The Los Angeles Times reported last night that the Angels have fired their visiting clubhouse manager after an internal investigation revealed that he was providing ball-doctoring substances to opposing pitchers.
The clubhouse manager, Brian Harkins, had been at his post since 1990, after starting out with the club as a batboy in the early 1980s. The team confirmed that he had been fired but did not elaborate on the reason citing legal restrictions preventing them from discussing employee matters.
The timing on this is . . . curious.
Just last week MLB’s new Vice President of On-Field Operations Chris Young announced that Rule 8.02, which prohibits pitchers from applying foreign substances to the ball, is going to be enforced this year. This after years and years of MLB turning a blind eye to the rule and it becoming an open secret that the majority of pitchers in the game use pine tar, sunscreen, or other substances to get a better grip on the ball. A better grip means more spin and, as more recent insights of the analytics revolution has shown, more spin means a massive increase in the effectiveness of pitches.
The blind eye was, largely, a function of teams not wanting to rat out opponents for suspected pitch-doctoring because it would put their own pitchers, who were also likely doctoring pitches, at risk of being ratted out in retaliation. In effect, this meant that only in situations in which the pitch doctoring was hilariously obvious — such as when Michael Pineda came to the mound for the Yankees one night with an obvious smear of pine tar on his neck — would the player be ejected and disciplined. Whenever this topic came up in the past, hitters would say that, actually, they preferred opposing pitchers to use sticky substances because the better grip it allowed them prevented balls from getting away from pitchers and possibly hitting batters. I’ve always been skeptical of that explanation and figured that it was a way for batters to help cover for the pitchers on their own team.
Baseball’s crackdown on violations of Rule 8.02 changes all of that, however. And it certainly just changed the life of Brian Harkins, whose supplying of foreign substances was, I imagine, a fairly open secret at Angels Stadium. An open secret that could no longer persist given the crackdown.
And, as I said last week, I also imagine that this crackdown did not occur in a vacuum but, rather, is a direct response to the sign-stealing scandal which has roiled baseball this offseason. Sign-stealing, like pine tar on balls, was a bit of rule breaking that Major League Baseball was quite aware of for some time and did nothing about it. When newspaper reports came out detailing just how elaborate the Astros’ sign-stealing operation was, Major League Baseball was deeply embarrassed in the eye of the public and only then began to take any action to put an end to it.
I bet Rob Manfred’s first order to Chris Young was to go after whatever rule-breaking MLB had previously tolerated and snuff it out lest the league be humiliated once again. It almost makes me think that there’s a big story about foreign substances on baseballs currently being investigated and Rob Manfred wants to get ahead of it.