Jan 13, 2021 - Sports

Inside MLB's spiral of deception

Illustration of baseballs arranged in the shape of a question mark

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Baseball's recent scandals have nurtured an aura of uncertainty that fundamentally alters how we watch and understand the sport.

The big picture: According to 2020 NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer, upwards of 70% of MLB pitchers use some type of illegal, foreign substance.

Flashback: Longtime Angels visiting clubhouse manager Brian "Bubba" Harkins was fired last March for providing an illegal pine tar mixture to both Angels and opposing pitchers.

  • Harkins has since named various star pitchers who've requested his mixture over the years, including Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.
  • The grip-improving practice began as a safety measure, as better control means fewer hit batsmen, but it has since evolved into a way to increase spin rate — a huge competitive advantage.

The backdrop: Flouting pine tar rules is a tale as old as time, but it's also part of a larger trend of suspect practices that have served to break the trust between baseball and its fans.

  • Sign stealing has long been accepted, but the Astros' tech-enabled system was a bridge too far. How many teams operated somewhere along that continuum before Houston was exposed?
  • Rumors of juiced baseballs have persisted for years — with studies suggesting it's far more than a rumor — yet the league insists it never altered the ball.

Between the lines: Scandals are sport-agnostic, but MLB seems to stand alone regarding the murkiness that surrounds its rule book and general governance.

  • Are home runs on the rise because of the launch-angle revolution or a juiced ball?
  • Are strikeouts increasing because batters sell out for the long ball, or because pitchers weaponize foreign substances to enhance spin rate?
  • It's almost as if there's a tacit agreement; one in which players search for an edge to make this impossible game marginally easier, while the league turns a blind eye — so long as it hews closer to gamesmanship than cheating.
  • Either way, the swirling uncertainty leaves a lot of room for fans to draw their own conclusions (see: everything written above).

Food for thought: Can you imagine if a star QB said 70% of his fellow signal-callers were using deflated footballs? Or if rumors persisted that the NBA had secretly enlarged the rims to promote more scoring?

The bottom line: Consider a baseball's journey in a given at-bat.

  • It starts in the hand of a pitcher who may have doctored it.
  • It travels to a batter who may have gotten a sign from a teammate.
  • It then flies off the bat, perhaps farther than the swing merited, due to a fundamental change at the factory level.
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