This has been, if you’ll forgive a time-honored cliche, the best and worst of times for pitchers in Major League Baseball.
Pitchers are retiring hitters at a nearly unprecedented rate. As of Friday, the aggregate batting average in baseball was a measly .238, which would be the second-lowest in history, behind the .237 in the notorious Year of the Pitcher in 1968.
Strikeouts are at an all-time high, just a tick under nine per team per game — or one an inning. There have already been six no-hitters, seven if you include the unrecognized seven-inning no-no by Madison Bumgarner. As of today, it will be one full month since the last one. I’d say we’re due.
On the other hand, hurlers are getting hurt at staggering rates. Entering the weekend, there were 177 pitchers on MLB injured lists, many with elbow or shoulder injuries. Three of the guys who tossed no-hitters (Corey Kluber, John Means and Spencer Turnbull) are on the IL. So is Bumgarner.
Shane Bieber, the reigning AL Cy Young winner, went on the injured list early this week with shoulder pain. Jacob deGrom, winner of two Cys and well on his way to a third, has left his last two starts with arm injuries and the Mets are being encouraged to shut him down for a spell. Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, multiple Cy winners, are also on the shelf.
But perhaps more painful is the fact that pitchers are under scrutiny for cheating. Spin rates, which get measured like everything else in today’s game, are at alarming highs, forcing the baseball overlords to take action against the proliferating use of sticky substances to help pitchers grip the baseball.
This past Tuesday, MLB issued a memo laying out an “enhanced enforcement” policy on the doctoring of baseballs. If any substance is discovered by umpires during a game, the pitcher faces ejection and a 10-game suspension.
Beginning Monday, umpires will be checking the hats, equipment and fingers of pitchers. I’ll assume this will not involve having hurlers strip down in front of the world to determine if they’re harboring substances in their underwear.
They might want to check the catchers, too. I spoke recently with a local college coach whose friend is assigned to monitor the minor leagues for substance use. The friend walked into one clubhouse and found a catcher rubbing pine tar all over his thighs and shin guards.
Some prominent pitchers responded with predictable disdain. The Dodgers’ Trevor Bauer, never shy about voicing his opinion, called the situation a “mess” and said MLB changed on the fly after telling players and teams it wouldn’t take action this year. He said it’s silly to make umpires the “judge, jury and executioner” of men suspected of doctoring baseballs.
Gerrit Cole of the Yankees, a prime suspect because of the increased spin on his pitches, failed to issue a denial when a reporter asked if he was using Spider Tack, an especially sticky substance that’s used in Strongman events and could increase the spin on a pitch by 25%.
Veteran Josh Donaldson said it was telling that the spin rate on Cole’s pitches declined substantially last Thursday, two days after a report on four minor-leaguers being suspended this year for putting illegal substances on the ball.
Tyler Glasnow of the Rays, who was virtually unhittable in his first 14 starts this season, was shut down until September early this week after being diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament and a flexor tendon strain.
Glasnow blamed the new rules for the injury. He said the MLB edict made him abandon the use of sunscreen, which he said is the only substance he uses to help grip the ball. He said he adjusted his grip, putting the ball deeper into his hand, and before long he felt a pop in his arm.
Look, I can’t say what caused Glasnow’s injury. But baseball has a huge problem here. Pitchers have been using substances on the ball from the time the game was invented. Baseball has acted at times, outlawing the spitball in 1920 and preventing pitchers from going to their mouths on the mound in 1967.
The rules against doctors the ball have been on the books for years. It’s just that the MLB lords can no longer look the other way, as they did for so long on steroids and sign-stealing.
It’s a crisis now because the pitching is too good and the game is suffering from a lack of offense — and action. It’s all about home runs and strikeouts. Fewer balls are put in play. There’s not enough emphasis on running, defense and speed as a result, not enough athletic movement between the lines.
All leagues react when defense is winning at the expense of offense, which sells with the viewing public. Baseball was becoming a boring exercise in 1968, when the public tired of 1-0 games and was distracted by raging social unrest. So they lowered the mound.
Concussions became a big deal in the NFL when defenders were knocking skill players out of games and threatening the health of star quarterbacks. When you asked any defensive player about head injuries, they would tell you that the NFL wanted to take hard hits out of the game and help the offense.
As you’ll recall, the MLB suits weren’t nearly as quick to address the steroid issue as they are on pitchers using sticky stuff. They were happy to turn their heads when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing the home-run record and hugging one another, while a rapt media gushed and ignored the obvious signs of steroid use.
They were a little slow on sign-stealing, too. Again, that benefitted the hitters, and it was a couple of the sport’s most marketable teams, the Red Sox and Astros, at the forefront.
Is it any wonder that pitchers would do anything possible to keep up? Sure, there were pitchers who juiced (Roger Clemens, most notably). But to a large extent, it was hitters who put up the gaudy numbers on steroids.
When baseball turned a blind eye, pitchers had to compensate. Do you suppose the increased use of sticky substances to raise spin rates might have begun when pitchers were getting their ERAs blown through the roof by batters using steroids back in the late 1990s and early 2000s?
But at some point, MLB had to act. They studied baseballs in the early stages of the 2021 season, compared spin rates and determined it was time to act. The spin rate on four-seam fastballs, which benefit most from sticky substances, is going down as a result.
The MLB players union was consulted, though the crackdown was essentially forced on the players. It was an existing rule, so MLB had final say. Still, it would have been wiser if the players had been more involved in an issue that exacerbates the gulf between players and owners just before the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement.
Tony Clark, union executive director, said everyone realizes the grip on the baseball is important. They allow rosin for that reason. Pitchers have always bent the rules by using illegal substances. Spit, hair grease, pine tar, fishing oil, sandpaper, you name it.
Don Sutton was asked about using a foreign substance and said “Vaseline is manufactured right here in the United States.” Whitey Ford once said it was “as though I had my own tool bench out there with me.”
Funny stuff. What’s not funny is knowing that hit batsmen are also at an all-time high in MLB. Pitchers said a lack of grip increases the chances of losing control and hitting a batter in the face or head.
Maybe it’s time for MLB to come up with a reasonable rule that acknowledges the need for substances besides rosin to help with grip. There has to be a middle ground here. It doesn’t help to have some of the game’s greatest stars, like Cole, Bauer and Glasnow, raging mad about the issue.
Everyone here needs to get a grip. Otherwise, it could get much worse for a game in crisis, when one of these pitchers loses his grip on a rising, 100mph fastball and someone gets actually killed.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.