MLB's Sticky 'Little Secret' Is a Problem That's Not Going Away

Abbey MastraccoContributor IIMay 28, 2021

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, center, continues to speak his mind as he points to relief pitcher Giovanny Gallegos after third base umpire Joe West, left, ejected Shildt during the seventh inning of an interleague baseball game against the Chicago White Sox Wednesday, May 26, 2021, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Every week, it seems baseball is engulfed in strife about the rules, written and unwritten. This time, the rule is clearly written, but somehow, it's always murky.

Or in this case, it's sticky.

MLB has found itself in a sticky situation after St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt went on a rant that lasted nearly 10 minutes Wednesday afternoon. Cardinals pitcher Giovanny Gallegos was asked to remove his cap and put on a new one after umpire Joe West thought he detected sunscreen on the bill.

The Cardinals defeated the Chicago White Sox 4-0 at Guaranteed Rate Field, but no one really won this one. Shildt said what others in baseball have been hinting at for a long time: Baseball has a problem with pitchers doctoring baseballs.

"This is baseball's dirty little secret, and it's the wrong time and the wrong arena to expose it," Shildt said in his postgame press conference. He then seemingly inferred that his wife, Michelle, might be upset about the fine he was going to incur for speaking out, "gosh darn it." Wife Guy jokes aside, he had a good point: MLB is addressing the symptom but not the disease when it comes to doctoring baseballs with tacky substances by singling out some and not enforcing the rules with others.

"Here's the deal," Shildt said. "First of all, Gio wears the same hat all year. Hats accrue dirt. Hats accrue substances, you know? Like, just stuff. We pitched in a day game, so did Gio have some sunscreen at some point in his career to make sure he doesn't get some kind of melanoma? Possibly. Does he use rosin to help out? Possibly. Are these things that baseball really wants to crack down on? No, it's not. I know that completely firsthand from the commissioner's office."

It's not often someone in the game goes scorched earth on it and reveals inside information so brazenly, but he felt he needed to stick up for his pitcher who was being unfairly singled out. He asserted that Gallegos is pitching clean, saying his traveling secretary said the cap switch didn't affect his performance, but he exposed MLB's sticky secret.

The problem with pitchers using substances to get a better grip on the ball is that the practice is so widespread, MLB doesn't know how to police it. And when it does, it feels like scapegoating.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

A mix of BullFrog sunscreen and rosin has long been a favorite of pitchers when they need to get a grip. This also helps prevent beanballs, effectively keeping hitters safe. But studies, like the ones by Driveline Baseball or the research conducted by an independent pitching lab for Eno Sarris of The Athletic, have proved pitchers can spin the ball with grip enhancers. With much of the sport played in harsh weather, pitchers will take any advantage they can get.

MLB has said reform is coming, but it wants to study the depths of the issue before cracking down. Michael Hill, a senior vice president of on-field operations for MLB, wrote a memo to teams in March detailing the efforts to crack down on the problem. It outlined three action items:

  • Game-day compliance monitors and electronic compliance officers checking dugouts, clubhouses and other team areas for violations involving foreign substances;
  • Balls being taken out of play and submitted to MLB to be studied by a third-party lab;
  • Statcast data analyzed by the commissioner's office to track changes in spin rate.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

It appeared to be a step in the right direction, and it seemed sensible for MLB to study the issue before deciding how to proceed. The problem is that little has been done since then, and Shildt's assertion is that MLB doesn't want to crack down. If that's the case, then it's easy to understand why he was upset.

His comments probably signaled growing resentment within the game.

Early in April, multiple balls thrown by Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher and reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer were reportedly collected and sent to a lab to determine whether or not he violated rule 6.02(c).

But since then, nothing has happened. How can the league prove Bauer applied the substance? And if he does end up punished, the MLBPA can appeal.

Bauer blasted The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal, the reporter who broke the story, calling him a "gossip blogger." He said he was not under investigation and that MLB was doing a study on baseballs that involved all pitchers.

"They're not doing anything with them. No one is under investigation," Bauer said in a press conference. "These gossip bloggers just out here writing stuff to try to throw water on my name or whatever. I don't know. Just personal vendettas, I guess."

Bauer has talked about mixing substances to create a sort of stickum that increases his spin rate on the ball. He's also accused others of doing the same. So it's not fair for anyone to point fingers, but here we are because of the league's inaction.

There are two options going forward.

First, MLB can legalize it. It can say Bauer and everyone else can use whatever they want to spin the ball. If everyone is doing it, then make it legal.

But this does give pitchers a greater advantage over hitters at a time when pitching has gotten so good that it's diluting the game.

One player development executive told Sarris that using these substances is "better than steroids." Philadelphia Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto said if pitchers get to use these substances, then hitters should get to use steroids. He wasn't completely serious, but that's the kind of advantage we're talking about.

Careers are on the line, and it's not fair to hitters that their paychecks will be lower because they struck out against pitchers who cheated.

The other option is for baseball to take action.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Commissioner Rob Manfred has essentially taken none on baseball's major controversies. The Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox got off easy in the sign-stealing investigations. The managers who lost their jobs, Alex Cora and A.J. Hinch, are already back in major league dugouts.

Fans are still angry, and if you need evidence, look at the myriad ways people are trolling the Astros, like dressing up as Oscar the Grouch and bringing trash cans to games. Even stadium staff have played songs like "The Sign."

The way to prevent these controversies is to enforce the rules and dole out punishments instead of scapegoating people like Gallegos and former Los Angeles Angels clubhouse attendant Brian "Bubba" Harkins. Harkins was fired in March 2020 after 38 years with the club and 30 as the visiting clubhouse manager at Angel Stadium for supplying a mixture of pine tar and rosin to pitchers around the league. He subsequently sued the Angels, though a judge dismissed his defamation case in January.

The answer is not to do nothing, which is what Shildt says baseball is doing. Maybe this incident was the domino that needed to fall for MLB to start punishing pitchers. Maybe it's the "crescendo," as the Cards' skipper put it.

But if it's not, then baseball will continue to get embarrassed, and this anger will fester inside the sport and among fans.