Sticky Fingers
June 9, 2021 9:02 PM   Subscribe

 
Previously
posted by chrchr at 9:05 PM on June 9 [1 favorite]


Perhaps ironically, chrchr, Wet Guy Josh Donaldson has been one of the loudest voices calling this out.
posted by Lyme Drop at 9:21 PM on June 9


The first article is making it sound like the pitchers are going for a safety-in-numbers approach. If everybody is doing it, I can't be individually blamed, right?
posted by clawsoon at 9:23 PM on June 9


Isn't that how the doping era was also hand-waved away by the players?
posted by hippybear at 9:42 PM on June 9 [6 favorites]


"Guys have been using stuff for years,” says Marlins rightfielder Adam Duvall, “But I think recently it’s almost become an art. Guys are getting really good at it.”

Experts do not entirely understand why sticky stuff works so well, but they agree that it does. The addition of any substance to the surface of an otherwise mostly smooth projectile will make it behave unpredictably—Gaylord Perry’s spitball helped get him to the Hall of Fame—but tackier products have even more promise. For one, says one of the NL relievers, gluing the ball to your hand gives you more control over when and how you release it.
Baseball culture has traditionally viewed this as a slightly humorous part of the sport, a cat-and-mouse game within the game. If you can get away with it, great, if not you take the fine. Kind of like tugging on the shirt (or shorts) of another player. Illegal but not dirty.

There was an aging pitcher in Major League who recited all his tricks for messing with the ball (including eating a hot pepper so you could rub snot on the ball.) Gaylord Perry tried to get an endorsement deal with Vaseline. I remember a picture of Art Howe (manager for the A's at that time) with a 10 year old coaching him on a pitch--which a local broadcaster noticed from the grip "Hey, he's teaching him a spitball!" Sportswriters back in the '80s would be outraged if a local guy was caught doing this--but the outrage was at the getting caught part, not the crime ("everyone does it, why pick on him?").

Reading the article they don't deny this. It basically seems to be people have gotten better at it, so more people are doing it. Maybe it is like the steroids thing that way.

Crack down on it if you need for the good of the game, but I hope we don't retcon this into some immoral thing we're condemning people for. It's not causing health issues. I'd even say "cheating" is the wrong word, it's just an infraction.
posted by mark k at 9:57 PM on June 9 [16 favorites]


Aside from the straightforward facets of the game, much of baseball is based on what you can get away with. Can you get between bases safely? Well, that's fair game! Can you convert a pitch to a throw to first without it being a balk? Well, that's fair game! Spitballs are the legacy form of the sport, not the aberration. Bats are only corked if they shatter during an at-bat.

It's an odd sport.
posted by hippybear at 10:04 PM on June 9 [7 favorites]


I absolutely think a crackdown is in order. The league batting average is .237. Before doing anything drastic like moving the mound back, the league should enforce hitter-friendly rules already on the books.
posted by chrchr at 10:13 PM on June 9 [5 favorites]


Baseball culture has traditionally viewed this as a slightly humorous part of the sport, a cat-and-mouse game within the game. If you can get away with it, great, if not you take the fine. Kind of like tugging on the shirt (or shorts) of another player. Illegal but not dirty.

Sure, but in baseball there's cheating and there's cheating.

Putting a little pine tar or some muscle rub is one thing, especially when you make an effort to hide it.
But hiring chemistry labs to develop even better stuff and having so much of it on your glove that the announcers are pointing it out, that's a totally different thing.

I mean, c'mon.
posted by madajb at 10:24 PM on June 9 [9 favorites]


I remember the Pine Tar incident. George Brett, and even included Gaylord Perry with shenanigans involving having a batboy hide the bat. A Fleer baseball card even commemorated the incident with a pic of the two and a well-stickummed bat.

Tragedy of the commons, I suppose: too many folks taking advantage, so someone has to crack down a bit, close a few loopholes, send more folks home for a few weeks. I do agree that this is an infractious endeavour, not an outright moral disappointment like steroids was. League batting average will probably tick upward fairly soon after crackdown-- I hope.

