New Rules Wreak Havoc With Pitchers

ALSO: 'TOMAHAWK CURSE' WEIGHS HEAVILY ON BRAVES' SEASON

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Pregame Pepper

Did You Know?

Mets ace Jacob deGrom has batted in more runs this season than he has allowed . . .

Free agency is beckoning after this season for the entire Miami Marlins outfield of Adam Duvall, Starling Marte, and Corey Dickerson . . .

White Sox Rookie of the Year candidate Yermin Mercedes already has a hamburger named after him in a Chicago restaurant . . .

The Seattle Pilots became the Milwaukee Brewers during 1970 spring training.

Leading Off

Rob Manfred needs to stop treating Major League Baseball like ‘MLB the Show’

By Tani Levitt

Major League Baseball implemented new rules for what substances pitchers can use to grip the baseball just this week, but in four days, the ensuing controversy – which touches on several key issues affecting the modern game – has reverberated throughout MLB.

The widening gap between pitchers and hitters, the drastic drop in live balls, MLB’s willingness/unwillingness to change the rules of the game mid-season, and, of course, labor relations, all factor in to this seismic decision.

As with all rule changes, MLB’s decision to aggressively enforce its ban on pitchers from using any illegal substances to help them grip the baseball will have a major impact on all players, and the players are already claiming they are suffering from the real-life consequences. After tearing his UCL, Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow claimed the lack of tack contributed to his injury. In particular, Glasnow was frustrated with the fact that MLB changed the rule and its enforcement mid-season:

“Do it in the offseason, give us a chance to adjust to it … I had to change everything I’d been doing the entire season. Everything, out of the window … And then I’m telling you, I truly believe, that’s why I got hurt.”

Whether or not this rule change directly caused Glasnow’s injury, his point that aggressive rule changes should not be made mid-season is a strong one. Pitchers have been using outside substances to grip the ball better for ages, and players and managers had no objections unless the usage was so blatantly obvious to be insulting.

MLB might pretend that it has new information in light of a Sports Illustrated report that claims “sticky stuff is the new steroids,” or in light of new spin rate data, but such claims would ring hollow. Pitchers’ spin rates have been elevated for years, and Trevor Bauer, MLB’s highest-paid pitcher, has been yelling about the use of illegal substances since 2017. The Sports Illustrated story does have new reporting, but substantively, it adds little beyond a 2020 article at The Athletic, which begins “your favorite pitcher is probably cheating” and goes on to show just that. 

MLB has had plenty of data and reporting to support a move against illegal substances for years, yet they chose to make this shift mid-season. Why did they do that? Your guess is as good as any (and there are plenty), but the end result is players like Glasnow are left reeling, adjusting to the new rule on-the-fly, a process players have seen before.

MLB has juiced, de-juiced, and re-juiced the baseballs multiple times over the past few years in hopes of returning home runs, strikeouts, and balls in play to a healthy equilibrium. They have not found that equilibrium, but they have managed to undermine players’ faith in the fundamental part of the game.

When Mets first baseman Pete Alonso recently wondered if the juicing and de-juicing had anything to do with free agency, his General Manager called him a conspiracy theorist. Alonso certainly made a logical leap, but if he was right, it would not be the first time MLB changed the way the game is played in a way that allowed teams to underpay players. 

One can understand Alonso’s concerns, and the potential impact mid-season rule changes can have on a players’ career trajectory, especially for pitchers. 

Reliever usage has drastically changed in recent years, with managers eschewing set roles in favor of using their best relievers in increasingly flexible situations. But when it comes to paying relievers, front offices and MLB appointed arbitrators point to outdated modes of evaluation like saves, and underpay relievers.

In the case of Dellin Betances, that disconnect led Yankees President Randy Levine to gaslight the player and his agent, claiming that “it’s like me saying, ‘I’m not the president of the Yankees; I’m an astronaut,’” a nonsensical ad-hominem attack that Yankees players surely remember, and players from other teams will recognize from the way their organizations and the league office treats them.

