This developing ethics story comes out of baseball, and if you skip the baseball ethics stories, this one shows why that is a mistake. The erstwhile National Pastime is certainly off to a flying start this season in ethics controversies, what with the game’s bone-headed decision to get involved in race-baiting politics seeded by Joe Biden and Stacey Abrams. This new controversy has the advantage of actually being about the game on the field. It also has a marvelous jumble of factors , real and hinted: history, tradition, real rules, unwritten ruled, rationalizations, hypocrisy, persecution, tarnished heroes, and maybe revenge.
Here we go…
Trevor Bauer is a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers whose fame, reputation and salary ($34 million a year for three years) are out of proportion to his record, which stood at 75-64 as this season dawns. At 30, this is roughly the equivalent of the success achieved by such immortals as Chris Young, Ben McDonald, and Chuck Dobson, mediocrities all. But Bauer is 1) unusually articulate 2) a social media master, and 3) had his best two seasons, including winning a Cy Young Award in last year’s shortened, pseudo-season, just as he was nearing free agency. Many players and his primary team in his career, the Cleveland Indians, don’t like Bauer, and not just because opinionated players are never popular with management. He once knocked himself out a crucial post-season start by cutting a pitching hand finger playing with a drone (he loves drones). In 2019, after allowing seven runs, Bauer threw a baseball over the centerfield wall, after seeing his manager Terry Francona come out of the dugout to remove him from the game. Bauer apologized profusely, but it was the final straw, and the Indians traded him.
Bauer, among other opinions, has been among the most vocal critics (and one of the few player critics) of the Houston Astros in particular (see here), and cheating in baseball generally.
After the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, baseball cracked down on pitchers doctoring the ball with foreign substances or by marring the surface to make it do tricks. Nonetheless, that many pitchers continued to try to slip spit, or Vaseline, or slippery elm, or pine tar onto the ball has been assumed, indeed known, ever since. This year, as part of the game trying to cut down on strike-outs which have reached boring levels (baseball is more entertaining the more the ball is put in play), MLB announced that umpires would be checking the balls more carefully and regularly to ensure that the rule against doctoring the ball wasn’t being violated. Lo and Behold, the first pitcher to have his thrown baseballs collected for inspection based on suspicion of doctoring was…Trevor Bauer!
Part of the game’s new policy is examining Statcast spin-rate data to determine unusual upticks for individual pitchers. What does that mean? “Spin-rate,” which now van be measured via computer technology, determines how much a thrown ball moves in curves, sliders and other breaking balls, as well as fastballs. The quicker the spin-rate, the harder the ball is to hit. Bauer has tweeted and spoken about spin-rate, and how using stuff on the ball speeds it up. Coincidentally, while Bauer’s normal spin rate on his fastball was about 2,250 r.p.m. in 2018, which is the league average, his spin rate began rising by 300 r.p.m. is 2019, and rose still more last season. So did his effectiveness.