Each week Jays From the Couch takes a look at the MLB landscape through a Blue Jays tinted lens. This week we focus on pitcher complaints about the inconsistent quality of baseballs and the importance of listening to general manager weekly media shows with open ears and minds.
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One thing you need to give Commissioner Rob Manfred and his staff credit for-they write a great memo. Last month the “memo of the day” concerned the standardization of the handling of baseballs, including time spent in on site humidors and the proper amount of special Delaware River mud to be rubbed into them. it should be noted that this memo would not have been necessary had MLB not begun experimenting with the dynamics of the game balls, cracked down on the use of sticky substances by pitchers and mandated the universal use of ballpark humidors. But at the risk of encouraging yet another Manfred Memo, let’s move on.
At the core of the matter, pitchers and coaching staffs have been complaining about the inconsistencies of baseballs being used in games. Complaints have run the gamut of being “too slick”, “misshapen” and “not feeling the same from inning to inning”. The MLB Memo entitled “Updates to Baseball Storage Handling” was sent to general managers, executives and clubhouse managers of all 30 clubs in reaction to escalating complaints from teams and players. While the memo did not detail specific violations of humidor and equipment care by any teams, the finger pointing away from MLB and the manufacturer and towards the stadiums and front offices was obvious. In essence, the memo said, “We know what some of you are doing to gain a home field advantage. Cut it out.”
The primary issue is the timeframe baseballs are removed from the humidor. The standard established by the Commissioner’s Office has been storage at 70% humidity levels until two hours before game time. IBWAA writer Dan Schlossberg recently wrote about the issue and referred to a league-sanctioned 2018 study that examined the impact of humidors on baseball actions. Citing geographic based variables such as altitude in Colorado, high desert climate in Arizona, and high humidity conditions in San Francisco, San Diego, Miami, Houston, St. Louis and Kansas City, the study concluded that the use of humidors in all stadiums would provide consistency from ballpark to ballpark.
This is nice in theory. But give a baseball team an inch and it will find enough wiggle room to obtain an advantage. The recent Orwellian surveillance measures instituted in the aftermath of the Astros and Red Sox cheating scandals uncovered erratic compliance with the humidor guidelines mandated by MLB. A “drier” baseball will travel further and increases in offensive production will follow. So if a team has a power-laden lineup, it could prove beneficial (in theory) to remove cases of baseballs before the two hour “suggested” storage mark to affect their performance.
Conversely, as moisture is added to the air around a baseball the core and string used in ball construction will cause those tightly-wound materials will expand. This can result in the pushing up of seams, making it tougher to get the best grip on the ball-a critical need for pitchers who use grips to increase break, spin and command. Thus, the complaint by many pitchers of the ball seeming “slick”. Conversely, if balls removed from humidors and treated with the special Delaware River mud in use for decades are not used during a game, they will dry out and the balls can become misshapen and less optimal for a pitcher.
In regards to the “special mud”….guidelines dictate the entire surface of each ball be covered in the mud and then rubbed clean before placement back into the storage boxes. This has been the practice in professional baseball leagues and was initiated in effort to protect baseballs from the affect of excessive humidity (especially in the summer) and make the balls easier to grip. But MLB compliance reviews have shown balls are sometimes not covered completely, which will result in slick spots on some balls.
Starting with the Bill Veeck ownership years in Chicago in the late 1950s, White Sox clubhouse and equipment personnel were ordered to store baseballs in damp rooms at Comiskey Park. The White Sox teams of this era (and extending through the mid Seventies) were not known for their exploits at the plate and had strong pitching staffs. So Veeck and later management used this tactic to neutralize opponent lineups while giving their pitchers an advantage with a “deadened” baseball. Player anecdotes often shared that the balls were stored until the moisture damaged the boxes, then removed and placed in new boxes when delivered to the umpires room. So manipulation of the storage methods in mandated humidors would not be without precedent.
