Monday, May 14, 2007

Cheating in MLB

Chase Utley was just hit by a pitch for the 13th time this season, and the announcers pointed out that he's "pretty well wrapped up the league lead" in that category.

The replay showed why this is so. It clearly shows Utley pulling his legs back from a low and inside pitch as the ball misses him and glances off the catcher's mitt back to the backstop. Utley then trots to first without the ump ever making a signal. As Phillies fans can attest, this is not the first time this season that Chase has used this little scam to take a free base.

Now, this isn't a new phenomenon, and it can be hilarious to watch. But I'd like to see MLB take a stance against this and other forms of obvious cheating. Why is it immoral to take a performance-enhancing drug, but perfectly fine to blatantly cheat to get an interference call? Why is there a rule against throwing a spitball, but none against obviously faking a tag to prevent the game-tying run from scoring?

I'm not talking about innocent mistakes, like an ump calling a player out on a close play. You can't expect any player to argue against a close call that went in his favor, even if he thinks the ump was wrong. But when a player deliberately takes advantage of a situation, like in these cases, he not only gets an unfair edge, he also disgraces the rules of the game.

Obviously an umpire can't apply a punishment to the offending player at the time of the violation, since he has been bamboozled. But MLB can take a stance. Add a rule to the books that applies a penalty for any player who makes a mockery of the game by willfully and obviusly cheating to get an advantage.

The penalty can be anything from a meager $5000 fine to a one-game suspension; it's there strictly as a deterrent. As J.C. Bradbury can tell you, when you reduce the incentives for a particular action, people are going to take that action less often. Even though $5000 may not be a meaningful sum to a professional athlete, the threat of the fine will reduce the total amount of cheating. If this does not actually happen, the amount of the fine can be raised until the desired effect is reached.

Right now, with no incentive not to cheat, how can we expect the players to stick to the rules? When MLB had no tests for steroids, they were all over the place. Now, all the evidence points to severely reduced use of everything they're testing for. The 50-game suspension is bad enough, but being labeled a user for life can really haunt you--just ask McGwire and Palmeiro.

Meanwhile, what's the worst that can happen if the ump tells Utley to get back in the box? He's no worse off than if he hadn't attempted his stunt at all. A little embarrassed, maybe, but he's back at bat with the same count. If Shane Victorino's gimmick to run way out of the baseline had been discovered, he gets called out, the same as if he had simply been tagged. Paul Lo Duca had nothing to lose by applying a phantom tag at home.

If parking tickets and towing were eliminated, how many people would pay the meters or stay out of a No Parking zone? Assigning no penalties for breaking the rules simply encourages people to cheat. Utley probably feels pretty smart for getting away with it, but if he gets a $10,000 fine and is publicly outed as a cheater, he--and everyone else--will think twice before trying that trick again.

Once upon a time, pitchers had almost no incentive to throw the ball inside the strike zone, because it took nine balls to collect a walk. Even our ancestors knew that this was not the optimal form of baseball, and the rules were changed fairly quickly. The advantage shifted from pitchers to hitters, and the game was much more entertaining.

It's the same with pickoff throws. Every time a pitcher attempts a pickoff, he has a slight chance of throwing the runner out. If he tries 20 throws to first in a row, the only negative consequence is that he might hurt his arm or throw the ball wild. Meanwhile, the fans have left the ballpark and the viewers at home have switched the channel to the more masculine programming on Lifetime or Oxygen. As Bill James wrote in the New Historical Baseball Abstract, baseball would benefit greatly from a rule limiting pickoff throws per inning.

Maybe you're reading this and saying "Utley didn't score anyway, so what's the big deal?" That's as results-oriented as you can possibly get, and definitely the wrong way of looking at this. If your team lost an important game on a call like this, wouldn't you be livid? Would you really be proud if your team won a game by cheating? Cheating is not only bad for the integrity of baseball, it's bad for the entertainment of the fans. Any policy against it is a good one for the long-term health of the sport.


Jordan said...

wow. i couldn't agree more. nice post!

Lorinda said...

1 Game suspensions would lead to the teams imposing their own fines on the players anyway, so everyone would be a winner (rather than just a semi-meaningless fine) imo.

A team can't be expected to suspend it's own players however.