As Major League Baseball scandals go, the ongoing controversy over pitchers using foreign substances — sticky stuff like a product called “Spider Tack” — to increase the velocity and movement on their pitches seems relatively tame.
It’s not as game-changing as the Black Sox Scandal. It won’t cause decades of arguments like the Pete Rose betting scandal that has kept baseball’s all-time hits leader out of the Hall of Fame. It doesn’t seem, to me at least, as nefarious as the Steroid Era. It’s not going to turn a franchise into a baseball pariah for a generation of fans, as did the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal.
It is, however, baseball’s dirty little secret, and it will require some self-policing from MLB to clean things up.
MLB has already taken steps in that regard, signaling that it will crack down on pitchers applying foreign substances to the ball. A coincidental drop in pitchers’ spin rates — the radar-tracked metric that shows, in RPMs, the spin of the ball on each pitch — after the edict was issued accelerated the controversy, especially when Josh Donaldson of the Minnesota Twins called out New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, accusing him of being one of the prime suspects in the controversy.
Leading up to Wednesday night’s Yankees-Twins game, in which Cole was the starting pitcher, a reporter on a Zoom media call asked Cole, point-blank, if he had ever used Spider Tack.
Cole’s answer to the simple yes/no question?
“I don’t quite know how to answer that, to be honest,” said the pitcher, quite dishonestly, with the $324 million contract. Cole then went on to strike out Donaldson in his first two at-bats Wednesday and retire him on a popup in their third and last confrontation of the night.
No one at the big-league level has been caught in the act since MLB issued its warning, although a handful of minor-league pitchers have been ejected and suspended from games for the offense. While the controversy stirs, we’ll be treated to watching TV cameras endlessly trained on pitchers’ hands to see if they’re up to any funny business.
Pitchers doctoring baseballs to their advantage has been going on for ... well, forever.
Spitballs were acceptable until they were banned in 1920, but that didn’t stop Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry and countless others from throwing an occasional wet one.
The foreign-substance rules have been on the books for years, but they’ve been brought to the forefront because MLB pitchers have been dominating hitters to a degree that we haven’t seen since the 1960s.
League-wide batting averages are the lowest they’ve been since 1968, and strikeout rates are the highest they’ve ever been, and keep growing.
That’s bad for baseball, because the powers-that-be want to see fewer strikeouts and more balls put into play, which would create more action on the field and keep more fans interested in the games. Fair enough.
But the current situation is compounded by the fact that a team’s manager might be reluctant to call out an opposing pitcher for using foreign substances on the ball when he knows (or at least suspects) that his own pitchers are doing the same thing.
It’s quite the conundrum, which brings us back to the need for baseball to police itself.
It makes me wonder, though: Are strikeouts really all that bad? Are those who strike out a lot bad hitters?
Consider this progression of MLB’s all-time career strikeout leaders:
When Babe Ruth struck out in the first inning of a May 28, 1928 home game against Boston, it was his 850th career whiff, passing the record of 849 held by one Jimmy Sheckard.
The Bambino held that record for 36 years, when, in 1964, Mickey Mantle struck out for the 1,331st time.
Mantle’s career mark — 1,710 strikeouts at his retirement — stood until Willie Stargell passed him in 1978. Stargell’s record lasted just four seasons, until Reggie Jackson went down on strikes for the 1,913th time in 1982.
Jackson finished his career with 2,597 K’s, and that record still stands.
Who might break Reggie’s mark? Well, if you’re getting my drift, it will probably be a superstar, an inner-circle Hall of Famer, just like Ruth, Mantle, Stargell and Jackson. A player with a long, otherwise highly productive career.
Maybe someone like ... Mike Trout, aka the Best Player on the Planet?
Believe it. At age 29, Trout has struck out 1,215 times in his career. Jackson, through his age-29 season in 1975, had 1,129 strikeouts.
See, strikeouts aren’t that awful. They happen in the best of families.
And if they happen as the result pitchers doctoring the ball, well, that’s baseball. It’s been going on for forever, and it’s not about to stop, Spider Tack or no Spider Tack.