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Pitchers are straight-up cheating, and MLB might kinda-sorta do something about it

June 04, 2021

Katelyn Mulcahy

One of the funniest "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em!" moments in recent sports history can be attributed to a man who does not shy from controversy. That man is Trevor Bauer. Way back in 2018, he was sounding the alarm about teams doctoring baseballs in order to increase the spin rate for their pitchers—increasing spin rate makes balls break harder and later, which is a massive advantage whether you're throwing a breaking ball or fastball—but nobody believed him. (Or, if they believed him, nobody listened.) He specifically targeted the Astros, and today we know all about their integrity. Bauer himself had done lab experiments where he used pine tar on baseballs, and watched his spin rates jump by 300 to 400 revolutions. This was the money quote from then:

“If you just look the other way and you let some people do it, the people who chose not to do it are at a competitive disadvantage,” he said at the time.

Nobody did anything, fast forward to the fall of 2019 and all of 2020, and guess what happened? The spin rate on all his pitches increased by 400-600 RPMs! He won the NL Cy Young! He became one of the undisputed best pitchers in baseball!

And then, of course, Major League Baseball decided to do something. In April, a week into the season, they started collecting baseballs from Bauer's start, and "sources" claimed that the balls were sticky and had marks on them. Bauer reacted sarcastically on Twitter, but it soon emerged that he wasn't alone; across baseball, balls were being collected from pitchers and teams suspected of doctoring them in some way. They were then sent off to a lab for analysis.

Today, news emerged that they're going to crack down. Hell yeah! Time to punish the cheaters, right?!

Well, no. Not exactly. Sure, they basically know at this point that a whole truckload of pitchers are blatantly cheating. And sure, they have the evidence both in spin rate data and the actual juiced balls. (Anecdotally, you can throw in the ridiculous success of pitchers so far this year; along with other stats, the six no-hitter threshold was reached faster than ever before.) But instead of enforcing the rules, they "will not use that data to punish pitchers retroactively."

Instead, umpires will be alerted to potential culprits, they can now enforce their policies without a manager asking them (thereby getting around baseball's omerta), and a warning is going out across the league: Continue to violate the rules, and you'll be suspended.

I guess, technically, that's a step in the right direction. But let's be clear: Finding cheaters and then not punishing them is very much a Rob Manfred staple. He wouldn't even strip the Astros of a World Series! The situation now is that we have prevalent, unchecked cheating happening across Major League Baseball, and the most we're getting is a promise that starting today, it will be policed, with the caveat that all the cheaters to date get a free pass.

Again, you can squint your eyes and call this progress, even though the immunity clause feels a little ridiculous. But to actually believe in MLB's capacity to follow through here, you have to ignore history. They've turned a blind eye whenever they could in the past; why should the future be any different?