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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.

Go deeper

52 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Stalemate over filibuster freezes Congress

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell's inability to quickly strike a deal on a power-sharing agreement in the new 50-50 Congress is slowing down everything from the confirmation of President Biden's nominees to Donald Trump's impeachment trial.

Why it matters: Whatever final stance Schumer takes on the stalemate, which largely comes down to Democrats wanting to use the legislative filibuster as leverage over Republicans, will be a signal of the level of hardball we should expect Democrats to play with Republicans in the new Senate.

Dave Lawler, author of World
1 hour ago - World

Biden opts for five-year extension of New START nuclear treaty with Russia

Putin at a military parade. Photo: Valya Egorshin/NurPhoto via Getty

President Biden will seek a five-year extension of the New START nuclear arms control pact with Russia before it expires on Feb. 5, senior officials told the Washington Post.

Why it matters: The 2010 treaty is the last remaining constraint on the arsenals of the world's two nuclear superpowers, limiting the number of deployed nuclear warheads and the bombers, missiles and submarines which can deliver them.

Updated 2 hours ago - Technology

Facebook refers Trump ban to independent Oversight Board for review

Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

Facebook's independent Oversight Board has accepted a referral from the platform to review its decision to indefinitely suspend former President Trump.

Why it matters: While Trump critics largely praised the company's decision to remove the then-president's account for potential incitement of violence, many world leaders and free speech advocates pushed back on the decision, arguing it sets a dangerous precedent for free speech moving forward.

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