Corked and gummed bats are in the same category, also-- "shenanigans". Baseball is supposed to be crafty, laden with fun rules (three-base error, IIRC, if fly ball caught with hat!), a place where rules-lawyering minutiae can occasionally reign. Anyway, I expect MLB will correct its course here.
posted by Jubal Kessler at 10:28 PM on June 9 [5 favorites]


I’d like to see these rules enforced because right now, we need a baseline on just how good the pitching is right now. Pitchers are just dominating guys these days. Hell, there’s guys throwing 100+ in the minors. If they enforce this and the hitters don’t do much better, then what? But at least we’ll have an idea one way or another how much this is affecting the game.
posted by azpenguin at 11:23 PM on June 9 [1 favorite]


shenanigans

of the kind that severely damages careers in the civilized sports.
posted by flabdablet at 12:20 AM on June 10 [6 favorites]


While I definitely think they should crack down on this, calling doctored baseballs "the biggest scandal in sports" might be just a tad hyperbolic.
posted by TedW at 4:28 AM on June 10 [8 favorites]


Experts do not entirely understand why sticky stuff works so well...

Really? I find that hard to believe. A stickier finger will be able to impart more english to the pitched ball, increasing its rate/direction/both of spin, hopefully turning an average breaking ball into dirty, unhittable shit.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:08 AM on June 10 [3 favorites]


Sports are full of this kind of thing. A refinement of equipment and technique until something is "too far" because someone gets a hair up their ass.

Swimming trunks are too baggy, a Speedo is fine, but the sharkskin suits are too much.

A sweaty hand is too slippery, talc is fine, but adhesives are too far?

Weirder still, the rules permit a batter to put anything on their bat handle to improve their grip so long as it doesn't extend too far. Fine for the offense, but not the defense, eh?
posted by explosion at 5:14 AM on June 10 [4 favorites]


A spitball supposedly performs kinda like a knuckleball; you sort of squirt it out there and it dances around randomly.
Scuffing the ball causes the ball to move in the direction of the scuff (towards it, I think, but I don't remember; it might be away).
Pine tar or other gripping agent lets you throw your regular stuff, but you can impart more spin so you have more control and it moves more.

Even a couple of years ago when a bunch of guys were doing it, if you had something that was obviously visible on TV, they'd basically have to send the up out to check you.

It's in everybody's interest to help pitchers grip the ball, but things are getting out of hand. Supposedly they're looking to identify a specific substance that can either be applied to the balls or allowed in a specific way, league-wide. They have a precedent for this with the rosin bag.

And it takes the league initiating action to check everybody, because if enough guys are doing it, you're afraid of tit-for-tat checking.

Something about baseball lends itself to catastrophic moralizing about how this is the worst thing in the world. It's a 10-day suspension if you get caught, which sounds fair enough.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:17 AM on June 10 [3 favorites]


Also, I kinda miss the days when guys had to be sneaky. They never caught Mike Scott scuffing the ball!
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:19 AM on June 10 [3 favorites]


It’s the object that drives the rest of the game and this is somehow not a particularly big deal?
posted by Slackermagee at 5:26 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]


This:
“I think that a good portion of the increased velocity is because guys can throw pitches at 100% all the time,” he says.
...and this:
there are no [harmful] consequences for your body
...seem like they might not fit together. Surely throwing at 100% all the time is likely to lead to more injuries...?
posted by clawsoon at 6:04 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]


Defector is on the case with coverage of Gerrit Cole's non-answer. The video really is something!
posted by cheapskatebay at 6:07 AM on June 10


I absolutely think a crackdown is in order. The league batting average is .237.

I agree that they should crack down - there are only eight American League hitters over .300 as I type this. (Or I suppose the other option is to allow the Houston solution: banging a trash can to let the hitters know what is coming.)

