When did cheating become a way of life?

Eno Sarris published an article in the Athletic two days before the Cy Young winners were announced, one of whom was Trevor Bauer. The main thrust of the article was that most pitchers cheat and it’s acceptable. Specifically, after speaking with close to 20 MLB hitters, pitchers, and pitching coaches, Sarris stated that “a large majority of big league pitchers right now are using some sort of extra-grip substance to impart more spin — and therefore more movement — on the ball.”

Please note that Official Baseball Rule 6.02(c)(4) states that “pitcher may not apply any foreign substance to the ball. This goes beyond the ‘expectorate’ prohibition and applies to anything at all (including dirt).” This is relevant to all 30 MLB teams including the Mets, especially considering the biggest free agent (FA) pitcher on the market is Bauer, the 2020 NL Cy Young winner. While Sarris was informed that most pitchers use foreign substances, Bauer was quoted extensively in this article and there are allegations that he has used some sort of sticky substance to assist with increasing his spin rate. One of the quotes in the Athletic reads as follows:

“For eight years I’ve been trying to figure out how to increase the spin on my fastball because I’d identified it way back then as such a massive advantage,” Bauer himself wrote in a piece for The Players’ Tribune. “I knew that if I could learn to increase it through training and technique, it would be huge. But eight years later, I haven’t found any other way except using foreign substances.”

While Bauer may not be alone, he is one of the only MLB pitchers to put his name to using foreign substances on the ball. He never stated specifically that he did it in 2020, but rumors are out there and Sarris’ article indicates most, if not all, pitchers load up the ball in some form of another. Once upon a time, it seemed this practice was only a veteran pitcher’s purview as stated hilariously by one fictional Ed Harris of Major League fame:

Wild Thing: You put snot on the ball?

Harris: I haven’t got an arm like yours. I gotta put anything on it I can find. Someday you will, too.

If most pitchers cheat, then what is cheating? Where does one draw the line? The Rule clearly states that any foreign substance on the ball is not allowed. Sarris’ article indicates that a rule change could happen or loading up the ball will just be ignored forever. It’s possible that some combination of the two occur where some foreign substances will be allowed and some pitchers will have to dance between the raindrops not to be caught with illegal ones.

One can argue that the ball is hard to grip due to multiple changes to the ball over the years that has resulted in pitchers needing to do more to allow them to grip it. For example, Noah Syndergaard once described the ball as an ice cube after giving up five runs in five innings.

The interesting thing about pitching is that even great pitchers have terrible starts. For example, early in 2019, Jacob deGrom pitched seven scoreless innings with 14 strikeouts against the Miami Marlins and, in his next start, gave up six runs in four innings against the Minnesota Twins. At that time, there was talk that deGrom was tipping pitches or there wasn’t sufficient velocity differential between his pitches. deGrom won his second Cy Young for the 2019 season. He’s special, an ace of aces, and even he is not perfect.

One has to wonder if inconsistency for pitchers is just baked into the cake of their jobs? What of the multitudes of lesser lights? If life is a normal curve, then most pitchers aggregate in the middle and aren’t special at all. Foreign substances seem to help with gripping the baseball and pitching is clearly one of the most difficult jobs in sports. Should use of foreign substances become a part of the rules, rather than be considering cheating? What is the point of winning if it requires breaking the rules? Where is the joy, the sense of accomplishment in such an endeavor?

Baseball is so offense-friendly now with bringing fences in, changing the ball, lowering the mound in the 1960s, having a pitch clock in the minors, less mound visits in the bigs, and now the 3-batter rule. Why not just have a pitcher robot or machine do the job? Why allow humans to do this most difficult thing in sports? Maybe it’s beyond them if cheating is intrinsic to the job.

Hyperbole aside, are we just supposed to accept cheating as a way of life in baseball? Some fans were angry at the Houston Astros players for not getting punished and some were fine with it: all in the game, you know?

Where do you draw the line?

The complete game: Trevor Bauer vs Marcus Stroman

The Mets need starting pitching. Once upon a time, this was a franchise known for starting pitching beginning with the Franchise himself: Tom Seaver. In the recent and more relevant past, there was a dream of five aces, a 2015 World Series run, and a 2016 Wild Card appearance. Even when the Mets fell off a cliff between 2017 and 2019, they still had their starting pitching. That’s not true anymore. Jacob deGrom is brilliant, but he stands alone. Zack Wheeler was foolishly left in the wind when he reached free agency (FA) in 2019, Steven Matz is now a home run machine, Noah Syndergaard will just be coming back from Tommy John surgery in 2021, and Matt Harvey, sadly, is gone and, even more painful for him, no longer good at pitching.

