Tomase: Sox deny MLB crackdown is reason for rotation's struggles originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The numbers paint a ghoulish picture, and the timing raises suspicions: Ever since Major League Baseball announced a crackdown on pitchers using illegal substances, the Red Sox rotation has gone straight into the tank.
Martin Perez was just the latest victim in an 18-4 mauling at the hands of the Blue Jays on Sunday, allowing five runs before being yanked in the second inning. After a strong start to the season, Red Sox starters have allowed 40 runs over their last 39 innings.
It doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to wonder if the timing of MLB's announcement and the putrid results over the last week or so are related. Manager Alex Cora understands the question, but doesn't believe it's the issue.
"Obviously the topic will be out there," he said. "Everyone will be looking at the scoreboard and who's pitching and if you give it up, then you were using something your last start. Before that, a lot of pitchers were giving it up. I know the league is doing a good job with the stuff and they're going to come down with a memo, but I don't think struggling has to do with (sticky) stuff. Those guys are really good, too. We have made a lot of pitches right down the middle lately and they've taken advantage of them."
The use of foreign substances to improve grip and command was a long-accepted, though technically illegal, part of the game. But over the last few seasons, pitchers have upped the ante, turning to all manner of sticky and tacky substances to improve not just grip, but spin rate and movement.
The result is a game in decline. Hitting has never been harder, as evidenced by a league batting average of .237, which would be the second-lowest ever. Strikeouts are up, contact is down, and the league plans to release a memo in the coming days detailing changes to the way pitchers are policed.
That leads to suspicions every time a starter struggles, such as Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, or a rotation hits the skids, as has happened to the Red Sox. Over the last week, since MLB started putting these changes in motion, home runs per game are up 4.4 percent and strikeouts are down 1.6 percent.
After one of the worst outings of his career -- one that saw him center cut a number of changeups and cutters while abandoning the high fastball that had proven so successful earlier in the season -- Perez forcefully proclaimed that he's clean.
"I'm not a cheater pitcher," he said. "I've been around for a long time and I don't use that kind of stuff. I just go out there and compete with what I have that day. I don't put anything on my arm, I don't put anything on my glove. Whoever did, it's their problem. It's not because we've not been doing good, not pitching good for three or four days, because of sticky things. No. It's because we aren't locating the pitches where we want it. If we go back again and throw the pitch where we want it, it's going to be fine. But it's not because we've been using sticking things. No way."
It's entirely possible the Red Sox had been cheating and are now paying the price. After all, sluggers like the Yankees' Aaron Judge believe 95 percent of pitchers doctor the ball. But claims about the Red Sox are not yet supported by evidence. Their recent struggles could also be as simple as the quality of competition during this skid -- the Astros own the best offense in baseball and the Blue Jays aren't far behind. Or it could be the physical toll of reaching last year's truncated innings totals, leading to fatigue. Or it could be the simple ebbs and flows of the season.
The league will announce new protocols and punishments shortly. Until then, the Red Sox believe their problems have nothing to do with the looming crackdown.
"We've talked about that from spring training on that they know what the rules are and it was an issue that actually came up in spring training 2020, when the MLB rules committee was coming around to different camps, and they talked about trying to get better about enforcing it," pitching coach Dave Bush said.
"It's no surprise. It's something that has to be cleaned up across the game. We've talked to the guys from spring training on, we had another meeting last week. They know what's going on. They know what the rules are and what they have to follow, and no, I don't think it's having any impact on us right now."