MLB threatens pitchers with 10-game bans for altering balls

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW YORK — Pitchers will be ejected and suspended for 10 games for using illegal foreign substances to doctor baseballs in a crackdown by Major League Baseball that will start Monday.

The commissioner’s office, responding to record strikeouts and a league batting average at a more than half-century low, said Tuesday that major and minor league umpires will start regular checks of all pitchers, even if opposing managers don’t request inspections.

While suspensions would be with pay, repeat offenders would receive progressive discipline, and teams and club employees would be subject to discipline for failure to comply.

“After an extensive process of repeated warnings without effect, gathering information from current and former players and others across the sport, two months of comprehensive data collection, listening to our fans and thoughtful deliberation, I have determined that new enforcement of foreign substances is needed to level the playing field,” baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement.

The perception of an increased use of foreign substances, tied to a drop in offense, is viewed as the largest instance of widespread cheating in baseball since the rise of steroids, which ended in the adoption of random drug testing with penalties ahead of the 2004 season.

Executive vice president for operations Morgan Sword, MLB senior vice president for on-field operations Mike Hill and consultant Theo Epstein outlined the increased enforcement during a 15-minute electronic meeting Tuesday with the 30 managers.

Hill sent a five-page memo with three pages of attached questions and answers to owners, CEOs, team presidents, general managers, managers and all major and minor league players.

“Unfortunately, the enhanced monitoring we implemented at the start of the season has had no impact on the behavior of many pitchers. The information we collected over the first two months of the season shows that the use of foreign substances by pitchers is more prevalent than we anticipated,” Hill wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press. “We have taken these steps to police the use of foreign substances by pitchers this season because such brazen violations of the rules directly impact the fairness of the competition, the safety of our players, and the quality of the product on the field.”

Tampa Bay pitcher Tyler Glasnow, diagnosed Tuesday with a partially torn elbow ligament, attributed his injury to adapting ahead of stepped up enforcement.

“To tell us to do something completely different in a middle of a season is insane. It’s ridiculous. There has to be some give and take here,” he said.

“You can’t just take away everything and not add something. Pitchers need to be able to have some sort of control or some sort of grip on the ball. … I don’t want a fastball to sail away and hit somebody in the face like it already has,” he said.

Manfred said use of grip substances had changed.

“I understand there’s a history of foreign substances being used on the ball, but what we are seeing today is objectively far different, with much tackier substances being used more frequently than ever before,” he said.

The last pitchers suspended for using foreign substances were Baltimore’s Brian Matusz and Milwaukee’s Will Smith for eight games each in May 2015. Both appealed, and Smith’s penalty was cut to six games while Matusz’s ban was upheld.

“I don’t think it changes much from what’s been in the past there as far as the rulebook, but there’s just been a little bit more noise about it,” New York Mets manager Luis Rojas said.

Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, singled out by Minnesota’s Josh Donaldson for a drop in spin rate in a June 3 start, dodged a question last week about whether he had ever used a Spider Tack, a sticky substance designed for use by Strongman competitors.

“I don’t quite know how to answer that, to be honest,” Cole said. “There are customs and practices that have been passed down from older players to younger players, from the last generation of players to this generation of players, and I think there are some things that are certainly out of bounds in that regard.”

Glasnow said he had been using sunscreen and rosin but changed for his June 8 start against Washington. He switched grips on his fastball and curveball to compensate for slickness of the balls, and he held on more tightly and more deeply.

“I went cold turkey, nothing,” he said. “I woke up the next day and was like, I am sore in places that I didn’t even know I had muscles in. Like I felt completely different.”

He concluded: “I 100% believe that contributed to me getting hurt. No doubt.”

MLB told teams on March 23 it would increase monitoring and initiated steps that included collecting balls taken out of play from every team and analyzing Statcast spin-rate data.

“Based on the information collected over the first two months of the season – including numerous complaints from position players, pitchers, umpires, coaches and executives – there is a prevalence of foreign substance use by pitchers in Major League Baseball and throughout the minor leagues,” MLB said.

“Many baseballs collected have had dark, amber-colored markings that are sticky to the touch. MLB recently completed extensive testing, including testing by third-party researchers, to determine whether the use of foreign substances has a material impact on performance. That research concluded that foreign substances significantly increase the spin rate and movement of the baseball, providing pitchers who use these substances with an unfair competitive advantage over hitters and pitchers who do not use foreign substances, and results in less action on the field.

“In addition, the foreign substance use appears to contribute to a style of pitching in which pitchers sacrifice location in favor of spin and velocity, particularly with respect to elevated fastballs. The evidence does not suggest a correlation between improved hitter safety and the use of foreign substances.”

The anticipated clampdown already appears to have had an impact.

Fastball spin rates averaged 2,306-2,329 revolutions per minute each week from the start of the season though June 5, according to MLB Statcast data.

Following an owners’ meeting on June 3 when talk of a crackdown emerged, the average declined to 2,282 during the week of June 6 and dropped to 2,226 on Sunday.

The major league batting average was .232 through April, down from .252 two years ago and under the record low of .237 set in 1968, and it was .236 through May, its lowest since 1968.

The average rose to .247 in the week of June 6, lifting the season average to .238.

The strikeout percentage since June 3 is 23.4%, down from 24.2% until then, and the walk percentage is 8.4%, down from 8.9%.

Bill Miller, president of the Major League Umpires Association, was quoted as being supportive in the announcement.

Players’ association head Tony Clark, a former first baseman, said the union was discussing the matter with players and with MLB.

“The question becomes whether rosin is sufficient or we should consider approved alternatives,” Clark said. “This question has become more important given the changes and lack of consistency in the baseball in recent years.”

Players suspended for violations will not be replaced on the active roster.

Rosin bags will continue to be allowed but rosin cannot be combined with sunscreen or other substances, and pitchers are being told not to use sunscreen after sunset in outdoor stadiums and not to use it at all in indoor ballparks. Umpires will inspect rosin bags before games.

As part of the initiative, umpires will check all starters multiple times and all relievers either at the end of his first inning or when removed, whichever occurs first. Caps, gloves and fingertips will be checked. Umps also may check when they notice sticky balls or when they perceive a pitcher going to his glove, cap, belt, uniform or body in a manner that may be to retrieve or apply a substance.

Catchers will be subject to routine inspections and position players may be searched.

Pitchers will be responsible for foreign substances found on catchers and position players. A position player will not be ejected for possession of a foreign substance unless the umpire determines the player was applying it to a ball to aid a pitcher.

Violators are subject to ejection and decisions are not subject to replay review. Players who refuse inspection will be presumed to have violated rules and will be ejected. Club employees who assist players in using or masking foreign substances or who refuse to cooperate or who fail to report violations will be subject to fines and suspensions.

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

aaron judge
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TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.