Cheating in baseball: the shift from steroids to…

As a lifelong baseball fan, it troubles me at the amount of cheating in the sport that is coming to light. The Mitchell Report almost got me to quit following baseball for good; as it was, my return to baseball fandom was slow but complete long before the historic World Series of 2017 when the Houston Astros finally took it all in seven games against the Los Angeles Dodgers (unfortunately, that season was the subject of a cheating scandal itself).

A recent Sports Illustrated article highlighted a surprising form of cheating in baseball. As the title suggests, it relates to ball doctoring. Now, ball doctoring has been banned in MLB for an entire century. At least that’s what the rules say. As to whether or not they are being enforced, that’s another story. The epidemic of “sticky stuff” has pushed batting averages down. Should the trend continue, we may see another “dead ball” era (if we are not there already).

A few select quotes from the article, to highlight just how big the problem is:

“This should be the biggest scandal in sports,” says another major league team executive.

(Given baseball’s past scandals, this says a lot by iteslf.)

An AL reliever, who says he uses a mixture of sunscreen and rosin, recalls a spring-training meeting in 2019 in which the team’s pitching coach told the group, “A lot of people around the league are using sticky stuff to make their fastballs have more lift. And if you’re not using it, you should consider it, because you’re kind of behind.”

(Players have used similar logic to justify steroid use, in the pre-Mitchell Report era.)

“It’s so blatant,” says the AL manager. “It’s a big f— you. Like, what are you gonna do about it?”

(i.e. it shows disrespect for the game and, really, a lack of sportsmanship/ethics.)

“If you want to talk about getting balls in play and kind of readjusting the balance of pitching and offense, I think it’s a huge place to start,” says an NL reliever who says he does not apply anything to the baseball because he believes that is cheating. “Because it seems to have created these basically impossible-to-hit pitches.”

(Whoever this pitcher is, thanks for actually having a sense of ethics and not cheating.)

For hitters, all this suddenly acquired extra movement is catastrophic. What was an elite spin rate in 2018 is now average. The added spin means that the average four-seam fastball drops nearly two inches fewer this year than it did in ’18, according to Statcast, making it appear to hitters as if it’s rising.

“It is frustrating because there’s rules in this game,” says [Florida Marlins outfielder Adam] Duvall. “I feel like I’ve always been a guy that’s played by them, and I expect that of others, too.”

I think Adam’s quote, the last one above, is perhaps the most telling and the best summary of what’s going on with regard to “sticky stuff”. What is the point of having rules if you aren’t going to enforce them? If ball doctoring is against the rules, then MLB needs to take decisive action. If, on the other hand, “sticky stuff” is now the new normal and MLB is not going to consider it cheating, then it’s time to take the rule out of the rulebook (not what I’d really prefer as a baseball fan, but at least the rulebook would match reality).

Though it does look like maybe MLB is going to do something about it, per this quote from the article:

In March, the league sent a memo to teams to warn them that it would begin studying the problem, collecting those baseballs for analysis and using spin rate data to identify potential users of foreign substances.

Unfortunately “studying the problem” starting in March means we probably won’t see any action taken until close to the end of this season, if not 2022. But it’s a start. Maybe it means we’ll still have the prohibition on ball doctoring (spitballs, “sticky stuff”, or whatever) for decades to come. And once again, it will actually mean something rather than being a line in the rulebook that pitchers ignore.

Baseball is most fun to watch when there’s a comfortable balance between offense and defense. As a fan, I will admit I’m a bit biased towards good offense over good defense, but the reality is watching a game of “gone home run” gets as boring as a scoreless game that goes into extra innings. I’m okay with the trend shifting away from crazy offense if it happens naturally. If it’s a result of blatant cheating by pitchers, that’s a problem. It gets people to question the integrity of the game, and that’s potentially disastrous.

One (DH) rule to bind them all?

As a long-time baseball fan, though not as ardent of a fan as I used to be, I want to weigh in on this one. The designated hitter (DH) rule is probably one of the most controversial topics among baseball fans, next to the steroid scandal that rocked the sport almost a decade ago now (2007). One of the things that makes baseball at least semi-interesting is the fact one league allows the manager to designate another player to bat for the pitcher, and one does not.

But that might be about to change. Among other sources, this article on notes St. Louis Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak’s comments on the movement to apply the DH rule in the National League. (It has been applied in the American League since 1973.) John’s comments state in part (from quotes in the article):

I do feel like there were times I could look all of you in the face and say it’s a non-starter, it’s not being discussed at the owner level or GM… But over the past year it has. I’m not suggesting you’re going to see a change but I definitely think the momentum (has changed).

As a Houston Astros fan, I get a bit of a different look at this than fans of other teams around the league; the Astros switched leagues in 2013, joining the American League West after 51 years in the National League. I have never been a huge fan of the DH rule, even though I’ve never been alive to see an American League game without it. Every Astros game from the era when I was a hardcore baseball fan was without the DH rule. I’ve seen a couple of Astros pitchers hit home runs over the years–always a spectacular sight when it happens, as usually pitchers are considered the worst batting players on the team. Thus the argument for the DH rule, that pitchers will almost always be lousy hitters and the game is more interesting if we let someone else bat for the pitcher all the time.

I feel very strongly that we will have lost something if the DH becomes universal at the major league level. If anything, I would like to see the AL dump the DH rule. According to the Wikipedia article, the main criticism of the DH rule are that it introduces asymmetry in the game: the players in the batting order are not entirely the same players that take the field. Pitchers who bat are, in general, less likely to hit batters with a pitch, knowing there’s the possibility of retaliation when they step up to bat. The DH takes this out of the equation; it’s just not the same when someone who bats for the pitcher gets plunked or beaned. This by itself is enough reason to call the DH rule a bad idea.

