Pitchers, umpires face delicate balancing act due to unwritten grip rules

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, centre, 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 a game against the Chicago White Sox Wednesday, May 26, 2021, in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Whenever I hear a player or manager moan about pitchers using foreign substances, the first thing I think is: did you bounce this off your own pitchers before complaining? Followed by: are you really sure you want a deep dive into this issue?

The simple truth is that no one knows what to make, yet, of baseball’s newish infatuation with the stuff pitchers are using to get what they would say is better grip, and hence more control, yet has hitters complaining about increased and “doctored” spin rates. There are rules and 10-game suspensions for discolouring, defacing or otherwise adding stuff on baseballs – have been since before the middle of the last century, in fact. But the game has treated it as a "don’t ask, don’t tell" thing akin to the NHL’s rules about illegal curves on sticks.

Yes, Major League Baseball sent out a memo in the spring notifying teams that it would increase in-game monitoring to include random and targeted confiscation of baseballs, which would be sent to an independent lab for analysis, and digital monitoring of spin-rates for suspicious increases. Not made public was whether there would be a punitive mechanism, in terms of extra fines or suspensions. We’ve seen balls removed from games, but to what end? Written warnings to pitchers and teams? A mere collection of data?

What we have here, essentially, are unwritten rules surrounding the enforcement of written rules; we know you’re cheating, just don’t make it too obvious and put us – the game, the umpires, teammates, opponents, managers – in a difficult position. Don’t bring out emery boards or sandpaper or saws or knives or bottles of stuff. Try to at least pretend you don’t have something smeared on the inside of the glove or belt buckle or on your neck.

And that’s exactly what St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Giovanny Gallegos did not do this week when he came into a game with a hat that clearly had some substance – sunscreen, whatever – on its bill. Umpire Joe West made him change hats, and manager Mike Shildt came out to argue … well, no one knows what, exactly … and was tossed.

"You want to police some sunscreen and rosin? Go ahead. Get every single person in this league," Shildt said. "Why don’t you start with the guys that are cheating with some stuff that’s really impacting the game …"

Shildt then went on to talk about pitchers with "filthy stuff coming out of their gloves … concocted substances … you can tell the pitchers who are doing it because they aren’t going to their mouths."

Shildt called it "baseball’s dirty little secret," and said West chose "the wrong arena" to make his call.

We can debate that latter comment. West later told a reporter he confiscated the hat to prevent the other team from lodging a complaint. Where other people saw heavy-handedness, I saw a veteran umpire exercising game management.

At a time when pitchers are throwing harder and hitting batters at historic rates, there is an understanding that a little better grip is not the worst thing in the world. In fact, baseball is working with Rawlings, its supplier, to come up with some sort of tackier cover for the ball. Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez, among others, cites it as a safety issue.

At the same time, the emphasis on “spin rate” – analytics have made spin a quantifiable and sought-after thing – has given pitchers a financial incentive to, um, experiment. It’s a pro’s quid pro quo, basically, and for all the loading up of the baseball that has happened down through the years, the number of fines and suspensions are strikingly small.

And so here we are again with baseball: what is cheating and what isn’t cheating? My favourite reaction to Shildt’s comments came from Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who waxed eloquent in the Los Angeles Times about the situation, saying: "Right now, where we’re at, players are going to push the limits. I do think that at some point, baseball will come up with something unilaterally. But … yeah, I’ve seen an increase (in pitchers using substances.)"

But then the payoff: asked by the Times’ Jorge Castillo if he’d talked to his pitchers about it, Roberts said he hadn’t. Asked if he knew if his pitchers were using foreign substances, he said: "I don’t know. I don’t have those conversations. I really don’t know."

If that isn’t Major League Baseball, nothing is.

I’m not certain this is as complicated as people are making it out to be. Here’s the thing: the Houston Astros cheating scandal changed the debate around cheating and changed the focus of baseball’s efforts to curtail it. At some point, commissioner Rob Manfred and his growing legion of vice presidents of baseball operations rightly shifted their focus from individual players to organizations and front offices. It made sense: punishing players is more difficult because they are represented by the Major League Baseball Players Association, and punishing players does damage to the front-facing elements of the product. It’s easier, frankly, to penalize managers and coaches and club employees who do not have the protection of a collectively bargained agreement.

Manfred and his lieutenants have rightly prioritized chasing down systemic or organization-wide cheating, and to do so they need to be forensic, to the point where others might think they’re being silly.

That’s why they threw the book at Alex Cora, A.J. Hinch and especially Jeff Luhnow. It’s why they’ve focussed on the use of in-game digital and video technology to steal signs. In hiring former players, managers and executives, Manfred has filled his office with people who know their way around the remotest corners of a clubhouse. There is ample anecdotal evidence that some clubhouse employees have aided in the procurement and distribution of foreign substances or in some instances helped mix them themselves. Pick any random substance – sunscreen, gum, soda pop, pine tar, rosin – and chances are somebody with too much time on their hands has heated up some combination of another in search of a eureka moment.

(True story: I asked a veteran pitcher two years ago about what he thought were some of the most significant advances in game preparation. "The amount of stuff I can use on the ball that’s hard to see," he told me. "Beats the hell out of the old days of pine-tar and chewing tobacco.")

You can’t legislate against a pitcher trying to come up with a "better idea," in search of spin rate or grip. But you can make it more difficult.

This, to me, is the real legacy of the Astros garbage can-banging scandal: a game that was systemically embarrassed by its reaction (or lack of reaction) is focussed on preventing any trend or rules-bending or breaking from becoming wide-spread.

We’ll still hear stories such as Erik Kratz’s suggestion that he played in games against teams like the Dodgers and Colorado Rockies where he thought they were up to something in terms of stealing signs or signalling pitches, and Tyler Glasnow’s suspicions about some of the "takes" he saw in a recent game he pitched for the Tampa Bay Rays game against the Toronto Blue Jays. Two books on the Astros scandal are due out this summer and that will provide further fodder and further questions, to be sure.

This will never change; sign-stealing and pitch tipping went on before any of us had a laptop computer or iPhone. And since the game doesn’t start until the ball is thrown – since the game’s most defining act is inherently defensive; an act designed to prevent action or scoring – it is in more ways than one in the pitchers’ hands. Sweaty, sticky or otherwise.

Jeff Blair hosts Baseball Central with Kevin Barker from 2-3 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan

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