.
When Eno Sarris of The Athletic surveyed 20 hitters, pitchers and coaches on the topic, the median answer was that "more than three-quarters" of pitchers are using something. Five respondents even went so far to say the true answer is closer to 100 percent.
If so, then this is frankly a genie that can't be put back into the bottle. MLB should have known that before it made a show of actually policing foreign substances last year. After the 2020 season only reinforced the cone of silence surrounding the practice, it should only be more obvious now.
So instead of doubling down on trying to rid the game of sticky stuff, MLB should instead take a cue from something Bauer said in 2018.
"You can't go check a pitcher every single inning, every single pitch," he said. "So, pick a substance that's sticky, that gives you all the performance benefits and just put it on the back of the mound. That way if you want to use it you can. And everybody knows it's being used."
In other words: Make it legal, so long as "it" is a single standardized substance.
Whether it's pine tar or something else, this substance would ideally be something that helps pitchers get a grip in such a way that helps their command and possibly their spin, but without any undo alterations to the ball itself.
Beyond legitimizing an already widespread and longstanding practice, such a change could also prevent any one team from gaining an edge from its own proprietary substance. That's now an arms race unto itself.
According to Gabe Lacques of USA Today, Harkins says Verlander told him in a phone conversation that "MLB had learned teams 'hired chemists' and commissioned studies 'to come up with stuff more advanced to create spin rate,' using that proprietary information to lure free-agent pitchers."
On its own, MLB simply authorizing the use of a single gripping agent wouldn't necessarily stop teams from continuing their research. But if the league were to threaten fines, suspensions and even lost draft picks for the use of non-approved substances, that might do the trick.
Will MLB actually go in this direction in response to Harkins' lawsuit? Probably not, no.
But if it does, the idea will be to turn a potential scandal into a new normal.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Savant.