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Steve Phillips

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Within days, Major League Baseball will start enforcing Rule 6.02, which effectively states that a pitcher cannot have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance that could deface the baseball.  

This rule is decades old, going back to 1920 when the spitball was banned from the game. Sure, every so often there have been pitchers in the game who may have cheated. Hall of Famers Gaylord Perry and Whitey Ford were famous for lathering up the ball. At the time, we all thought it was funny to watch them and try to figure out what they were doing to the ball. 

But it is no longer a laughing matter because there is speculation that a vast majority of pitchers are now using illegal substances to gain an advantage.

Over the years, pitchers have bent the rule by using pine tar in cooler weather, justifying its use by saying that it served the same purpose as the rosin bag – which is found on every mound – did during summer months.

Rosin soaks up sweat on a pitcher’s hand and provides a tackiness that helps a pitcher grip the ball. In chilly weather, rosin doesn’t work because there is no sweat present on a pitcher’s hand. Pine tar has been used to help pitchers control the ball early in the season. 

It is widespread knowledge that pine tar is being used this way. Pitchers condoned it, stating that its purpose was to protect hitters from pitches that might stray from their intended target and injure a batter. Position players accepted, and in many ways appreciated, this practice. Unless a pitcher flaunted his use of pine tar, nobody confronted the issue. 

In recent years, there has been a growing understanding of how spin on the baseball improves pitch quality. This has caused pitchers to ramp up their use of sticky substances from rosin and pine tar to military-grade “sticky-stuff.”

The additional tackiness on a pitcher’s fingers allows for more spin on fastballs and breaking balls. This gives curve balls and sliders more bite, sharpness and depth. Greater spin on a four-seam fastball provides more riding action. The more spin on the ball, the greater the forces that exist to work against gravity, thereby causing the ball to move less vertically. At times, it creates an illusion that a pitcher is throwing a rising fastball: a pitch that is very effective against hitters with high launch angles because they swing beneath the ball. 

A couple of years ago, Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Trevor Bauer, who was playing for Cleveland at the time, called out the Houston Astros for their widespread increase in spin rates. He said that based upon his studies, the only way to increase spin rates as much as the Astros had is by using an illegal substance. That made more and more people aware of spin rates and how they impacted a pitcher’s effectiveness.

Interestingly, Bauer, the whistleblower, had a significant spike in his Cy Young 2020 season. Based upon what he has said in the past, Bauer must have decided, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” This was the mentality used during the steroid era for players when they found themselves in a moral dilemma: “If I don’t use steroids, then I may not be able to compete with those who are.” 

This is essentially player-on-player crime. A practice that many have enabled over the years now needs policing. The lawmaker is the Office of the Commissioner and we are now going to see policing by the umpires.

Reports indicate that umpires will soon be checking pitchers during games after the half-innings when they come off the mound. This will maintain the game’s pace of play. Umpires will check hats, gloves and wherever else they feel is necessary to ensure pitchers aren’t using a foreign substance. Pitchers may not like it, but this is what you get when you don’t respect the rules. 

The MLB Players Association and MLB are currently negotiating the punishments that will be handed out to those who use a foreign substance during games. Commissioner Rob Manfred seems to be leaning toward a 10-game suspension without pay. The players’ union will not like the length of the penalty nor the lost salary on behalf of the pitchers, but the position players will want their say as well. Hitters will want the punishment to serve as a deterrent. If the Players Association doesn’t manage this properly they could find themselves with a divided constituency heading into fall labour negotiations.

Hopefully, we will soon see the rules enforced and integrity return to the game. Plus, we will likely see a spike in offence as hitters make up lost ground with spin rates rapidly declining. 

SPRINGER NOT READY YET

I saw some video of injured Toronto Blue Jays outfielder George Springer running in the outfield this week and, to me, it still looked like he was cutting his stride short.

That was a sign to me that he is either not completely comfortable to turn it loose, or he is still a bit tight or sore. Regardless, it would tell me that the 31-year-old shouldn’t be activated.   

