Jun. 28—There have already been seven no-hitters in the Major Leagues, including the Chicago Cubs’ combined no-hitter in a 4-0 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday night.
That ties for the most in the modern era, and MLB hasn’t even reached the All-Star break.
And hitters are striking out at an alarming rate, with Major League teams hitting just .236 through May, the lowest batting average since 1968.
So the league banned pitchers last Monday from using any foreign substances on the baseball or risk a 10-game suspension.
Sunscreen with rosin bag residue and pine tar that hitters use to grip their bats are two of the more common agents used by pitchers to grip the ball. Now they can only use the rosin bag or wet the tips of their fingers. But when they wet their fingers, they have to wipe them off before throwing a pitch.
Former University of Maine All-American center fielder Mark Sweeney, one of MLB’s most prolific pinch-hitters, said the league had to do something to make the game more attractive to its fan base.
“They couldn’t keep going like this,” said Sweeney, a broadcaster for the San Diego Padres. “There was a time when guys like Pedro Martinez would strike out 10 in a game and it was a big deal,” Sweeney said. “Now you are seeing teams combining to strike out 27 times in a game.”
That makes for a boring night for baseball fans, he said.
Other former players are more critical of MLB’s decision.
“If it’s legal for a hitter to use pine tar so he can grip the bat, why can’t a pitcher use it to grip the ball?” asked former UMaine ace and National League Cy Young Award runner up Billy Swift who admitted he used to use pine tar between innings. It was in his jacket pocket and would help him grip the ball for two to three innings at a time.
But he said it didn’t give him an advantage, it just enabled him to grip the ball better.
Larry Thomas, another former UMaine star pitcher and Major Leaguer, said hitters should be in favor of pitchers being able to use a substance to get more grip on the ball.
It is a safety issue, he explained.
“Do you want a guy throwing the ball 100 miles an hour who can’t grip the ball?” Thomas posed.
Swift and former Bangor High standout and Major League pitcher Matt Kinney said one of the biggest issues is the baseball, which is slick and hard to grip.
Swift said in 1998, his last season, the seams were small which made the baseball even more difficult to grip.
Meanwhile Kinney said when he spent a season in Japan, its baseballs had a little more grip than the ones in the Majors. He admitted that he used pine tar from time to time, and that MLB could alleviate the problem if it used a ball that is easier to grip.
“They’re like billiard balls now,” agreed former UMaine and Major League shortstop Mike Bordick.
The consensus among the group is that a 10-game suspension is too steep. The pitcher will still get paid but the team will need to bring up a pitcher from the minor leagues to replace him.
That is a sore spot for Sweeney.
“That means somebody on the roster is going to have to be sent down and he didn’t do anything wrong,” said Sweeney, who was one of those players who wound up getting sent down to the minors when a pitcher got hurt.
It was pointed out that pitchers used to do even worse things to the ball, like use tacks in their gloves, sandpaper, nail files, vaseline and spit on the ball to get more movement on it. Or catchers would rub it against their shinguards to cut it a little.
The former players agreed that if the pitchers are knowingly altering the baseball significantly to improve their spin rate and get more movement on the ball in order to get hitters out, they should be suspended. But there is a difference between using pine tar or sunscreen to grip a ball and cutting a ball to gain an advantage.
Swift feels strongly that managers will take full advantage of this to try to distract pitchers. They will ask the umpire to check an opposing pitcher to get him off his game or frustrate him.
It has already happened as Phillies manager Joe Girardi asked umpires to check Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer. Scherzer was cleared of any wrongdoing but had a staredown with Girardi causing tensions between the teams.
Tampa Bay star pitcher Tyler Glasnow said when he stopped using sunscreen and rosin to grip the ball, the adjustments he had to make led to a partial ligament tear in elbow.
That didn’t surprise Kinney.
“One of my best pitches was a slider and if I had trouble gripping it, I would have had to grip the ball tighter and that can put a strain on your arm.”
The former Major Leaguers added the lack of offense in the game shouldn’t be blamed solely on the pitchers and their use of foreign substances on the ball.
Hitters aren’t bothered by striking out any more, they said. Hitters are just trying to hit home runs. They won’t choke up on the bat and try to put the ball in play with two strikes. They will hit the ball into shifts instead of using the opposite field where there will be just one infielder.
And teams rarely utilize bunting unless a pitcher is hitting.
“I love baseball, but it’s hard to watch right now,” Sweeney said.