I wish the Astros were still in the NL. Not only do I hate the DH rule, I miss the old rivalries (Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers, Pirates, and Reds–yes, there were six teams in the division), even though it’s obvious the Astros can hold their own in the AL West. (There was concern about this when the Astros had over 100 losses in each of their last two NL seasons.) Yes, there’s a chance AL pitchers injure themselves running the bases when forced to bat. However the solution to this is not to introduce an asymmetry to the game that simply doesn’t belong. The solution is to make sure pitchers get at least some time running the bases and a decent amount of batting cage time.

In summary, It’s time to dump the DH and dump it now. The experiment has run long enough, and it’s time to call it a failure and move on. The same nine players on the field should be the same nine players come to bat. As a corollary to this: too old to field (usually) means too old to play (it is exceedingly rare for a player to stay on the roster just to be a pinch-hitter in the NL, though once in a while it happens).

Welcome to the American League and “dynamic pricing”, Astros fans

As recently posted to the Houston Press Hair Balls blog, the Astros are naming their new ticket pricing a “dynamic pricing model.” From the Houston Chronicle as quoted in the post:

Astros president George Postolos said Thursday prices for the Astros-Rangers opener on March 31 are simply a reflection of demand and the club’s increased emphasis on dynamic pricing, which will be used more often in 2013 and in all areas of the stadium for the first time. The Astros’ 2013 home-opener and AL debut is also MLB’s season-opener. Thus, the March 31 high ticket costs are an anomaly.

The problem with this scheme and its labeling is that tickets have yet to go on sale, yet dugout seats are already going for over twice the price of last year for opening day. A true dynamic pricing scheme would raise prices after the demand, not before.

So it seems to me (and John Royal, writing for the Houston Press, seems to concur) that it’s just an excuse for the Astros to raise prices when they feel like it, for whatever reason. This is not the recipe for success for a team moving to the American League after a season with 107 losses out of 162 games, behind even the Chicago Cubs who only lost 101 games out of 162. Yes, the same Chicago Cubs whose attendance is more sensitive to beer prices than whether or not the team is winning.

Maybe the Cubs can get away with raising ticket prices as long as the beer is still relatively cheap. The Astros do not have that luxury; right now the public transit options to get to Minute Maid Park are limited (unless you like walking five blocks from the Main Street rail station or dealing with bus schedules that don’t change just because there’s a baseball game). There are plenty of great bars in Houston where one can go for cheap suds. As far as I have been able to tell, Houston fans are just as happy watching the game on TV if the Astros are in a “rebuilding” phase.

And make no mistake about it, it would be a big surprise to me if the Astros finished anywhere near .500 as an American League team, after the debacle that was the 2012 season, their last as a National League team. As the late Ray Combs (game show host) might have said, it’s a damn fine way to go out of the NL. But the AL is certainly no easier: against the Yankees, Red Sox, and White Sox I would be surprised if the Astros managed better than about a .250 winning percentage over those 17 games, or less than 13 losses. If they go .500 against everyone else (I’m being generous here), that’s another 72 losses, for a total of 85. Fifteen more than that and it’s another 100-loss season.

This will be a great season… for the bars, after Astros games. My advice to the Astros front office: make a dynamic team first, then try this “dynamic pricing” thing.

Save the date: A Day Against DRM, 2010 May 04 recently published an article entitled “The decade of DRM.” Included among the events were four events prior to 2000 that would set the stage for the introduction and proliferation of DRM (digital restrictions management), arguably one of the biggest steps backward for computing freedom ever.

Even as far back as 2000, a lot of devices that we do not ordinarily think of as computers are in fact exactly that. Television sets, VCRs, CD players, DVD players, portable audio players, mobile phones, copiers, printers, scanners, fax machines, and the list goes on; all of these have computers (microprocessor-based logic) built into them somewhere. In 1980, this was unheard of, but now, it’s a fact of life. I still remember my late grandfather’s rants about these new cars with “all this computer [excrement]” that made them much more difficult to fix.

We have yet to change one thing, and it’s probably one thing that should not be changed. Computers are still, by themselves, incredibly dumb. One would think this, by itself, would discourage widespread adoption of DRM. Sadly, this is not the case.

The recording industry (RIAA) has realized DRM is not in their best interests. However movies, e-books, and cable television continue to be saddled with obnoxious restrictions. It’s often said that locks only keep honest people honest, and this is the same with DRM which is just a cyberspace equivalent of a fancy padlock. Those who do not respect copyright or draconian laws like the DMCA will crack the DRM and share anyway. CSS (not the stylesheet language, the DVD encryption method) was cracked very on in the lifespan of the DVD format. The Blu-Ray AACS key has been changed several times, and it just gets cracked again and again. Copies of these movies, as well as scans of books in PDF form, are easily obtainable on peer-to-peer file sharing networks and sites.

Meanwhile, people who have legitimately paid for video and audio recordings get unwelcome surprises when license servers disappear and they try to play recordings they “own” on a new computer. (The term “own” and “ownership” is kind of pointless with DRM, as even if one still has a copy of the recording, it can be rendered useless on an arbitrary basis. It’s like having a CD, DVD, or book that can just vanish or turn to dust without warning.) Don’t believe me? Ask these baseball fans who got bitten by MLB’s change in DRM licensing servers. Or the many people who bought into Microsoft’s PlaysForSure DRM scheme.

Perhaps the worst example, however, is when Amazon reached in to thousands of Kindle e-book readers it sold and erased copies of George Orwell’s book 1984, back in 2009 July. The content of the book itself makes the message even more chilling than it would otherwise have been.

DRM is an anti-social technology and I feel it is out of place in a world where “social media” is the new buzzword. The sooner it dies, the better.