Amidst this season’s decline in offense and this past offseason’s lawsuit against the Los Angeles Angels, the use of foreign substances on the mound by pitchers has become a major topic of discussion in the baseball world. Early in the season, the league tagged some balls used by Trevor Bauer as “suspicious,” and late last month, former Yankees reliever Giovanny Gallegos was forced to change his hat mid-game by the umpiring crew. Finally, this week, Minnesota’s Josh Donaldson called out Gerrit Cole for a decline in spin rate as evidence that pitchers are abandoning the practice out of fear.
During last week’s owners’ meetings, the league announced that they will be enforcing the ban on foreign substances — a rule that has been on the books but ignored for longer than I’ve been alive — as soon as June 14th. Although details haven’t been finalized yet, it will likely include random checks by umpires of both pitchers and position players as well as suspensions for offending players.
So far, nothing that the league has said or done has been all that unusual given the circumstances. However, Major League Baseball does not have a great track record when it comes to cheating scandals, with the league deliberately averting its eyes during the Steroid Era and, more recently, letting the Houston Astros off with less than a slap on the wrist following the sign-stealing scandal. Why should they get the benefit of the doubt here?
Sometimes, historians like to analyze the motives of historical figures by asking questions along the lines of “What is the most cynical reason for this decision to be made?” Perhaps uncoincidentally, when I ask myself that question of Rob Manfred’s Commissioner’s Office, I can come up with not one, but two cynical readings (as historians like to call them).
The whole reason that the league deadened the baseball coming into this season was to increase the amount of action by encouraging more hits that were not home runs. As we all know, it has not had that effect; what were home runs in the last two years have simply become fly outs, not doubles and triples, which has helped reinforce this Year of the Pitcher, Vol. 3.
Directing public anger at decreased offense from the altered baseball to “Pitchers are cheating,” the league is trying to claim that its manipulation of the ball had nothing to do with the home run explosion of the late 2010s. Additionally, they now have the cover to reintroduce a juiced ball at the same time the foreign substance rules are enforced; any increase in home runs and fly ball distance would simply be explained away as the natural result of the pitchers no longer cheating.
Looking past the season, this upcoming offseason will be defined by the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, which, if you’ve followed baseball over the last few years, come at a time when trust between the Player’s Association and the league is at its lowest point since the 1994 strike. Cole and Bauer, the two faces of this scandal among the media, are prominent members of the MLBPA, with Cole being a member of union leadership and Bauer being a very vocal proponent of players’ rights in his Twitter feed (his sole good quality, in my opinion).
Furthermore, rather than scapegoating a small handful of individuals — as happened with both the Steroid Era and the Houston trash can scheme — reports have emphasized how pervasive foreign substance use is throughout the league, going so far as to claim that players have been turning in other players. The combination of these two facts would divide the Player’s Association and discredit important members of its leadership, which, coincidentally, would put them in a perfect position to be taken advantage of in the CBA negotiations.
Are either of these scenarios definitively going to be true? At this stage, we can’t know for sure. Given how the league used the pandemic to push through its plan to contract the minor leagues despite fierce opposition from Minor League Baseball, it certainly does feel plausible that Manfred’s administration won’t let this potential scandal go to waste.