With MLB having studied the players and the baseballs and the data for a couple months, they are ready to act on the rampant use of sticky substances to generate more pitch spin and movement. But what’s it going to look like?
ESPN reports that the crackdown is coming as soon as next week, and teams should be getting a memo soon that lays out how things are going to go. It is likely to include random checks for substances throughout the game and significant suspensions (upwards of 10 days without pay). The first few weeks are probably going to be weird, surprising, and at times pretty frustrating. There will be a transition, and folks will be watching the data closely.
Moreover, I think once the league lays down the law and there is no more ambiguity about what’s OK and what’s not OK, you will see more umpires asked to check out a pitcher’s glove or hat, or retain a baseball or whatever. Nobody has wanted to be the whistleblower while everyone was doing it – including guys on your team – but now the structure will be in place for teams to grouse if they think the other team is getting away with it more than they are.
Consider this anecdote from the ESPN report:
In a game in recent weeks, the sources on one team say, it was so obvious that a pitcher on the opposing team was cheating that players began screaming at him to stop cheating — and the feeling on the enraged team was that they intimidated the pitcher into stopping.
Although every team very likely has substance users on their roster (lots of them, probably – almost all of them, maybe!), many teams probably just want to get things back to an even playing field. So I don’t know that you’re going to have this code of silence once MLB takes the gloves off. Clearly some teams have had it.
It’s going to be very wild if, after the league’s memo comes out, we can tell certain pitchers just don’t seem to have as much stuff as they once did. Will it really be that dramatic of a drop-off for some guys? Will the guys for whom it WOULD be such a big drop-off actually stop using? Surely some guys are just gonna risk it, right? Are we gonna see multiple ejections per game on average for a while? How many Cubs pitchers are we going to be able to detect as having an issue? Is offense going to explode across baseball?
I’m not sure anyone knows exactly how this is going to go, given how pervasive the use apparently is, but also given that these are all humans trying to compete at the highest level – it’s really difficult to predict human behavior like that, especially right in the middle of a season. When performance-enhancing drugs were (largely) weeded out of the game, it took place over a period of years, with increasing steps at detection. So, while you could see an obvious impact, it wasn’t exactly an overnight change in the performance and results. Will this be similar, or does the availability of data and video – for a behavior that necessarily has to take place much closer to the actual performance – make for a swifter decline in cheating?