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The juiced ball is not a “looming problem” for the players union

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Players have long known it. Scientists have confirmed it. The numbers, quite clearly, bear it out. Eventually even Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball admitted it. The ball is juiced and it’s led to a massive uptick in offense.

How and why it got juiced is a tad more complicated. Major League Baseball is fully and 100% in control of the manufacturing of baseballs. They literally own the company that makes them. They say the juicing was inadvertent. A quality control issue or, looking at it another way, a function of the technology of ball-making being too good. Too exact.

At least one player, Justin Verlander, has publicly accused Major League Baseball of intentionally juicing the ball to increase offense. I have heard through the grapevine that many other players are privately discussing that, even if they’re unwilling to say it out loud. We can’t know for sure without more information, but given the history of juiced baseballs, we can’t rule it out, even with MLB’s denials. I mean, they denied the ball was different for a couple of years before finally acknowledging it, right?

Keep all of that in mind when you read Buster Olney’s column over at ESPN today in which he casts the whole juiced ball thing as . . . a problem for the Players Union:

For union chief Tony Clark and the players for whom he works, there are plenty of looming issues that must be addressed in negotiations. Anti-tanking measures. Service-time manipulation. The competitive balance tax levels. Getting players into free agency at a younger age.

But the discussion about the fate of 2019’s baseball will bear a unique set of challenges, and potential consequences.

Olney’s argument is that, if Major League Baseball ever figures out what’s wrong with the ball and how it changed, it will be union’s problem to figure out how to proceed — and it will pit pitchers against hitters as they proceed, distracting them from other matters — because the rules say you can’t change the baseball without the players agreeing to the change.

Nowhere in his argument, however, does Olney explain why, if MLB changed the baseball, either intentionally or though its own manufacturing negligence, MLB does not have to answer for it or remedy it. To read this column, you’d think that the people who literally make the baseballs are total bystanders with no responsibility in the matter. It’s just Another Problem For The Embattled Union.

Which is a pretty common trope among many national writers, by the way. Any challenge facing the game, no matter its provenance, is cast as trouble for Tony Clark and the union while MLB is either cast as being strengthened by challenge or  just . . . is. You can see that play out in other contexts.  Major League Baseball fired a ton of people from the head office when Manfred took over for Selig a few years ago and it was cast as a bold step forward. The head of MLBAM, Bob Bowman, was forced out amid allegations of workplace misconduct and abuse and the narrative tended to center on renewal. Meanwhile, a month or two ago a high-ranking union official was fired and the story was about “chaos in the union.”

I guess I should just expect that sort of thing by now. Most of baseball media is way more aligned with management and the league than they are with labor and they tend to see things through that lens. I must admit, however, that I never quite expected that slant to be so thorough that a problem fully created by Major League Baseball — juiced balls — would suddenly be cast as the union’s problem.

An Astros executive asked scouts to use cameras, binoculars to steal signs in 2017

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The Athletic reports that an Astros executive asked scouts to spy on opponents’ dugouts in August of 2017, suggesting in an email that they use cameras or binoculars to do so.

The email, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports, came from Kevin Goldstein, who is currently a special assistant for player personnel but who at the time was the director of pro scouting. In it he wrote:

“One thing in specific we are looking for is picking up signs coming out of the dugout. What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can (or can’t) do and report back your findings.”

The email came during the same month that the Red Sox were found to have illegally used an Apple Watch to steal signs from the Yankees. The Red Sox were fined as a result, and it led to a clarification from Major League Baseball that sign stealing via electronic or technological means was prohibited. Early in 2019 Major League Baseball further emphasized this rule and stated that teams would receive heavy penalties, including loss of draft picks and/or bonus pool money if they were found to be in violation.

It’s an interesting question whether Goldstein’s request to scouts would fall under the same category as the Apple Watch stuff or other technology-based sign-stealing schemes. On the one hand, the email certainly asked scouts to use cameras and binoculars to get a look at opposing signs. On the other hand, it does not appear that it was part of a sign-relaying scheme or that it was to be used in real time. Rather, it seems aimed at information gathering for later use. The Athletic suggests that using eyes or binoculars would be considered acceptable in 2017 but that cameras would not be. The Athletic spoke to scouts and other front office people who all think that asking scouts to use a camera would “be over the line” or would constitute “cheating.”

Of course, given how vague, until very recently Major League Baseball’s rules have been about this — it’s long been governed by the so-called “unwritten rules” and convention, only recently becoming a matter of official sanction — it’s not at all clear how the league might consider it. It’s certainly part and parcel of an overarching sign-stealing culture in baseball which we are learning has moved far, far past players simply looking on from second base to try to steal signs, which has always been considered a simple matter of gamesmanship. Now, it appears, it is organizationally-driven, with baseball operations, scouting and audio-visual people being involved. The view on all of this has changed given how sophisticated and wide-ranging an operation modern sign-stealing appears to be. Major League Baseball was particularly concerned, at the time the Red Sox were punished for the Apple Watch stuff, that it involved management and front office personnel.

Regardless of how that all fits together, Goldstein’s email generated considerable angst among Astros scouts, many of whom, The Athletic and ESPN report, commented in real time via email and the Astros scout’s Slack channel, that they considered it to be an unreasonable request that would risk their reputations as scouts. Some voiced concern to management. Today that email has new life, emerging as it does in the wake of last week’s revelations about the Astros’ sign-stealing schemes.

This is quickly becoming the biggest story of the offseason.