Players, MLB Seem to Reaching a Head in Sticky Substance Scandal

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The night is June 22nd, 2021 as future Hall of Fame ace and 3x Cy Young recipient Max Scherzer’s frustrations go viral. Following a first inning where the seven time All-Star struck out Odubel Herrera, Rhys Hoskins and JT Realmuto in order, the umpire crew administered a check for foreign substances at the request of Phillies’ manager Joe Girardi, a check in which Max Scherzer was obviously not amused.

The body language of the Nationals’ ace is clear: get this over with. Scherzer entered the night with a 2.21 ERA on the season, but it’s also his first game off of the injured list. Scherzer continued to mow down the Philadelphia lineup, a second deck moonshot from former teammate Bryce Harper not withstanding, to the point where Girardi had Scherzer checked a second time. Once again, the frustrations of a clearly clean Scherzer were on full-display for the packed crowd at Citizen’s Bank Park to observe.

Max’s aggressiveness continued as Joe Girardi tried what could be come a new, very bush-league tactic used by managers and a baseball version of “icing the kicker.” With the Philadelphia lineup struggling, as lineup’s tend to do against the right-hander, Joe requested to check on Max in the middle of the inning to throw him off of his rhythm. This time, an animated Scherzer took off his belt and prepared to drop his pants to confirm that no part of his body has a foreign substance.

Max ended up with the ultimate revenge:

How did we get here, especially after seasons of discussing the pace of place epidemic across the league? For that answer, we have to go back a way’s away. In 2018, then-Cleveland Indian pitcher Trevor Bauer called out his college teammate Gerrit Cole for cheating on his YouTube channel and broke down the substances he theorized that Cole was using and the physics of how what he was doing would be impossible without aid. Cole, in his first season after being traded from Pittsburgh to Houston, broke out in a major way. The spinrate skyrocketed, similarly to how then-Astro Charlie Morton and Scherzer’s former Detroit rotation-mate Justin Verlander saw their spinrate expand after arriving in Houston in 2017. Morton, who spent the last two seasons in Tampa before signing with his original club (Atlanta) this past offseason, has had his worst year since arriving his Houston. Former MVP Justin Verlander, however, has not pitched as he’s recovering from Tommy John Surgery.

Despite Bauer’s pleas, the league did not reprimanded or even look into what was going on in Houston and most assumed it was sour grapes on Bauer’s part. That is until Houston was outed as serial cheaters with their sign-stealing scheme that began in 2017. On top of this, what would usually be considered circumstantial, an Angels employee was federally indicted for contributing illegal substances to players.

Players such as Adam Wainwright have admitted to using spidertack, the illegal substance provided by the Angels employee, while the employee named pitchers like Gerrit Cole as regular customers. The league opted to continue to turn a blind-eye to its conundrum, allowing players around the league to assume that if Cole, now the face of the New York Yankees, can get away with it, so can they. Bauer, currently of the LA Dodgers, won the NL Cy Young with the Reds last year while openly using the substances because everybody else was doing it. The league cracked down in the middle of this season, leaving us with interview gems such as this one:

The reason the league cracked down is that with pitchers having a new advantage, offense is down across the league. Unfortunately, they banned every sticky substances, even substances approved and not against MLB’s rules. While spidertack, which is absolutely cheating, is against the rules, substances like sunscreen are not. Hall of Famers such as Ferguson Jenkins were notorious for making the balls stickier while Pedro Martinez has admitted that he and every other pitcher he knew had their own preferred substance.

Due to MLB’s seeming inability to punish pitchers using spidertack, they have punished every pitcher in baseball. It’s not the lack of “cheating” but moreso the lack of routine harming these pitchers. MLB’s baseball aren’t consistently made and near impossible to grip, so much so that even I as a journalist who’s done a lot of research am struggling to adequately explain it, thus I will leave it to former Braves reliever Peter Moylan, who covers all of the bases in this four minute clip.

Moylan was asked about the injury to Rays frontline starter Tyler Glasnow, which may require Tommy John Surgery. The pressure relieved from Glasnow’s substance of choice, in this case a perfectly legal use of sunscreen, strained his forearm and went into his elbow, blowing it out entirely due to the routine change in the middle of the season. With the tax on his arm and muscle memory for his routine, Glasnow did not have the opportunity to prepare for such a drastic grip change and had to learn how to execute his pitches and pitching motion differently on the fly, leading to disaster. Tyler sounded off in his first media session after his prognosis.

I’ve seen people say that this is essentially telling a player that they cannot use the legal amount of pinetar on their bat, which allows a hitter to more effectively grip his wooden bat while swinging. If pinetar was made entirely illegal, the odds that hitters would lose control of their bat drastically increase. That’s what we’ve seen with pitchers. For example, Oakland’s Chad Pinder was hit in the head by a Junior Guerra split finger immediately following the routine checks. Kris Bryant was hit in the hand against the Mets by a fastball that ran in that usually run in. Should this continue, both hitters and pitchers around the game see a massive increase in injury potential, which is why hitters in the past have encouraged pitchers to use something sticky to better grip the baseball.

The optics of the players being up in arms that they can’t use seemingly ridiculous amounts of substances aren’t great, but you have to remind yourself that there’s a reason it’s legal and encouraged by hitters in the first place. There’s also a reason spidertack is illegal, yet sunscreen is not. Spidertack gives you an unfair advantage over other substances because it’s specifically designed to increase spinrate on a baseball. It wasn’t until the 14th that MLB placed a blanket ban on any sticky substance, announcing a ten game suspension for any pitcher caught. The legality of the substance that their caught for is irrelevant, even if they’re doing everything to maintain MLB’s pre-established guidelines and regulations. A pitcher does not have to break a rule to be suspended under Manfred’s new blanket policy. The league, despite substances being more rampant than ever, has not levied a suspension for foreign substances on the field in over six years. The league all of a sudden cares, is doing everything in their power to show that they’re serious, because of their own bad optics and in the process has made their optics worse.

The timing of this as well couldn’t be any more worrisome, as the collective bargaining agreement comes to an end. With the CBA under fire last time, it was already anticipated that the players may hold out over the many ways Manfred has tried to change the game in recent years. Changes can be trivial such as the mandatory batter minimum or flat out ridiculous such as the extra inning rule, but the players already weren’t happy. Almost instantaneously, the biggest topic is no longer whether or not the league implement a universal designated hitter, but rather such a substantial change made to protect the league but not its own players. The league is mired in the most controversy it’s been involved in this decade. Pun intended, it’s a “sticky” situation that doesn’t seem to be anywhere near getting resolved but only worsens by the day.

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