You can say a lot of things about Trevor Bauer, but you can’t say he didn’t put a target on his back. Within a couple of years, Bauer went from the loudest voice in the game decrying other pitchers’ use of foreign substances to get better control and more break on pitches to the guy whose fastball “went from average spin to literally the highest spin rate in all of baseball.” If you were MLB, which this year is claiming it’s finally going to start cracking down on the sticky stuff, it wouldn’t take you very long to decide which pitcher to try to make an example of. But while no one’s’s going to cry for Bauer if he gets railroaded—that would just be funny—he may not be the best target if MLB is truly looking to clean things up across the sport.
In Bauer’s second start of the season in Oakland on Wednesday, umpires removed multiple baseballs of his from the game and sent them to MLB for inspection, which, beginning this year, involves testing at an outside laboratory. I’m not sure cracking this case require experts in labs coats doing titration or whatever, though. From the Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, who broke the news last night:
The umpires in Bauer’s start against the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday collected multiple balls he threw during the game, according to major-league sources. The balls had visible markings and were sticky, and were sent to the league offices for further inspection, the sources said.
Bauer, who surely read the whole article, and surely subscribes to the Athletic, and surely has read literally anything in his life since that issue of Maxim he found in the woods when he was 12, responded to the report in typically stupid fashion.
Interestingly, though MLB announced it will use spin-rate analysis in its decisions which pitchers and balls to inspect, Rosenthal reports that that wasn’t the case here, that the balls were “brought to the umpires’ attention,” presumably by the A’s. But it’s not exactly a mystery why he might be in both opponents’ and the league office’s crosshairs:
• In 2018, Bauer publicly implied that pitchers for the Astros, among other cheaters, were using foreign substances to get a better grip on baseballs and impart a higher spin rate, which in turn creates a sharper break. Seemingly to prove his point—or perhaps as an experiment—Bauer did … something for one inning of a start that April. Whatever he did, he instantly added 300 rpm of spin to his four-seamer, which caused an additional break of two inches.
• In September of 2019, Bauer did … something, again. That month he added an extra 400 rpm to his fastball, with an additional 1.4 inches of break, when compared to his pre-September starts.
• “I’ve been chasing spin rate since 2012,” Bauer wrote in the spring of 2020. “For eight years I’ve been trying to figure out how to increase the spin on my fastball … But eight years later, I haven’t found any other way except using foreign substances.” That year, his Cy Young–winning season, his spin rates and four-seamer break increased even more from his previously outlying September of 2019.
• When MLB announced this March that it would seek to crack down on the use of foreign substances, Bauer released a weirdly defensive video in which his main concern appeared to be how MLB would be able to tell if violating baseballs had been glopped up by the pitcher or by someone else.
• Bauer sells shirts and hats reading “legalize pine tar” on his website. Come on, dude.
Criminal mastermind, he’s not. There’s a sense around baseball that Bauer, intentionally or not, has been daring MLB to act, and if it truly does go after foreign substances—broadly, and not just on Bauer’s balls—that would be a net positive. Because pitchers are too damn good now. A huge reason there are so many fewer balls put into play, and seemingly few hits that aren’t home runs, is because pitchers are all effortlessly throwing in the high 90s with breaks the game has never seen before. A true, successful crackdown would result in more contact, more men on base, and fewer strikeouts. That’s a more exciting game, and a more palatable pace of play. It’d solve a lot of the sport’s ills.
There are two significant roadblocks to this. One is that many hitters don’t actually mind pitchers using gunk, because it gives them better control. No batter wants to be nailed in the ribs by a 100 MPH baseball because the pitcher let it get away from him. Ideally, pitchers would willing to ease off and sacrifice a little speed and spin to regain the level of control they’re used to, but it wouldn’t be an easy or an instant transition.
The second issue is that a whole freaking bunch of pitchers do this. Bauer is right that this is a problem far more widespread than him. Maybe he’s the one who’s taken it to an extreme where MLB felt it had to do something, and maybe he’s the one who has unable to shut up about it, but even sending Bauer to baseball jail would not materially change the wider issue. Unless, that is, MLB is more concerned with the embarrassment of foreign substances being a popular talking point than it is with how they affect the sport.
So we arrive at the big question. If indeed Bauer is being targeted—and it’s probably safe to assume he would have been eventually, even without the A’s dropping the dime—what example does MLB intend to make of him? Does Rob Manfred want to send the message to pitchers around the league to stop using foreign substances? Or does Manfred merely want them to stop being so obvious about it? Those answers won’t be provided by investigating or punishing Trevor Bauer. They’ll be supplied by fair and even enforcement of the crackdown on all the pitchers who aren’t big dumb idiots about the whole thing.