The Blue Jays got burned earlier this season when they activated Springer, only to have to put him back on the injured list just eight days later. This time they need to protect Springer, who has a .200 batting average with two home runs and three RBI in four games, from himself and cool their own jets from yearning too much to see him back on the field.

Toronto’s outfield and offence is fine without Springer, who signed a six-year, $150 million contract with the team in January, becoming the most expensive free-agent signing in Jays history. Randall Grichuk has done a fantastic job, taking what would have been Springer’s at-bats.

If Springer was a starting pitcher, I would understand being slightly more aggressive with him, since pitching has been far more of a problem with the Jays this season than offence.

The Jays need to find some answers in their bullpen. Right now, manager Charlie Montoyo can only trust Jordan Romano, so he lines him up to face the heart of the opponent’s lineup. Tyler Chatwood (14 BB in 21.2 IP) and Rafael Dolis (15 BB in 19.2 IP) need to throw more strikes. The worst thing a late-inning reliever can do is walk batters.

I’m not sure the Jays have another answer in the bullpen now. It is likely that general manager Ross Atkins will need to go outside of the organization to find someone.

Nate Pearson doesn’t seem to be an option for the rotation or bullpen right now as he is 0-2 with a 7.24 ERA in Triple-A. He has appeared in four games, including three starts, and has thrown just 13.2 innings. Pearson has struck out 27 batters while walking six. 

I would strongly consider putting Pearson in the bullpen in Triple-A to see if he can just pound the strike zone in one-inning spurts. This would force him to be aggressive with hitters and not worry about pacing himself and managing a game.

The Jays could always stretch him out again as starter later, but maybe changing his focus is what he needs. And then maybe he would develop into a weapon out of the bullpen.

SPITTING SEEDS

- Yankees ace Gerrit Cole’s recent press conference was an utter failure when he answered a question about whether he had ever used Spider Tack, a sticky substance that pitchers are using to add to spin rate. He said he didn’t know how to answer it and then started rambling about past practices of learning from past generations of pitchers. 

What he should have said was, “Yes, that is one of a number of substances that I have tried over the years to help me grip the ball in cold weather. I am not going to get into details about what I have used and how often. I have, like many pitchers tried to find something that would help me control the baseball.” If he had said that it would have confirmed, in part, what we already assumed. 

What was most surprising was how ill-prepared he was for the question. Cole prides himself on preparation and he seemed shocked by the direct question. His agent, Scott Boras, should have done a better job preparing him to answer honestly and put the matter to rest. 

- Mets first baseman Pete Alonso said this week that he knows for a fact that MLB doctors its baseballs through its manufacturing process to manipulate and tap down the free agent, and arbitration, value of players. He believes that in 2019 MLB juiced the balls to allow hitters to hit more home runs and hurt the value of the strong class of free agent pitchers.

The problem with his logic is that pitchers signed five of the seven largest free-agent deals that winter, including Cole’s record $326 million deal with the Yankees. He believes that MLB chose to reduce the flight of the ball this season because they wanted to limit the magnitude of the contract of the strong class of shortstops.

What he doesn’t understand is that value in free agency is not only based upon numbers but also numbers in comparison to others. If everyone’s numbers are deflated, then the best players will still be paid the most money. He will likely have to walk back his claims and restate them as opinions as he has absolutely no evidence to back them up. 

- One of the biggest evolutions in baseball is that there are no longer fastball counts. It used to be that a hitter could predictably look for a fastball when he was ahead in the count (1-0, 2-0, 3-1). A pitcher used to establish his fastball and throw breaking balls and changeups as complementary pitches. In 2008, pitchers threw their fastball an average of 59.4 per cent of the time and in 2021 it’s only 50.4 per cent of the time.

Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw, for example, threw his fastball 71.5 per cent of the time in 2008 and only uses it 36.3 per cent of the time now. The game has changed. Breaking balls and change-ups are harder to hit, so it makes sense to throw them more frequently. It has become very difficult for hitters to even have an educated guess as to what pitch they will see during the course of an at-bat.