If they were enforcing the rules, what would Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s batting average be? It's at .330 as it is. (Yes, I am a Blue Jays fan - why do you ask?)
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 6:11 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]


I think baseball can deal with this with some rule changes.

1. Allow batters to charge the mound if they suspect cheating and allow pitchers to flee towards their dugout if they're charged.

2. If the batter manages to catch the pitcher before they reach the dugout, the pitcher must submit to a search by the umpire. If the umpire finds contraband or evidence of cheating, the pitcher is removed from the game. If the umpire cannot find any evidence, the batter is removed from the game and an out is earned for their team.

3. If the pitcher makes it safely to their dugout without being caught by the batter, they immediately inform the umpire of how they were cheating and are then permitted to continue doing whatever they were doing for the rest of the game.

I don't normally watch baseball, but I might with these changes!
posted by RonButNotStupid at 6:26 AM on June 10 [15 favorites]


I'm torn on this. On one hand, yeah, pitchers shouldn't be using substances to gain an unfair advantage. On the other hand, yeah, I really love watching batters get made fools of by some ugly, nasty, a-ball-shouldn't-be-able-to-move-like-that, pitch.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:41 AM on June 10


I also think of this more as amusing Shenanigans and part of The Way Baseball Has Always Been*. But, if the ball tampering is getting more organized and high-tech chemical, well perhaps something should be done. I know this, that in any situation, the leagues will do whatever makes them the most money, integrity of the game be damned.

For now, in a tribute to old-time Shenanigans I offer up dear Joe Niekro, and his subsequent appearance on Letterman.


[*Not that that's a good argument -- major league baseball has also always been played by men, and I'm seriously against that.]
posted by JanetLand at 6:42 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]


of the kind that severely damages careers in the civilized sports.

Oh, I'd like that kind of accountability everywhere, not just sports.

Thanks for that link, flabdablet!
posted by Gorgik at 7:01 AM on June 10


> Baseball culture has traditionally viewed this as a slightly humorous part of the sport, a cat-and-mouse game within the game. If you can get away with it, great, if not you take the fine. Kind of like tugging on the shirt (or shorts) of another player. Illegal but not dirty.

Cheats and hacks often seem to be overlooked until two requirements are fulfilled: Is it providing a disproportionate advantage, and is it escalated through modern technology?

The major leagues never took sign stealing seriously until the advent of live television allowed managers to watch their opponents signs from the dugout. And even then, the MLB only (somewhat) banned the use of mechanical means for stealing signals. The first formal rule against using electronics to steal signs wasn't added to the books until the 21st century. Before then, there were teams installing spotters in their outfields with telescopes to read signals and telegraph them to the dugout. The Houston Astros, as far as I can tell, was the first team to be penalized for stealing signs, almost a century and a half after the first recorded incident of a stolen sign.

Part of the problem is trying to draw a boundary between the so to speak unethical-but-fair behavior and more blatant conduct. It's generally considered fair if your base coach spots the catcher's signals with his naked eyes and uses body gestures to communicate to the batter and baserunners. Either team can accomplish this with similar personnel and effort, which is why the onus is on the catcher to guard his signals rather than on the base coach to display moral integrity. The addition of technology provides an uneven advantage, usually to the home team since they're the ones who can wire up their park. Technology also implies the potential for continued escalation: Better spotting and faster communications means providing more batters with greater foreknowledge of what's coming. Smaller, wireless electronics make it easier to get away with stealing signs.

Which is why pitchers can currently get away with gunk on the ball, as long as it's the right kind of gunk and it's not being overused: Rules changes in baseball often aren't instigated until there's a technology that threatens to change the nature of the game too much, and then those rules only get incrementally modified -- and tentatively enforced -- up until the moment somebody is considered to have taken the cheat too far, usually when a tipping point of some kind is reached. MLB management was looking the other way regarding performance enhancing drugs up until venerated batting records were being threatened (and even then they mostly acted retroactively). The Astros got busted for sign stealing because it helped them get to and then win the World Series. It's going to be harder to get the MLB after pitchers using goop because certain kinds of goop are okay although enumerating exactly which ones are and aren't is effectively impossible. And also because it's harder to prove long-term consequences of defensive cheats -- so to speak, they don't help their own team win, they only make it harder for the opponent to win. Maybe once no-hitters start happening every week or something like that the commissioner might do something.
posted by at by at 7:25 AM on June 10


