The Monday 9: MLB is already behind on pitchers using sticky substances

·10-min read

Welcome to The Monday 9, our weekly lineup of Things You Need to Know in baseball. The MLB season is a marathon, so get caught up each Monday morning right here at Yahoo Sports.

(Amber Matsumoto / Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto / Yahoo Sports)

Leading off: It’s already too late for MLB to get ahead of sticky stuff

I try not to do any media criticism in this column lest it devolve entirely into meta-commentary nitpicking the product of other hard-working reporters. But with the foreign substances scandal threatening to boil over into actual leaguewide action, it’s worth considering the way the reported forthcoming crackdown is framed.

For example, don’t let anyone tell you that MLB is reacting “quickly” or “swiftly” to the issue, especially when that kind of language is, if anything, a euphemism for an unnecessarily rushed response. Just because the rising tide of exposés about the prevalence of sticky stuff in the game and the desperate disparity between pitching and offense this season is finally forcing the league’s hand does not mean we should congratulate it for being on top of the problem.

First of all, MLB has banned foreign substances on balls since 1920 and I’m pretty sure no one pitching now was grandfathered in under that agreement. That a long-standing and well-known culture of permissiveness has resulted in a daunting prevalence is not especially surprising or exculpatory. As sensational as a cheating scandal would be, at this point it’s hard to see sticky stuff as any sort of moral commentary on a particular team or individual player when the advantage it confers has basically been baked into the evaluation of what it takes to be a big-league pitcher.

Even still, the league has been openly, admittedly aware that it needs to do something different for over a year. To recap: In February 2020, Chris Young — the former pitcher who was then a senior vice president at MLB — circulated a memo to teams essentially reminding them that there are existing rules (3.01 and 6.02(c)) against applying foreign substances to the balls, albeit with the caveat that they wouldn’t be doing anything new to police the practice. Admittedly, soon thereafter a pandemic ushered in a whole new slate of crises facing baseball and nothing much seemed to come of that particular memo.

And so, ahead of this season, Michael Hill, who essentially replaced Young when he left the league office to become the Texas Rangers' general manager, sent a new memo to teams that outlined methods of additional monitoring. Those included analysis of Statcast data and regular collection of game-used baseballs for evaluation.

Evidence from those sources was reportedly presented at the team owners meetings last week and was apparently compelling enough to galvanize the league toward doing more than continuing to Take Stock of the issue. But also, it would be difficult to overstate the scope of attention sticky stuff has garnered from within the game thus far in the season. And so yeah, now maybe the league will do something — like punish the players who have been implicitly or even explicitly encouraged their whole careers to take advantage of the laxity around sticky stuff. It’ll be imperfect and controversial, and maybe that’s fine because it has to start somewhere.

I don’t envy the league for taking up the task of cleaning up a mess many years in the making. But it doesn't get points for hurrying now just because it procrastinated until this point. — Hannah Keyser

No. 2: Nothing sticky about Jacob deGrom

Speaking of the endless conversation about sticky substances ...

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The Mets — all of the Mets — would like you to know that Jacob deGrom does not use sticky stuff and would somehow be even better if he did. — Zach Crizer

No. 3: It doesn’t need to be quite this difficult

As you may remember, the Cleveland baseball team finally realized it’d been using a racist name recently despite years of protest. And yet, rather than distance itself from it as quickly as possible, ownership announced a victory lap for the outgoing moniker while working behind the scenes to secure a replacement. While the action itself is sus, the explanation certainly makes some sense! Branding a business as public and prominent as a sports team is, I assume, a complicated process.

But I’m not sure it needs to be this complicated.

An update offers nothing substantive about the forthcoming name but it does offer this slightly absurdist testament to how busy the franchise has been trying to handle a not-at-all-new problem:

“The team began meeting with groups of fans in February, and on Thursday it revealed that after several brainstorming sessions that also included community leaders, local influencers and staff members, nearly 1,200 potential names were aggregated.”

Take it from someone who overthinks absolutely everything: if you’ve got a list of 1,200 potential names, you’re doing too much. You can’t even see the point of diminishing returns in your rearview mirror. That’s enough options to rename every major American sports franchise 10 times over. There’s literally a team called the Philadelphia Phill...ies.

Do less, but also more, Paul Dolan. — Hannah Keyser

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MAY 23: Manager Alex Cora #13 of the Boston Red Sox looks on against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on May 23, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Phillies defeated the Red Sox 6-2. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Having returned to the dugout after a suspension over the Astros sign-stealing scandal, Red Sox manager Alex Cora has energized his team. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

No. 4: Win one for the … cheater?

