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.

Bonds, Clemens left out of Hall again; McGriff elected

John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN DIEGO – Moments after Fred McGriff was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, almost two decades after his final game, he got the question.

Asked if Barry Bonds belonged in Cooperstown, a smiling McGriff responded: “Honestly, right now, I’m going to just enjoy this evening.”

A Hall of Fame committee delivered its answer Sunday, passing over Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling while handing McGriff the biggest honor of his impressive big league career.

The lanky first baseman, nicknamed the “Crime Dog,” hit .284 with 493 homers and 1,550 RBIs over 19 seasons with six major league teams. The five-time All-Star helped Atlanta win the 1995 World Series.

McGriff got 169 votes (39.8%) in his final year on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot in 2019. Now, he will be inducted into Cooperstown on July 23, along with anyone chosen in the writers’ vote, announced Jan. 24.

“It’s all good. It’s been well worth the wait,” said McGriff, who played his last big league game in 2004.

It was the first time that Bonds, Clemens and Schilling had faced a Hall committee since their 10th and final appearances on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot. Bonds and Clemens have been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, and support for Schilling dropped after he made hateful remarks toward Muslims, transgender people, reporters and others.

While the 59-year-old McGriff received unanimous support from the 16 members of the contemporary baseball era committee – comprised of Hall members, executives and writers – Schilling got seven votes, and Bonds and Clemens each received fewer than four.

The makeup of the committee likely will change over the years, but the vote was another indication that Bonds and Clemens might never make it to the Hall.

This year’s contemporary era panel included Greg Maddux, who played with McGriff on the Braves, along with Paul Beeston, who was an executive with Toronto when McGriff made his big league debut with the Blue Jays in 1986.

Another ex-Brave, Chipper Jones, was expected to be part of the committee, but he tested positive for COVID-19 and was replaced by Arizona Diamondbacks President Derrick Hall.

The contemporary era committee considers candidates whose careers were primarily from 1980 on. A player needs 75% to be elected.

“It’s tough deciding on who to vote for and who not to vote for and so forth,” McGriff said. “So it’s a great honor to be unanimously voted in.”

In addition to all his big hits and memorable plays, one of McGriff’s enduring legacies is his connection to a baseball skills video from youth coach Tom Emanski. The slugger appeared in a commercial for the product that aired regularly during the late 1990s and early 2000s – wearing a blue Baseball World shirt and hat.

McGriff said he has never seen the video.

“Come Cooperstown, I’ve got to wear my blue hat,” a grinning McGriff said. “My Tom Emanski hat in Cooperstown. See that video is going to make a revival now, it’s going to come back.”

Hall of Famers Jack Morris, Ryne Sandberg, Lee Smith, Frank Thomas and Alan Trammell also served on this year’s committee, which met in San Diego at baseball’s winter meetings.

Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Belle, Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy rounded out the eight-man ballot. Mattingly was next closest to election, with eight votes of 12 required. Murphy had six.

Bonds, Clemens and Schilling fell short in January in their final chances with the BBWAA. Bonds received 260 of 394 votes (66%), Clemens 257 (65.2%) and Schilling 231 (58.6%).

Palmeiro was dropped from the BBWAA ballot after receiving 25 votes (4.4%) in his fourth appearance in 2014, falling below the 5% minimum needed to stay on. His high was 72 votes (12.6%) in 2012.

Bonds has denied knowingly using performance-enhancing drugs, and Clemens maintains he never used PEDs. Palmeiro was suspended for 10 days in August 2005 following a positive test under the major league drug program.

A seven-time NL MVP, Bonds set the career home run record with 762 and the season record with 73 in 2001. A seven-time Cy Young Award winner, Clemens went 354-184 with a 3.12 ERA and 4,672 strikeouts, third behind Nolan Ryan (5,714) and Randy Johnson (4,875). Palmeiro had 3,020 hits and 568 homers.

Schilling fell 16 votes shy with 285 (71.1%) on the 2021 BBWAA ballot. The right-hander went 216-146 with a 3.46 ERA in 20 seasons, winning the World Series with Arizona in 2001 and Boston in 2004 and 2007.

Theo Epstein, who also served on the contemporary era committee, was the GM in Boston when the Red Sox acquired Schilling in a trade with the Diamondbacks in November 2003.

Players on Major League Baseball’s ineligible list cannot be considered, a rule that excludes Pete Rose.