Well when you let cheaters keep a world series victory after they're caught you've kind of lost the ability to enforce anything else.
posted by srboisvert at 7:27 AM on June 10 [9 favorites]


The Houston Astros, as far as I can tell, was the first team to be penalized for stealing signs

The Red Sox got caught transmitting signs with an Apple Watch earlier in 2017, prompting the commissioner to send a letter to all the teams telling them to cut it out. That’s why the Astros got punished, when the league finally investigated more than 2 years later.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:40 AM on June 10 [3 favorites]


As an Astros fan, I'm laughing.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 7:48 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]


I've never understood why stealing signs is illegal. Signs are transmitted out in the open for all to see. Just limit the practice to on-field players. No recording, etc.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:01 AM on June 10


Yeah, that’s the rule. Guys on the field can and do try to steal the signs, you’re just not allowed to use electronics.

Sorry about furthering the derail, though; let’s get back to talking about this new scandal that involves more people than just my favorite team who coincidentally previously employed Gerrit Cole. Let’s not talk about the past!
posted by Huffy Puffy at 8:14 AM on June 10 [3 favorites]


> Defector is on the case with coverage of Gerrit Cole's non-answer. The video really is something!

To call me even a casual fan of MLB would be a stretch, but I do read Defector's baseball coverage because I'm continually amazed by how much they seem to hate the present state of baseball.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:30 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]


how much they seem to hate the present state of baseball

No one hates baseball more than baseball fans.
posted by explosion at 8:46 AM on June 10 [15 favorites]


A spitball supposedly performs kinda like a knuckleball; you sort of squirt it out there and it dances around randomly.

Wasn’t the spitball banned originally after a player was struck in the head by one and died?
posted by atoxyl at 8:56 AM on June 10


How much do the current low batting averages result from pitchers using, uh, pitch-like substances— and how much do they result from curtailment of sign stealing?
posted by nat at 9:00 AM on June 10


Wasn’t the spitball banned originally after a player was struck in the head by one and died?
Ray Chapman
posted by TedW at 9:40 AM on June 10


Batters recently care more about slugging percentage than batting average, so it's not just pitching or sign-stealing having an effect. They want to hit for extra bases, not walk or just get on base. It wins more games, but also results in a lot more strikeouts and lower batting averages.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 9:44 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]


In terms of "biggest scandal in sport", how does this compare to all the travelling that happens in the NBA?
posted by clawsoon at 9:55 AM on June 10


Wasn’t the spitball banned originally after a player was struck in the head by one and died?
Ray Chapman


And in the usual, roundabout baseball way, this was more because the ball was covered in spit, tobacco, and dirt and resued through the whole game, not because of the pitch itself. The tentative theory is that Chapman didn't see the ball, didn't move out of the way, and was struck in the head mostly because the ball itself was, after repeated use and repeated adulteration, dirt brown.

This is why baseball uniform rules dictate exposed pitcher undershirts may not be white or grey, and why last year, during some game (was it All-Star? I can't remember) one team had occasion-specific white hats and pitchers during this game had to change their hats.
posted by oflinkey at 11:06 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]


Because the incoming pitch would be lost against the pitchers body? That's really interesting I never knew that rule
posted by Think_Long at 11:16 AM on June 10


So I admit I'm not watching much baseball these days, but does this play into the newer metrics clubs are using to optimize their teams? I note run production isn't *that* low by historical standard, even though batting average has plummeted.

One of the themes of the last decade-plus was that smart people and savvy fans knew batting average doesn't matter nearly as much as I grew up thinking it did. Walks were undervalued. But of course watching more players draw a walk and fewer players get hits does not (on average) make for a fun experience.