MLB has been draconian in its enforcement of the banning of sticky stuff by pitchers and recently Reds starter Graham Ashcraft was forced to remove the wedding ring he wore on his glove hand to try to eliminate enhancements at a hurler’s disposal. It will be interesting to see if any violations of the baseball storage policy surface during the 2022 season-and what punishments may be in store for teams. It also should be a reminder to fans that inconsistent performances from established pitchers may indeed be the result of the manipulation of stadium humidors-perhaps even from their own club’s attempts to boost their offensive production to their own detriment. As Jim Bouton so articulately said in his iconic sports novel Ball Four, “A ballplayer spends a good piece of his life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”
As the trade deadline grows nearer, so does the insatiable needs of baseball fans for as much information as they can get their hands, eyes and ears on. The plethora of media sources (professional and amateur) do a lot to help meet these obsessions. But the greatest fountains of truth are in reality the 30 MLB franchises themselves and the general managers and baseball operations executives that ultimately pick up-or hang up- the phones and execute trades.
The tongue-in-cheek “fountains of truth” analogy was intentional. Front office executives in all sports are notoriously closed-lipped and secretive. Major League execs are more like Sargent Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes than Radio Free Europe in their broadcasting of trade information. If fans depend solely on their team’s general manager to provide all the information they are seeking, they could die of thirst. The fountain of information is barely a trickle in the best of scenarios and whatever droplets of information obtained are bland and hardly refreshing relief. More like drinking the last gulp of bottled water left in your car than Perrier with a twist.
Yet if you listen every week and learn to be aware of subtle clues scattered amongst the platitudes, the baseball fan in you can be aware of possible changes and transactions on the horizon. While the questions soft-tossed by the team broadcast team are meant to give the general manager time to camouflage their answers, they can also accommodate moments of candor and reflection.
Two of the best examples are Mariner GM Jerry DiPoto’s podcast The Wheelhouse and former Blue Jays executive and current Pirates GM Ben Cherington’s Sunday radio show on the Pirate’s Radio Network. The Wheelhouse podcast tends to be more general entertainment than strictly baseball, but the format plays to DiPoto’s strengths as a communicator and as an outside-the-box thinker. While new podcasts are only released monthly, the gap between new episodes allows the listener and the hosts the benefit of time to explore and react to the decisions made over the course of a month.
Cherington never fails to offer fans at least one helpful insight into what the next step might be. He is not an open book. But he outlines the research and the rationale behind roster decisions in an easy to follow format. Most refreshing of all, Cherington is never hesitant to accept responsibility for failed measures he has taken and explains reasons for player struggles as opposed to making excuses for them. INSIDE SCOOP BLUE JAYS FANS- no matter how badly you hope for Cherington to turn to his former employer and offer Brian Reynolds and David Bednar to the Jays, he honestly has no intention of doing so (unless the return is so overwhelming he can’t resist).
It should be noted that Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins does not have a regularly scheduled show on radio, television or social media. This is absolutely a conscious decision, supported no doubt by Team President Mark Shapiro, to keep team strategic thinking closely guarded. In fairness to Atkins, it is not to his advantage to make himself available through regular media shows. If we look at his lack of media presence without bias, such programs really do not play to Atkins’ strengths. This being said, Blue Jays fans should pay more attention to the media interviews Atkins does conduct. Because he does not have regularly scheduled media events, Atkins does offer real-time glimpses into the immediate and near-future plans of the team and lends a greater sense of urgency to the topics and transactions he does discuss.
*Featured Images Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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Jersey born, Pittsburgh resident, baseball lifer. Staff Writer jaysfromthecouch.com. Host THE ON FEK CIRCLE on JFtC YouTube Channel. Regular guest on Jays From the couch Radio Podcast. Established WPPJ Rock-a-thon benefit, which has been broadcast annually since 1981 and has raised for than $500,000 for the Early Learning Institute of Pittsburgh. IBWAA member.