Now, it’s October 2020 and the Mets have a new owner-to-be in billionaire Steve Cohen. While the New York Post indicates his plan to invest heavily in analytics​1, there is room to buy starting pitching in FA. That brings us to Trevor Bauer and Marcus Stroman. There appears to be a ramp up in Mets fans wanting the team to go after Bauer​; however, the better choice is Stroman.

Both pitchers are 29 with similar career statistics if you review their Baseball-Reference page (ERA 3.90 for Bauer, 3.76 for Stroman). Bauer is the favorite for the 2020 NL Cy Young Award (ERA 1.73). However, one can argue that working out of the NL Central in this regional-centric season helped him quite a bit considering he had to face such juggernauts as the Kansas City Royals, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Detroit Tigers, and the Milwaukee Brewers. Moreover, there are allegations regarding his spin rate increase this year being a tad suspect.​

Stroman didn’t pitch this year due to an injury and, then, he opted out in this pandemic-shortened season related to COVID-19 concerns. While he only started 11 games and was merely mediocre for the Mets in 2019, there’s no reason to believe he can’t come back to the team ready to go in 2021 as a two or three starter. While he could use better defense behind being a more ground ball pitcher, he’s also as athletic as they come as a pitcher. He’s fun to watch. Both Bauer and Stroman are expressive on the mound, which is a nice contrast with the more stoic deGrom.

Bauer’s MLB experience is mostly in the Midwest with the Cleveland Indians and the Cincinnati Reds. Stroman played for the Toronto Blue Jays, but he’s from Long Island and has experienced the harsh New York media for the last year plus. Thus, one might wonder if Bauer could handle New York. While both pitchers have a strong social media presence. Stroman brings fun, a social conscience, and argues a bit with fans, but nothing outlandish. Bauer is different.

Bauer goes after MLB quite a bit on Twitter and he’s been elevated by baseball media for being outspoken. He’s pointed out problems with MLB regarding Commissioner Rob Manfred, the Houston Astros cheating scandal, and MLB’s inability to grow their own game.

However, Bauer’s Twitter presence goes beyond just being outspoken on MLB issues. MLB is a powerful entity that can handle one of their stars tweaking them even if they don’t like it. On the other hand, Bauer has developed an unfortunate habit of going after individuals who clearly have less power than MLB and himself. Bauer has over 380,000 followers on Twitter, but he has quote-tweeted, replied, and tweet-stormed people with considerably less followers and power when he disagrees with them. Anyone who knows Twitter knows how this works. An avalanche then falls on the less powerful person that was started by Bauer and then finished by his followers in 2019 and in 2020.​ Please note that the most recent incident occurred within the last week. Please also note that this writer got blocked by Bauer’s agent for responding to one of her tweets when she defended him.

If you were the new Mets owner and front office, would you want a Bauer headache you don’t need? No matter how much Bauer may enjoy attention, the New York media will be brighter and louder when it comes to social media fiascos. Bauer makes Stroman look like a sweet summer child, a Game of Thrones reference for the uninitiated.

While we are all Mets fans here, there are more important things in life than baseball. It’s true that some fans will just look at the baseball and not care about off-the-field factors. It’s tough as there are always players that make it very hard to root for the laundry. Sometimes, there are owners that make it difficult as well. No one knows that better than a Mets fan. We just got rid of the Wilpons and can look forward to something better.

So, for the love of more than just the game, let’s go with Stroman.

How do the Mets win with Jacob deGrom?

Play better.

That’s easier said than done. While the Mets have won more of deGrom’s starts this year compared to the horror shows of 2018 and 2019, they’re still not a playoff caliber team.  The offense looks good as the Mets are doing much better with RISP. Jeff McNeil is finding his power and his hits while Pete Alonso is smiling in Polar Bear fashion at another HR to the moon or at least over the Great Wall of Flushing. Michael Conforto has been here for five years and it appears he has finally moved from good to great with flashy catches and hitting the ball the other way consistently, like he does in Keith Hernandez’s dreams. For Dominic Smith, extra base hits galore have made the universal DH a more complicated proposition.

