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SSTN Weekly Mailbag: Loading the Ball Crackdown, The Final Bench Spot, and AL East Contenders

By Andy Singer



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I’m not sure how we got here, but this is the last SSTN Mailbag of the Spring! By next Friday, we’ll have real Yankee games to talk about. I, for one, can’t wait. In fact, I think they should rename the last week and a half of Spring Training, “Operation Don’t Get Hurt.” Until April 1st, I’ll have my fingers crossed.

As always thanks for the great questions, and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. In this week’s SSTN Mailbag, we’ll discuss MLB’s supposed crackdown on loading the baseball, making a choice on Bruce vs. Tauchman, and discuss the Yankees’ competition in the AL East! Let’s get at it:

Rob B. asks: I know that in the last mailbag you said that you don’t like any of the new rules MLB is using in the minors this year, but what do you think about the decision to crack down on pitchers doctoring the ball this year?

I’ve had one or two posts about pitchers doctoring balls on the backburner all offseason, but it came back to the forefront with MLB’s announcement that they would be using a combination of video and Statcast to catch pitchers who doctor the baseball during the 2021 season. Before I get to my thoughts on the matter, I first have some open-ended, semi-rhetorical questions about MLB’s “plan.”

In theory, cutting down on any cheating is a good thing, but MLB’s announcement strikes me as eye wash to placate hardcore observers. How will umpires be notified that a pitcher’s spin rates have suddenly spiked via Statcast? Will the guys in the replay booths in New York start relaying spin information to umpires, thus indicating that they need to inspect the pitcher? Is a spiking spin rate enough probable cause to check the pitcher for substances? If a pitcher is caught using substances on the ball in competition, what will the penalty look like? Is there going to be some sort of oversight over clubbies in the dugouts and clubhouses? With the new rule, will the game slow down further as umpires inspect balls and pitchers? None of these questions have been answered by MLB at the current time.

While enforcing rules against substances on the baseball sounds great, the reality is far tougher than MLB’s announcement makes it sound. Look, there is little doubt but that a large percentage of pitchers in the modern game are using something on the baseball with some level of frequency. Multiple studies have shown that a variety of mixtures (many including pine tar, which is readily available on every baseball bench in the world) can help add ride to fastballs and sharper break to breaking balls. It’s against the rules, but pitchers have been hiding techniques to help spin as far back as the early 20th century. Whitey Ford was famous for a sharpened ring that he’d use to scuff the ball. The cat has been out of the bag for a long time, so I don’t think there’s much that MLB can do to put the cat back in the bag.

However, particularly at this time of year, there is a real use for something to tack up the baseball. When it’s cold, it becomes very difficult to control the ball when you can’t feel your fingers (for any of you that have pitched, it’s an all-too-familiar scenario), and you have no idea where the ball is going. Pitchers throw harder than ever, so a lack of control is more dangerous than it’s ever been. Realistically, smart regulation is the answer to this problem, and I have a proposal.

Since the cat is out of the bag, I think that MLB should develop an “MLB Developed Ball Substance” that gets placed on the mound for use by all pitchers that enter the game. Permission must be granted by the umpire for use, and penalties for getting caught with any substance other than that should be severe for both the pitcher and the pitcher’s manager. Study the substance to ensure that it adds grip, but that additional spin isn’t excessive. To me, it’s the best of all worlds. Player safety is ensured, while performance gains are negligible.

Bobby asks: I understand that you liked either Dietrich or Ford for the last spot on the bench, but if the choice is between Bruce and Tauchman, who would you take?

I know I said that I was done talking about the bench, but this is a really good bench question that I haven’t really answered. I’ve made my general inclination towards leaving Bruce off the roster known despite the fact that the Yankee clubhouse seems to have accepted him with open arms and his reputation as a good clubhouse guy. I’ve also stated the fact that I think that Tauchman is superfluous given Gardy’s presence on the roster…so choosing between the two is an interesting choice.

Tauchman put up some killer numbers in 2019, but I was skeptical of those numbers, even at the time. His underlying batted ball metrics were less than inspiring, and despite the fact that Tauchman has consistently graded out as a plus defender, I think it was very telling that the Yankees have consistently played a 36+ year old Brett Gardner over Tauchman nearly every time they’re on the field together. That’s not to say that Tauchman doesn’t have value…I’ll get to that in a minute. It just means that I’m not sure he’s the best fit for the Yankees’ roster, even if the Yankees say he’s now healthy after a disastrous 2020 season.

I’ve discussed Bruce a fair amount this offseason. He still has left-handed pop, but that’s about it. He has defensive versatility, but he’s terrible defensively at every position he still plays (evidence of that has been pretty clear in his play around the first base bag this Spring Training). The Yankees have a swing and miss problem in the best of times, so I don’t think Bruce, even left-handed adds to the cause.

I’m of two minds. Other teams seem to be high on Tauchman. If he can be parlayed into a controllable MLB-ready bullpen arm, I’m fine with carrying Bruce for now and dealing Tauchman. If a suitable deal (meaning with a good return) can’t be found for Tauchman, keep him and jettison Bruce.

James asks: Which team is going to be the best competition for the Yankees in the AL East this season? Rays got a lot weaker, but are still good.

To me, it’s between the Jays and the Red Sox. I think the Sox have a sneaky decent lineup, and if they can scrap together a pitching staff, I can see them getting 85-88 wins. The Jays have young studs and maybe enough pitching to be competitive over the long haul, and I also think they can get to 85-90 wins. I think the Rays have finally overplayed their hand, and I just don’t see them getting enough pitching or offense to break .500. They seemingly do it every year, so they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt, but at some point, their luck will run out.

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