MLB needs more clarity on sticky stuff, not more scapegoats

MLB insider Jeff Passan joins Tim & Friends to discuss Gerrit Cole's admission of guilt that he's cheating with adhesive substances, wondering how MLB will handle this latest pitching scandal?

TORONTO – Gerrit Cole’s response was telling on a few levels. Asked directly whether he has used a banned, grip-enhancing substance called Spider Tack, he evaded the question entirely.

“I don’t…” Cole began in response to the question from Ken Davidoff of the New York Post on Tuesday afternoon. After a long pause, he continued.

“I don’t know, if, uh. I don’t quite know how to answer that to be honest. I mean there are customs and practices that have been passed down from older players to younger players from the last generation of players to this generation of players and I think there are some things that are certainly out of bounds in that regard. I’ve stood pretty firm in terms of that.”

So has Cole used Spider Tack? Baseball fans will now draw their own conclusions. And what Cole has to say on the topic matters. Not only is he the American League’s best starter, a three-time all-star whose $324-million contract is the biggest any pitcher has ever received, he’s a prominent voice within the MLB Players Association as well.

But as the conversation around these substances intensifies with warning memos from MLB and a recent Sports Illustrated story headlined “This Should Be the Biggest Scandal in Sports,” it’s also worth zooming out beyond Cole, beyond the grime on Giovanny Gallegos’ hat and beyond the weekly fluctuations in Trevor Bauer’s spin rate.

Because while Cole’s answer was the one that went viral, he’s not the only pitcher asking himself: “What can I use? What are my peers using? How much of this can I admit without facing discipline?” In the absence of clear regulations and consistent enforcement, players, teams and umpires are all left to improvise with judgment calls made in real time. And in baseball, that doesn’t always go so well.

Decades ago, when a few hitters started taking steroids to gain an offensive edge, it didn’t take long for their teammates to notice. And even though much of what those players took was illegal at the time, steroids weren’t banned by MLB until 1991, and testing didn’t begin until 2003. With no real enforcement, players were free to do as they wished. Or, put another way, they had to cede an advantage to their rivals if they wanted to follow the rules to the letter.

In more recent years, teams used technology to steal signs. And while the Houston Astros are most infamous on this front, they weren’t alone. The Boston Red Sox used an Apple Watch in defiance of the rules in 2017 before using their replay video room illegally the following season. And in the years before severe discipline from MLB made the league’s stance clear, other teams faced a decision: copy the likes of the Astros, or risk falling behind.

Now, it’s the pitchers who are caught in this morally uncertain territory. So as tempting as it may be to highlight a pitcher like Cole when his spin rate crashes, it’s a dilemma hundreds of pitchers are facing. Within big-league clubhouses, some believe any discipline should reflect that.

“Just don’t single out guys,” Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “One rule for everybody, that’s all good. We’ve got to follow the rules and (once) that’s the rule for everybody it’s all good. As long as we don’t single out guys, I’m good with it.”

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The Blue Jays have spoken to their pitchers about how to navigate the various grip agents out there – and there are many of them, all the way from the relatively innocent combination of sunscreen and rosin up to industrial strength substances like Spider Tack.

As for the hitters? Good luck. As if increases in velocity, improved analytics and infield shifts didn’t make life tough enough, pitchers can now grip the ball better than ever, allowing them to create more movement and deception on their pitches. And sure, hitters want the guys on the mound to be able to command the baseball, but what we’re seeing now may be a step too far.

“It’s tough because you know there’s the use of sticky stuff, quote unquote,” Blue Jays infielder Joe Panik said. “There’s a fine line between letting the pitchers get a grip on the baseball and the extreme – taking it too far. Now it’s ‘OK, what’s too far?’”

“In a perfect world it would be ‘OK, let’s find a substance that’s in the middle,” Panik continued. “Whether it’s sunscreen and rosin or whatever it is. Something like that. Not, like, a super-tack. For me it’s trying to find a middle ground.”

In theory, an agreed-upon substance for all pitchers would even the playing field. Creating some clarity would also help with the question of enforcement.

At this point, much is left to the discretion of umpires. But inspecting every glove and hat at a time that MLB wants to increase pace of action hardly sounds easy, and umpires have a lot to manage as is. They’re already expected to nail ball and strike calls with the naked eye, keep the game moving along and take the occasional reaming out on national television. Now they’re supposed to assess the relative stickiness of every substance on every glove and hat, too?

“It’s terrible,” one veteran baseball person said. “Their job is already tough enough.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Until there’s clarity for umpires, they’ll continue to make judgment calls in real time. Until there’s clarity for pitchers in terms of rules and consequences, they’ll do the same. And if that leads to inconsistency, can anyone really be surprised?

For some, that leads to a feeling of indignation. Yet others see the rampant use of grip enhancers as the logical response to an environment lacking clarity. As a second front office executive remarked: “if everyone’s doing it, it’s easy to see why pitchers would try it for themselves.”

It’s with that spirit of understanding in mind that Panik shared his hopes for what comes next.

“I’m not coming down on anybody because, everybody wants pitchers to throw strikes, but at the same time it’s trying to find a middle ground,” he said. “Try to keep everybody happy. And try to grow the game instead of fighting over it.”

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