Here’s a new twist on the sign-stealing scandal: The Red Sox were apparently extra motivated for their series in the Bronx — where they swept the Yankees for the first time in a decade — because of comments Brett Gardner made about manager Alex Cora.

Cora, who is back in the skipper’s chair in Boston this year after being suspended (and fired) over Astros misdeeds, inspired the veteran Yankees outfielder to say this, per NBC Sports.

"Having him back in the dugout makes me want to beat them more," Gardner said. "We don't like those guys. They don't like us."

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They are, uh, far from fighting words, even compared to other comments about the sign-stealing scandal. But from the very first inning of the series, when Rafael Devers cranked and admired a monster home run, the Red Sox did play more aggressive, more intense baseball. So, hey, use whatever advantage you can find, legally. — Zach Crizer

No. 5: Further feats of pitching, part 1

No-hitters are passé in the Year of the Pitcher 2 (although I do have to wonder whether a crackdown on sticky stuff will alter how we feel about the early season no-hitters in retrospect), but this past week brought a pair of performances even more rare than the no-hitter.

Young Yankees starter Michael King threw baseball’s 103rd immaculate inning in a loss to the Red Sox on Friday night (for comparison, there have been 311 no-hitters). It was just the second of the season and third over the past two years, and King made no secret of the fact that he saw it coming, saying after the game that it was on his radar as early as the first three-pitch strikeout of the frame.

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Viewers can become desensitized to the difficulty of simply making contact in the current baseball environment. Any knee-jerk temptation to blame batters for the declining league-wide averages doesn’t hold up under the slightest scrutiny. Leaving aside any actual analysis of how the current game is played, just think about the obvious logical fallacy. There’s such an insane financial incentive to be a successful major league baseball player that if you could rise to the top of the current crop by choking up with two strikes or trying to beat the shift, wouldn’t every guy toiling away in the minors do so?

But if that doesn’t convince you, check out this batter-focused view on swing-and-misses King induced. — Hannah Keyser

No. 6: Further feats of pitching, part 2

Of course, a couple times a season is positively commonplace compared to what Ryan Yarbrough accomplished (also at Yankee Stadium, which is suddenly playing like a pitcher-friendly park). Not only did he buck his bulk reliever reputation by starting a game, he finished it, too. For the first time in over five years, the entirety of Yarbrough’s career and then some, a Tampa Bay Rays pitcher threw a complete game, breaking their major-league record streak of 731 games without one.

Yarbrough himself came within one out of breaking that streak in 2019 before Rays manager Kevin Cash pulled him from the game in a controversial decision. Cash said he had no second thoughts about the decision at the time, but Yarbrough still made a case for himself in a meeting with his manager.

“I told him, you know I was gonna get the guy out,” he told the Tampa Bay Times.

Two years later, he got the opportunity to prove he could. — Hannah Keyser

No. 7: Cedric Mullins can’t be stopped

In May, it looked like breakout Orioles outfielder Cedric Mullins was returning to earth after a ridiculous April in which he hit .337 with 4 homers and 9 doubles. The power dissipated in the season’s second month, and it appeared maybe the 5-foot-8 center fielder would settle in to a more reasonable shape of production with good contact skills and less pop. Then June came!

As it turns out, under the just OK May surface numbers, Mullins improved his already solid plate discipline numbers. This weekend against Cleveland, he made up for lost time in the slugging department. At one point he whacked hits in nine straight at-bats.

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He already has three homers, a double and a triple since the calendar flipped and is walking nearly 10 percent of the time on the season. Maybe he’s not going to slow down after all. — Zach Crizer

No. 8: What did Shohei Ohtani do this week?

For the first time in Ohtani’s MLB pitching career, he rolled through an outing without issuing a free pass. It was a good one too. He struck out 10 Mariners, allowed just two runs over six innings and got the well-deserved W for the Angels.

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He also built on his own personal category of fun facts.

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And that was before he belted homer No. 16 on Saturday. Ohtani remains the AL MVP favorite (+125 at BetMGM), but Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has edged ever closer with +230 odds to take the trophy. A couple of cold weeks with the bat or some bad outings on the mound for Ohtani and Vladdy just might overtake the unicorn. — Zach Crizer and Mo Castillo

No. 9: What to watch

Fernando Tatis Jr. and the always entertaining Padres play two potential postseason previews. First they take on the red hot Chicago Cubs, then travel east to face the NL East-leading New York Mets.

In the muddled NL Central, the Brewers and Reds face off in a series that could either clarify or muddle the race.

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