Then you add in the improved chemical manipulation of the ball and depress batting averages even more. It's like a perfect storm, if storms make the weather very boring and quiet.
posted by mark k at 12:09 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


...seem like they might not fit together. Surely throwing at 100% all the time is likely to lead to more injuries...?

Modern starters are not often left in the game long enough to injure their arm.
Expanded rosters and increased reliever usage are also big factors.

So the average pitcher is throwing harder than before but does it less often.
posted by madajb at 12:58 PM on June 10


How much do the current low batting averages result from pitchers using, uh, pitch-like substances— and how much do they result from curtailment of sign stealing?

Batters recently care more about slugging percentage than batting average, so it's not just pitching or sign-stealing having an effect.


This. There are fewer contact hitting specialists in the league (are there any?). Guys like Rod Carew (whose new biography is called One Tough Out) just don't seem to exist anymore. I'd be interested in seeing an analysis that looked at whether the number of singles has declined in the recent era of baseball where contact hitters are not really a thing anymore. I'd also like to see if there has been a decline in batter vs. pitcher battles where a contact hitter burns though a pitcher's pitch count by constantly fouling off pitches for what seems like half an hour the way some guys used to.
posted by srboisvert at 12:59 PM on June 10


...seem like they might not fit together. Surely throwing at 100% all the time is likely to lead to more injuries...?

Not just throwing, injuries have increased throughout the 2000s, likely due to changes in how teams and players approach the game with the added physical demands top level exertion requires. Not that previous eras didn't have players go all out, but advanced training techniques allow players to develop closer to the limits of their physical capabilities and modern analytics and the technology that allows for things like tracking spin data, bat speed, launch angles, and efficiency of jumps and fielding routes creates a higher demand to optimize usage at all times.

Tracking pitch counts and other signs of wear along with advanced medical knowledge has decreased some injuries commonly used to face. Shoulder injuries have declined over the years, but elbow injuries have increased, likely due to the way pitchers now are able to reach velocities that are near the limit of bodily possibility and current pitch training techniques helps more players than ever approach that end.

Up until near the end of the last century pitchers frequently talked about not going all out with every batter and saving themselves to get big outs and go longer into games. Relieving trends changed that, where fewer innings allows the pitcher to throw harder, the current contract between players and clubs makes using relievers more cost efficient, there are way more players who can throw one or two good types of pitches with moderate control than there are quality starters who generally have to have good control and at least three quality types of pitches, so relievers are cheap and replaceable while good starters aren't making their use more cost effective. The analytic trends place a higher value on pitchers getting strike outs than ever because that is a fielding independent result that prevents balls in play moving runners over or allowing a player to reach on an error and so on. (Ground ball pitchers are also highly valued for keeping the ball in the infield more frequently which leads to more outs and potential double plays.)

The problem is that batters are also reaching ever greater levels of physical ability and skill, which allows them to still be able to hit these ridiculously nasty high spin high speed pitches. The rise in HRs is another analytic trend that comes from a variety of issues, it's the most effective way to score, fewer baserunners make it more so, and its good for the paycheck among other things. More players than ever can hit HRs and MLB had turned a blind eye to ball manipulation to give the pitchers a boost to keep the batters in check. That's gone too far, so now they have to find a way to give some back to the batter without raising HR totals because that was a money losing proposition for them as fans lost interest with that element when it was too frequent. The problem is that both pitchers and batters are so skilled its difficult to find and impose a balanced solution that is also somewhat immune to being gamed by the analytic driven clubs to skew things in a different unsatisfying direction. It's gonna be tough to do and I have little confidence in MLB ownership and the Commissioner's office to do what's best for the game in any case.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:17 PM on June 10


I'd be interested in seeing an analysis that looked at whether the number of singles has declined in the recent era of baseball where contact hitters are not really a thing anymore.