Back to deGrom: he’s only pitched in the post season in 2015 AKA Conforto’s rookie season. The pitcher still had his long hair and the ability to hide behind the louder Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard. There’s nowhere for deGrom to hide anymore. His hair has been short for over two years to go with his two Cy Young Awards and counting, and he appears to be only second to Tom Seaver. It’s a second place he’ll likely have forever playing for this franchise as Seaver is the Franchise. Unlike rare playoff appearances, finishing second to Seaver really is an honor.

deGrom is having his age-32 season in a pandemic-shortened 60 games, rather than a classic 162. What is deGrom’s best-case scenario? Perhaps it’s pitching to age 40 as he has fewer innings on his arm than most pitchers considering he transitioned from shortstop to pitcher in college, had Tommy John surgery in the minors, and started his first big league game one month shy of 26. It’s hard to know, but let’s say 40 is his end date. Of course, how long will he remain pitching at his current level? To age 34, 36, or the best case 40? How do the Mets win with deGrom within the next two-to-eight years?

While the offense is good enough at the moment, the pitching surrounding deGrom, both bullpen and rotation, is simply not good enough. No one wants deGrom to become the Mike Trout of pitching as Joel Sherman of the New York Post posited in a recent column.

Luckily for all Mets fans and deGrom, a new owner, Steve Cohen, is on the horizon to sweep away the vestiges of Fred and Jeff Wilpon. This is it. This is the moment to transition to playoff baseball with deGrom still on this team. One can hope he will play here his whole career and his current contract is not the end (2023 or 2024—club opt-out).

So, how do the Mets win with deGrom starting now?

Some believe deGrom could pitch to a bucket, but an upgrade at catcher helps the entire pitching staff. The Mets need a catcher who can handle defense and is not a statue back there a la Wilson Ramos. The dream is J.T. Realmuto as he covers both offense and defense, but hitting is not necessary at this position based on our current offense. If not Realmuto, the Mets should cover their bases with two decent-to-good defensive catchers to platoon or quasi-platoon.

The starting rotation is in shambles with deGrom. 2020 is Seth Lugo’s audition for the 2021 rotation and he’s still cheap with two years left with the Mets. Syndergaard might show in June or July 2021, but the Mets have to be smart and not just assume he will come back from Tommy John in full golden glory. Steven Matz is the question mark of all question marks or maybe he’s just bad. David Peterson is a rookie with fine stuff that has to be on point for him to succeed and he needs more seasoning. Michael Wacha has been noncompetitive and Rick Porcello has been sometimes good and sometimes noncompetitive as well. Moreover, Wacha and Porcello are on 1-year deals.

Making it worse is the Mets’ lack of pitching depth that GM Brodie Van Wagenen traded or designated for assignment (DFA) the last two years including, but not limited to, Anthony Kay, Justin Dunn, Kevin Smith, and Jordan Humphreys. The Mets could re-sign Marcus Stroman, a free agent. There’s also Trevor Bauer, another free agent. Basically, the Mets are going to have to buy 2-4 starters. Without new ownership, deGrom might be going for a third or fourth Cy Young in 2021 and not much else. Thank you, Steven Cohen.

The bullpen is…interesting. Edwin Diaz is the closer. Cross your fingers and reach for a beverage. Jeurys Familia will still be here in 2021. Again, reach for something. Drew Smith, maybe? Basically, again, the Mets are going to have to purchase some relief pitchers.

Building a competitive team, a consistently winning team, and, hopefully, a perennial playoff team is not easy. Will even Steve Cohen be too late for the Mets to win with deGrom? Will the Mets just never be good enough while we have this beautiful second-place finisher to Seaver? Will individual achievement be sufficient when we think of good ol’ 48?

Yes and No.

He takes the ball every fifth day and we are happy.

But, he takes the ball for another post season? A Wildcard Game or Series? Another NLDS after beating both Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in 2015? Another NLCS? A World Series game, so he can shake off the ghost of his Game 2 failure against the Kansas City Royals in 2015?

That would make us happy too.

Seth Lugo needs to start ASAP

There is no excuse for Seth Lugo to be pitching in relief down four runs.

The Mets are in a freefall due to their failures regarding RISP and starting pitching. Last weekend’s sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia “with Zack Wheeler” Phillies was not pretty, in part, due to weakness of starting pitching by the names of Walker Lockett (Why?), Steven Matz (What?), and Rick Porcello (How Much?). Despite many, many questions – Jacob deGrom, did you need a new mattress? – there has been a staunch refusal from the team to start Lugo as he is considered too important to the bullpen.

To reiterate, Lugo was pitching in relief down four runs in the eighth inning. Why, if he’s so important to the bullpen in high-leverage situations, why? Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez took some guesses because they thought it was weird when they saw Lugo warming up late in the game on Sunday. They wondered that if like Edwin Diaz before him, Lugo asked for more work as he had failed in his last outing Friday night (AKA the “Wilson Ramos hates Mets fans” game). It was the only realistic guestimate, because otherwise it felt punitive and/or stupid.

