Red Sox

Nine innings on the sticky situation gripping Major League Baseball, and more

What MLB has gotten right -- and wrong -- amid the crackdown on foreign substances.

Commissioner of Major League Baseball Rob Manfred. AP Photo/LM Otero, File

Playing nine innings while wondering what Tim Wakefield’s spin rate looked like …

1. Leave it to Major League Baseball to overcorrect a quasi-scandal, one in which the league was undeniably complicit.

Oh, sure, MLB had to do something about pitchers’ prevalent use of Spider Tack and other sticky science-fair concoctions, which allowed even modestly accomplished pitchers to suddenly spin the baseball so it breaks and darts like a 97 mile-per-hour Wiffle Ball. And some of the new guidelines, announced Tuesday and going into effect on June 21, do make plenty of sense: All pitchers will be checked for foreign substances at least once during an appearance, and violators will be suspended 10 games with pay for a first offense. That should help bring a little bit more needed offense back into the game, though this is not exactly going to aid the pace-of-play problems. The aforementioned guidelines are worthwhile, though the hypocrisy of MLB cannot be ignored. It is typically on-brand in the Rob Manfred reign for the league to punish players for something that it tacitly permitted and even encouraged for a long time, even after it began to damage the game.


2. Now about that overcorrection part; MLB did not get this whole thing right. It’s a joke that essentially every substance but the rosin bag behind the mound is now banned. Pitchers can no longer mix rosin with sunscreen – known around here as the Clay Buchholz Bullfrog Special – which allows for a stickier and better grip. Hitters will tell you they don’t mind this concoction, the theory being that they’d rather face pitchers with a rosin/sunscreen-aided grip which allows for better command than having to dodge MLB’s notoriously slippery baseball honing in on their skull at triple-digit speeds. The new policy states that pitchers “have been advised not to apply sunscreen during night games after the sun has gone down or when playing in stadiums with closed roofs.” I suppose that blanket ban is easier than making a distinction in enforcement. But your favorite slugger had better be prepared to duck.

3. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the policy is that a request to check a pitcher for substances cannot be wielded for purposes of gamesmanship. It states: “If the umpires feel that a field manager or acting field manager is making a request for the purpose other than the suspicion of a foreign substance. (e.g., to gain competitive advantage), the umpires can choose to reject the request, and if they determine the request was made in bad faith, eject the manager.” As amusing as it might be for Alex Cora to request repeated checks against Gerrit Cole the next time the Red Sox play the Yankees, this element of the new protocol makes sense, at least if you can get past the part where it leaves such matters to the discretion of the look-at-me likes of umpires Joe West and Angel Hernandez.


4. Maybe I’m naïve, but it seems to me this won’t have a huge effect on Red Sox starting pitchers. As colleague Alex Speier detailed earlier this week, since MLB warned teams that it would be cracking down on use of sticky substances on July 3, Red Sox starters have shown “virtually no change in spin rate or movement profiles,’’ and Garrett Richards’s spin rate has actually gone up on three of his pitches since then. Red Sox starters have been getting hammered lately, but that feels like a regression to their typical performance level after some exceeded expectations in the first one-third of the season. If they are spin-rate heroes, they’d better hope no one gets popped with a 10-game ban, because the punished player cannot be replaced on the roster.

5. Peter Gammons astutely noted, as Peter Gammons does, that Tuesday was the 45th anniversary of one of the great what-if transactions in Red Sox history: The short-lived purchase of relief ace Rollie Fingers and left fielder Joe Rudi on June 15, 1976, from the Oakland A’s and their cheapskate owner Charlie Finley for $1 million each. The deal was short-lived – commissioner Bowie Kuhn froze the deal, preventing Fingers and Rudi from playing for the Red Sox, then nullifying it three days later in the “interest in the morale of the game.” If not for photos taken by a Topps baseball cards photographer that night of Fingers and Rudi in Red Sox colors – the Sox happened to be visiting the A’s when the deal went down, so they simply had to walk under the stands to the opposing clubhouse – the whole thing might feel like nothing more than a hazy daydream.


6. I’ve thought often through the years about how Red Sox history would be much different had the deal gone through. They probably don’t sign pricey-for-the-times free-agent reliever Bill Campbell after the ’76 season. Campbell was an exceptional reliever, but he threw a ridiculous 307.2 innings in relief between the Twins in ’76 and the Sox in ’77, and shockingly, hurt his arm. And Rudi’s presence might have led to a trade of one of the Red Sox’ superb young outfielders. But it always seemed to me the Yankees made out worse in Kuhn’s ruling. The same day as the Fingers/Rudi deal, they purchased ace lefty Vida Blue from the A’s for $1.5 million. Blue is the player the Red Sox, seemingly always short a starter in those days, really should have coveted.

7. Every day is a good day to get lost in a rabbit hole on, but never more so than Tuesday. The site revealed a historic and thrilling update to its database, adding statistics for players, teams and managers from the Negro Leagues and including them alongside and intertwined with stats from the National and American Leagues. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve clicked over to Ted Williams’s page to marvel in the majesty of the bold ink on his page, which marks every time he led the league in a statistical category. It’s beyond cool to be able to do that for Josh Gibson or Oscar Charleston (say, is a .433 batting average in 1921 good?) now.


8. As far as a more modern discovery that comes from perusing baseball-reference, here’s one for you: Xander Bogaerts’ most similar batters through age 28 and based on overall career are both former Red Sox. What’s that? Nope, not Nomar, though Bogaerts should surpass him as the franchise’s all-time leader in Wins Above Replacement for a shortstop a couple of years from now. His most similar player through 28 is Hanley Ramirez. And the player with the most similar career statistics to this point is the forever underrated John Valentin.

9. Three people who deserve some sort of acknowledgement from the Baseball Hall of Fame in the near future: Bill James, whose Historical Baseball Abstracts remain essential reading and are begging for an update; Janet Marie Smith, the brilliant architect and planner behind Camden Yards and the renovations of Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium, among others; and Sean Forman, the mastermind behind baseball-reference.


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