I did some Excel work with full-season batting data from Baseball-Reference.
Year	H/G	1B/G	HR/G	K/G
2021	7.85	5.02	1.15	8.99
2020*	8.04	5.05	1.28	8.68
2019	8.65	5.34	1.39	8.81
2015	8.67	5.77	1.01	7.71
2010	8.76	5.88	0.95	7.06
2005	9.05	6.01	1.03	6.30
2000	9.31	6.11	1.17	6.45
1995	9.17	6.23	1.01	6.30
1990	8.75	6.20	0.79	5.67
* both leagues used DH in 2020 
Findings:
- Hits per game are down
- Singles have been dropping continuously for a long time (I didn't sample all those years in between the ones I've shown, so it may not be truly continuous)
- Homers are way up, though down a bit this year with the allegedly-deadened ball. (This is a different thing from the pitcher-substance thing, they've supposedly modified the ball a little bit to reduce homers.) Note that this is still a higher homer rate than the Steroid Era of the turn of the century.
- Strikeouts are way up
posted by Huffy Puffy at 3:21 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]


Those numbers are per team per game, BTW.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 3:38 PM on June 10


My favorite youtube baseball channel, Jomboy, has a nice summary of pitchers using sticky stuff.

As the Si article and other in this thread have alluded to the sticky stuff really ends up increasing ball spin rate which creates much more ball movement and makes pitches much harder to hit.

Also, I'm amazed at the sheer amount of data that is generated and tracked in baseball. That said, I haven't seen a single set of data that shows on average spin rate has increased across the MLB, although I spent all of 5 minutes googling. Articles such as this one
show a pretty normal looking distribution for changed spin rate centered on 0 change...
posted by Quack at 5:22 PM on June 10


Since both players (who like the control that grip enhancers give on 96+ mph fastballs, which in theory won't go flying astray towards heads) and pitchers don't seem to mind the use of grip enhancers, MLB's solution here is easy, if they were just smart enough to do it.

First, determine a list of up to five acceptable grip enhancers and define how they are to be used (what max quantity, how/when to apply, etc).
Second, institute penalties for use of enhancers that does not conform to the established list, with ejection of both pitcher and manager the penalty (and fines, maybe). Why ejection? Because ejections can't be appealed and are instant. No pitcher is going to want to potentially cost his team a game like that.
Third, call a press conference. At that press conference, say "We knew this was a problem, and we let it go on far too long. Instead of banning it outright, here's what we're doing starting (whenever - first game of next month, first game of next season, whatever works best)" and talk through those first and second concepts.

This isn't hard to solve, but MLB is determined to make it way more of a Thing than it really needs to be at this point.
posted by pdb at 5:22 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


My understanding is that pitchers have been able to magically increase the spin rate of the balls they pitch over the last several seasons and that spin rate is strongly correlated with the difficulty to hit the pitch. A number of pitchers actually called out that this had to be the result of foreign substances; but the league didn’t do anything. Those pitchers eventually stopped talking about it when their complaints were ignored; so they stopped complaining and then their spin rates also increased.
posted by interogative mood at 7:29 PM on June 10


The common denominator in all of the cheating and doping scandals is actual human players. I’ve been saying for years that MLB should take the logical leap, get rid of real, live games and just run every season as a simulation. The people will still get their stats to pore over, the sports books will make their money, and every game will be “played” on the perfectly even “playing field” that doesn’t exist in the real world but that everyone seems to think is attainable for some reason. Once MLB implemented the first iteration of instant replay, this outcome was inevitable.
posted by badbobbycase at 7:34 PM on June 10


Once MLB implemented the first iteration of instant replay, this outcome was inevitable.

It led to blaseball. No verdict about that has yet been reached.
posted by hippybear at 9:05 PM on June 10


After the MLB busted 4 minor league pitchers and indicated they were going to crack down, spin rates for top pitchers have declined.
posted by interogative mood at 12:47 PM on June 11


This isn't hard to solve, but MLB is determined to make it way more of a Thing than it really needs to be at this point.

They already have an approved substance, it’s called a rosin bag
posted by subaruwrx at 9:51 PM on June 15


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