Today, I conclude a short series on the current cheating scandal in baseball; that being pitchers gooping up their pitching hands with illegal sticky substances to give themselves a better grip on the baseball. This can dramatically alter the spin rate of a pitch, making it much more difficult to pitch. That has led the lowest batting averages in Major League Baseball (MLB) since 1968, which was the lowest of all-time. This in turn has led to what David Waldstein said “poses an existential threat [to baseball]. With an aging core audience, and many young children turning to sports they view as more exciting, watching big leaguers swing and miss in three-hour wars of attrition is not an easy product to sell to a new generation.” Today I want to conclude with the solution that MLB can implement and it comes from the world of compliance.
Baseball has had a series of corruption crisis, which they all call cheating. The most recent series began in the late 1980s/early 1990s involving steroids. The second was the use of technology to steal pitcher’s signs and then transmit them to hitters (i.e., the Red Sox and Astros, 2018 and 2017 World Series winners). Now we have pitchers across MLB cheating by hiding illegal substances anywhere they can in their gloves on or their persons to garner a better grip on the baseball. Buster Olny writing in ESPN.com, detailed how MLB appallingly failed in each of the two previous scandals and by doing so, damaged the “truth of the game”. These failures (intentionally or otherwise) by MLB in these scandals to implement anything close to what is required in any formulation of a compliance program.
In the steroids scandal, MLB was on notice as early as 1988 when “Jose Canseco answered questions about alleged steroid use before a World Series broadcast.” MLB response was almost pathetic when in “1991, then commissioner Fay Vincent sent a memo to all teams reiterating that players found to be in possession of “illegal drugs … including steroids” are subject to discipline and permanent expulsion.” It was not until 2003 that the players union and MLB “agreed to the initial drug-testing program.” We all know how that turned out (see: Rodriguez, Alex). Additionally, “As a result, the sport suffered as dozens of the game’s biggest stars were implicated, from Canseco to former MVP Ken Caminiti to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, with the latter two still running short in the Hall of Fame voting. The steroid era was devastating for the perception of baseball.”
The next big scandal was the sign-stealing scandal. Once again MLB had sufficient notice of the cheating and once again the response was just short of pathetic. Olny wrote, “Late in the 2017 season, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees engaged in a spat over Boston’s use of electronics in its dugout during the game, and in rendering discipline, Manfred had a chance to come down with a hammer that might’ve impacted the use of technology in sign-stealing. Rather, he issued small fines and sent a memo to all teams — and what we know now is that his discipline did nothing to deter the Houston Astros from continuing to use their trash-can banging system of relying signs to hitters.”
That is right. In both situations, the Commissioner of baseball sent a Memo to the teams saying “follow the rules” when, at least with the sign stealing scandal, it was the teams which were leading the efforts. No meaningful discipline, no follow up monitoring, no remediation, no nothing. In fact, if a whistleblower had not stepped forward, the entire sign stealing scandal may have never come to light. I am sure MLB would be much happier if knowledge of the sign stealing had never been made public. Perhaps that last fact is the bigger problem.
So, what did MLB do? They issued yet another Memo! As reported by Michael Shapiro in SI.com, MLB will now ban the egregiously sticky substances used by pitchers. A violation could lead to up to 10-day playing ban. Repeated violations could be put on the “Ineligible List”. Umpires are to be given the sole authority to make the determination. Another article in ESPN.com reported that some of the mandates include, “major and minor league umpires will start regular checks of all pitchers, even if opposing managers don’t request inspections. Umpires will perform period checks of all starting and relief pitchers on both teams throughout each game, MLB said. Starters will be subject to more than one mandatory check each game and relief pitchers must be checked once they conclude an inning in which they entered a game or when they are removed from a game, whichever comes first, MLB said. Catchers will be subject to routine inspections, and position players may be searched. Repeat offenders will receive progressive discipline, and teams and club employees will be subject to discipline for failure to comply.” All of this is supposed to begin next Monday.
Olny, for one, is skeptical that MLB will actually do anything substantive. MLB must actually enforce its own rules. This would require equal treatment of star players and those recently called up from the minor leagues. It will require umpires to policy the equipment and indeed persons of all pitchers. It will require opposing managers to raise an appropriate suspicion (blow a whistle?). “A longtime umpire told ESPN the hard line is vital as he and his brethren attempt an on-the-fly enforcement of a rule that for years has been ignored.”
What guidance does compliance have for MLB? Every compliance program has several similar characteristics. As every CCO knows, it all starts at the top. After that, written standards in the form of policies and procedures. MLB has long had a rule against this form of cheating but never enforced it. It is in the implementation of the rule that MLB must show some backbone for once. Olny said, “What baseball officials would really love is for pitchers who have relied on foreign substances — and any of their position-player accomplices who might be willing to dab up a belt or shin guard — to be scared straight, to go cold turkey and go back to using rosin. What baseball officials would really love is for umpires to check gloves and hats and belts and pant legs and forearms and find nothing — no Pelican Grip, no pine tar, no sunscreen. Nothing. That way, there doesn’t have to be suspensions and possible grievances over suspensions, and this situation inflaming an already tense relationship between Major League Baseball and players.”
MLB must police its own rules and enforce clear disincentives for cheating. Every compliance professional knows that without any meaningful discipline, a compliance program can not succeed. Moreover, it is not just about meaningful discipline, as there must be ongoing monitoring of pitchers’ spin rates to ascertain if they are in compliance with MLB rules. If not, if there is one thing the history of baseball has taught us, “Some players and some staffers will always look for a competitive advantage, even if that occurs at the expense of peers, and when baseball ignores festering issues, they almost always get worse.”
MLB can fix its problem, but it has to want to fix it.