Cardinals’ Mike Shildt says umpires picked the wrong time and pitcher to air MLB’s ‘dirty little secret’

Mike Shildt didn’t name any names Wednesday, but he wants actual cheaters to face scrutiny from MLB, not one of his pitchers who he claims is clean.

Shildt was upset that the umpiring crew told right-hander Giovanny Gallegos to change his cap right after Gallegos took the mound in the seventh inning against the White Sox. The cap had … something dark on the bill. Shildt said it may have been a mix of sunscreen, rosin and dirt, but not pine tar or the other adhesives that baseball wants pitchers to stop using.

“So why do I take exception with (Gallegos’ cap being taken)? Because this is baseball’s dirty little secret, and it’s the wrong time and the wrong arena to expose it,” Shildt said in his postgame Zoom call with reporters. Shildt said umpire Joe West went to Gallegos after being told something by fellow ump Dan Bellino. West ejected Shildt for arguing. 

Gallegos donned a new cap and then retired all five batters he faced, with three strikeouts. The umpires confiscated the old cap, and MLB will examine it.

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Illegal substances in MLB are an open secret, in Shildt’s and other baseball people’s eyes. The St. Louis skipper said some pitchers who doctor the ball don’t even bother being discreet.

“Major League Baseball’s got a very, very, very tough position here because there are people that are effectively, and not even trying to hide it, essentially flipping the bird at the league with how they’re cheating in this game with concocted substances,” he said.

MLB in March hired monitors for all 30 stadiums; their job is to check for possible violations. It also instructed umpires to send in suspicious-looking balls and other equipment for inspection. Gallegos’ cap would appear to fall under that category. Further, it announced that it would begin using historical Statcast data to help detect unusual changes in pitchers’ spin rates.

Shildt said MLB took this approach so as not to “create any black eye for the integrity of the game that we love.” But then he pivoted to defending the integrity of players who aren’t cheating, and this is where he came the closest to calling out players.

“How about the guys that are pitching their tails off in Major League Baseball and doing it clean that have (to face) an unfair competitive advantage for the guys that are clearly loading up with concoctions that they actually advertise, don’t do anything to hide even in plain view?” Shildt said. “That’s the guys I’m speaking for. I’m speaking up for the hitters that have a living to make facing stuff that’s already really, really good and you can see, based on spin rates, how guys’ careers are jumping off the charts, and then you can do cause and effect.”

“Look, is our house 100 percent clean? I certainly hope so,” Shildt said. “Am I creating more awareness to our group? Potentially. But let’s go check the guys that are sitting there going to their glove every day with filthy stuff coming out, not some guy before he’s even stepped on the mound with a spot in his hat. That’s how we want to start policing this?”

Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer has been saying since 2018 that pine tar and other adhesives give pitchers an unfair advantage and that MLB should enforce the rules or make the sticky stuff legal. 

Pine tar and other substances, such as Pelican Grip, improve a pitcher’s grip, which translates to higher spin rates on pitches. Higher spin rates (as expressed in rpm) decrease the sink on a four-seam fastball and increase the bite on a breaking ball, thus making both pitches more difficult for batters to hit.

Three years ago, Bauer made a cryptic tweet about the Astros, pine tar and spin rates; the baseball world presumed he was referring to former UCLA teammate Gerrit Cole, whose spin rate spiked after the Astros acquired him in a trade the previous offseason.

Cole posted a 2.68 ERA and 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings in his two seasons with Houston (2018-19) and then signed a nine-year, $324 million contract with the Yankees prior to the 2020 season.  

Bauer has spoken extensively, including to Sporting News, about his offseason experiments with the tacky stuff. He told HBO in February that he believes about 70 percent of MLB pitchers use illegal substances.

He said in an April YouTube post that MLB’s enforcement efforts wouldn’t deter anyone. At the time, he was responding to a report by The Athletic that umpires set aside balls from one of his starts to check their stickiness. Bauer questioned how MLB can accurately determine whether a pitcher has doctored a ball, given that it can pick up pine tar from bats and fielders’ gloves.

According to Baseball Savant, Bauer leads MLB with a 2,844-rpm average spin rate on his four-seamer. A look at the top 10 starting pitchers’ spin rates (three Dodgers are in the group):

Highest four-seam fastball spin rates, SPs

(Source: Baseball Savant. Through May 25. Minimum 100 four-seam fastballs.)

Shildt said that hitters want pitchers to get a better grip on the ball and that they’re OK with the sunscreen-rosin-dirt compound. They want MLB to take the blatantly illegal (and most potent) materials out of pitchers’ hands.

“Hitters don’t mind the grip; they don’t want the stuff that’s making the ball do Wiffle Ball stuff,” he said.

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