by Paul West
One of the most widespread criticisms leveled at Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, and other faces of baseball’s so-called steroid era–which, based on a 1973 Congressional report, may have actually begun decades ago–is that they cheated the game, deceived the fans, and damaged the sport’s competitive integrity.
How many pitchers are in the Hall of Fame, or at least fondly remembered by their fans and contemporaries, despite being known to doctor baseballs while they pitched–about as literal an example of cheating as is possible in a baseball game? Gaylord Perry and Joe Niekro are among the more famous examples, but pitchers doctoring baseballs–though it’s been outside the rules for generations–used to be acknowledged to the point where it was a running joke about some pitchers. Yet no-one derides the ‘scuffball’ or ‘spitball’ era. Cheating–gaining a competitive advantage by way of breaking or circumventing rules–seems to be frowned upon selectively by the self-appointed defenders of baseball’s ‘unwritten rules,’ and the widespread celebration of creative and blatantly deceptive ‘pitch framing’ is the latest example.
Originally, framing–holding the glove in place after catching a pitch–was simply an attempt ‘show’ an umpire that a borderline pitch may have crossed the plate. It was useful for pitches with late movement, or at the edges of the zone where an umpire’s vantage point might be a concern. Nowadays, framing has degenerated to blatantly snatching the catcher’s mitt several inches and then freezing it, in cartoonish attempts to ‘steal strikes’–a phrase which is actually spoken out loud. Incredibly, in the age of video replay, this is still allowed to persist–though, thankfully, the ‘reputation strike’ and the ‘swing the bat, rook’ (another absurdity whereby umpires call not-quite-borderline strikes against inexperienced players who try to work counts) factor has somewhat dwindled. Yadier Molina is among the most egregious frame-floppers; and the practice has even trickled down to the Little League and collegiate level and outward into international play. At most levels of baseball, catchers can be seen unabashedly moving their mitts after receiving a pitch.
How is this different from ‘flopping’ in basketball, ‘diving’ in hockey, or any other form of embellishment which violates the game’s competitive integrity? In fact, framing is just like flopping or diving: a deliberate attempt to convince an official of something which you don’t believe to be true.
The practice, in some form, is likely as old as other methods to get an edge; but its modern precursor may be the infamous ‘reputation strikes’ of the mid-1990s. Whether in darts or statistics, precision is grouping of attempts, whereas accuracy is relationship to your actual target. During much of the 90s, pitchers with a reputation for precision were granted ‘strikes’ well outside the zone if they could ‘demonstrate’ the ability to throw that same pitch repeatedly. In other words, they were rewarded for being precisely inaccurate. Accordingly, their catchers would often blatantly set up way off the plate–and be awarded strikes if said pitcher (notably the Atlanta Braves’ Greg Maddux and Tom Gavine, but by no means limited to these three) simply hit the glove.
The problem was even evident in the 2018 All Star Game, when a television announcer commented, “that outside corner has been generous.”
If someone wanted to cheat during a baseball game, what better way than to doctor one of the most essential aspects of the game: the strike zone? How is arguably the most essential component of the game allowed to be clearly and obviously dictated by players who insult umpires’ intelligence before their very eyes?
The simplest solution would be to extend the manager’s challenge to balls and strikes. As many have argued, the upper and lower limits of the zone would be much harder to enforce or review electronically, as players are far from perfectly still after stepping to the plate. But the corners are the corners, and the plate doesn’t move; and dragging a pitch from three inches outside to the middle of the zone is no different from apoplectically rolling on the turf, floor, ice, or pitch after contact by which you know yourself unhurt.
Framing is flopping, and it’s time Major League Baseball did something about it.