Punitive to let it hit home with Lugo that starting was as out of reach as the moon for him and the Mets organization were sick of getting questions on Lugo starting every time a starting pitcher coughed up the lead or put up a five spot before Nimmo walked for the 909th time. Stupid because Robert Gsellman was starting the next day and if Lugo really needed work, he could have followed Gsellman for 1-2 innings. While possibly a low-leverage situation, the Mets actually would need Lugo the next day because Gsellman was not fully stretched out yet and would need some help. If you’re a Mets fan, you know Lugo has been vocal about wanting to start for years now, that the bullpen is almost full go, Diaz has improved as of late (still not closing though), and the starting rotation is the opposite of  good right now. So, why, was this oh so important bullpen cog warming and then pitching in the eighth inning in a game his team was down by four?

I think knowing Lugo’s history with the Mets is relevant. Let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we?

In 2016, Lugo and Gsellman came up to save the Mets. This is not hyperbole as the Mets lost Matt Harvey, deGrom, and Matz to injury. Noah Syndergaard and Bartolo Colon weren’t enough to get the Mets to the postseason once again. After losing to the Kansas City Royals in the 2015 World Series despite screams for Harvey to finish that ninth inning (don’t cry, everyone), the Mets wanted that back to back postseason appearance that is so elusive to them. Lugo and Gsellman were crucial to the Mets making their 2016 Wild Card appearance. While Lugo started the season in the bullpen, his starts down the stretch were part of the reason they made it in.

Unfortunately for Lugo, 2017 was a different story with injury (partial UCL tear), inconsistency in the rotation, and an appearance versus the Houston Astros in Texas in which he questioned his own stuff (whisper: because the Astros were cheating if you hadn’t heard). Shortly thereafter, Lugo was informed he was going back to the bullpen.

In Spring Training 2018, Lugo earned a starting rotation sport when Wheeler failed and ended up in AAA for a bit. Unfortunately for Lugo (sensing a theme?), he was the fifth starter and his turn got skipped due to snow in April. Wheeler came back and, again, Lugo was directed to the bullpen. Lugo was successful, but when Syndergaard got hurt, he got his chance to start again. He made five starts in 2018 and was okay other than one stellar start against the Yankees, with six scoreless innings. When Syndergaard was back, rinse and repeat for Lugo.

In 2019, Lugo, for the first time, spent the entire season in the bullpen and was brilliant. His 2-innings appearances became lore as was his taking on the slack of Diaz and Jeurys Familia who were terrible.

In 2020, Brodie Van Wagenen noted that Lugo was starting pitch depth along with Gsellman, but they were really bullpen pieces, arms, whatever non-human word teams use to describe MLB athletes. This was after signing the likes of Porcello and Michael Wacha, basically telling Lugo, “no, not you.” Unfortunately for all of us, COVID-19 happened and the season was in question. Eventually, MLB decided on a 60-game “sprint” season and the Mets subsequently failed again and again out the shoot with RISP and their starting pitching.

So, why, was Lugo pitching that eighth inning down four runs?

One can only guess. However, if true that Lugo needed work, it appears the Mets are incapable of properly managing his usage in the bullpen considering his non-traditional status as a relief pitcher. That is a little scary considering they’re adamant about leaving him in the bullpen. You’d think with the analytical nature of baseball today, at the very least, the Mets would have a chart, many, many, many charts, indicating when they should use Lugo. For example, pitch him every 2-3 days, no matter the score, so he gets his work in, and will possibly appear in high leverage situations. With the bullpen having other pitchers that can go two innings (e.g. Jared Hughes) and the likes of three possible closers in Familia, Diaz, and Dellin Betances, Lugo is not alone out there.

The fact that the Mets used Lugo in the eighth inning in a game down four runs demonstrates his worth to the bullpen is questionable, especially considering the team’s current record (five games below 500 as of this writing), relative strength of bullpen, and extreme weakness of starting rotation.

Therefore, the Mets should look to the rotation where he belongs. The man wants to start, he has a starter’s pitching arsenal, and he has missed his chance to start for many external reasons, let it be April snow, Astros cheating, and/or Diaz failing. Merit should mean something, especially when your starting rotation is lost somewhere between Matz’s HR hangdog face and Porcello’s hanging slider to a former MVP named Andrew McCutchen.

Dear Mets: take a chance, trust your bullpen, and gather some intelligence in this 60-game sprint for 2021 by putting Seth Lugo in the rotation…starting now.