One can argue the relative merits of pitchers using sunscreen and resin to grip baseballs, the perfect juiciness of a baseball, the importance of closers, and many other rule and style changes – in fact, the health of the game depends on finding answers to all those questions – but what is not open for debate is whether MLB implements these rule and style changes in a manner that takes into account the best interest of the players. They simply do not. 

Rob Manfred and the league office are running Major League Baseball like they are playing MLB the Show, changing the terms of engagement as it pleases them, ignoring the impact these changes will have on the players in terms of their job security and their physical health. This is fine in The Show, where the players are imagined, but in real life, players are getting hurt and losing income, and MLB does not seem to care.

The league would rather gaslight the players than admit what they do is unjust. The end of the collective bargaining agreement is near, and players will remember the way MLB handled itself when they both sit at the negotiating table. 

Tani Levitt is a freelance writer, podcast producer, and journalism student at NYU. He likes baseball, beat-boxing and breathing – roughly in that order. You can find his work on Twitter @HateItOrLevitt. His email address is netanel.levitt@gmail.com.

Cleaning Up

‘Tomahawk Curse’ Ensnares ‘21 Braves

By Dan Schlossberg

Baseball has survived the Curse of the Bambino, the Goat Curse of Wrigley Field, the Curse of Rocky Colavito, the Curse of the Cowboy, the Billy Penn Curse, the Curse of Alex Rodriguez, and many more.

But now there’s a new one that could rival them all.

Call it the Tomahawk Curse, since the Atlanta Braves are the victims this season.

After refusing to honor the wishes of Native Americans that they follow the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians in changing their nickname, the Braves began the season badly and got progressively worse.

Opening at Citizens Bank Park, a notorious bandbox, they scored three runs in 28 innings. They lost a 10-inning opener, 4-3, on April Fool’s Day, then lost again during a scheduled off-day on April 2, the date Commissioner Rob Manfred picked to strip the city of the 2021 All-Star Game. Manfred acted hastily when National League manager Dave Roberts, bolstered by union chief Tony Clark and a few other prominent African-Americans in the game, protested Georgia’s new voting laws.

After hastily patching over the 2021 All-Star logos on their uniform sleeves, the Braves looked and played like ragamuffins. They managed just one base-runner — on a second-inning single by Travis d’Arnaud — against Zack Wheeler on April 3, then lost a 2-1 game to complete the lost weekend in a city that showed no brotherly love.

They would lose another before running off a four-game winning streak but never managed to scramble over the .500 mark — hardly indicative of a team with designs on a world championship.

Things really started to rot the minute the baseball calendar entered its second month.

On May 1, d’Arnaud tore a ligament in the thumb of his catching hand and needed surgery certain to keep him out at least three months.

Fifteen days later, sudden pitching sensation Huascar Ynoa fractured his right hand while smacking the dugout bench in frustration.

During a game at Fenway Park on May 24, defending National League home run king Marcell Ozuna foolishly slid head-first into Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers — getting himself out on the play and out for six weeks with two fractured fingers.

But Ozuna wasn’t done: at home on May 29, he was allegedly involved in a serious domestic battery altercation against wife Genesis, triggering a probable MLB suspension and possible legal punishment of 1-20 years in prison.

That very same day, the Braves learned that No. 1 pitcher Mike Soroka would need exploratory surgery to determine the cause of pain around his patched-up Achilles, torn in his third start of last year.

That meant that team’s top pitcher, top RBI man, star catcher, and newest pitching star would all be out well into the second half of the season — if they returned at all.

That’s a pretty tough hit for a team that came within one game last year of winning its first pennant since 1999 and competing for its first world title since 1995.

Oh, and did we mention that the Atlanta injured list this year has been occupied at times by Max Fried, who succeeded Soroka at the top of the rotation; Chris Martin, Atlanta’s best right-handed reliever; and Cristian Pache, a gifted center-fielder whose losing battles with hamstring and groin issues emulated his efforts against opposing pitchers. Backup centerfielders Guillermo Heredia and Ender Inciarte also missed time, along with understudy catcher Alex Jackson.

Just this week, on Tuesday night, budding rookie star Tucker Davidson left a game early with forearm tightness in his left arm. Since he’s a lefty, that’s not good news — especially since he had been almost flawless in his previous three starts.

But the worst news of the week was the continued bullpen implosion. Since suffering through a two-hour, 53-minute rain delay in Boston May 26, the Atlanta relief corps has been anything but. Its collective ERA before Wednesday night was 5.55.

Then A.J. Minter coughed up a grand-slam on an 0-2 pitch to the first man he faced, pinch-hitter Christian Arroyo, and turned a 7-6 Braves lead into a 10-7 deficit. That led to a 10-8 loss for the second consecutive night, as once-dependable Chris Martin had thrown a game-losing gopherball to Alex Verdugo in the eighth inning of a 7-7 tie.

Speaking of ties, the Braves entered play Thursday night with an 0-10 record in games that were tied after seven innings. They lost seven games when leading after six innings — after losing just six in that situation during the previous two seasons combined.

Chalk up another one for the Tomahawk Curse.

That curse has tentacles; with the exception of Ronald Acuna Jr. and buddy Ozzie Albies, the whole team hasn’t hit. Defending National League MVP Freddie Freeman, hoping for a contract extension that may never come, is hitting the ball hard — and sometimes out — but hovering more than 100 points below his .341 batting average from the shortened season.

To make matters worse, former Braves Mark Melancon and Adam Duvall — both severed when the team cut payroll to compensate for pandemic-year losses — proved their worth elsewhere, while newly-acquired pitchers Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly failed to justify the combined $26 million investment that brought them to Atlanta.

Shane Greene and Darren O’Day, solid relievers last year, were also allowed to leave, though Greene returned June 6 after the bullpen proved the Achilles heel of the entire team. Nearly a dozen one-run losses had piled up before his return.

Melancon, meanwhile, had 19 saves and a 0.64 earned for average for San Diego, which signed him to a one-year contract at the bargain price of $3 million. So what if he’s 37?

If Denver-based Liberty Media, which owns the team, would provide better funding, the unfolding calamity could be curtailed. But John Malone, who runs Liberty and has a personal worth of $9 billion, decided to donate a million to Donald Trump when that money would have been far better spent on player payroll.

General manager Alex Anthopoulos, acutely aware of the problem, revealed earlier this week that he'll have the leeway to enlarge the payroll before the July 30 trade deadline. But even taking on a Charlie Blackmon or Joey Gallo contract might not be enough, though Anthopoulos says d’Arnaud, Soroka, and Ynoa could all come back in August.

According to SporTrac, Atlanta’s payroll of $141,929,773 ranks just 14th — very middle-of-the-pack — and behind all three of its top rivals in the National League East.

Teams need to spend money to make money and the Braves don’t spend nearly as much as the Mets, Phillies, or Nationals. They’ll need to do better if they have any hopes of escaping the Tomahawk Curse.

HERE’S THE PITCH weekend editor Dan Schlossberg is a former AP sportswriter who covers baseball for forbes.com, Latino Sports, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, and Sports Collectors Digest. He’s also the author of 38 baseball books. His e.mail is ballauthor@gmail.com.

Timeless Trivia

Ted Williams twice lost MVP awards immediately after winning Triple Crowns . . .

Ebbets Field, long-time home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was demolished with a wrecking ball painted to look like a baseball . . .

Future Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell, then in the Mets' bullpen, ate seven cheeseburgers during the 19-inning, rain-delayed marathon game in Atlanta that started on July 4, 1985 . . .

Once capacity restrictions were lifted, the Los Angeles Dodgers drew 52,078 fans — the largest post-pandemic crowd, for a game against the Phillies on June 15.


Know Your Editors

HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [bchrom831@gmail.com] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [nymfan97@gmail.com] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [ballauthor@gmail.com] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.

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