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A remarkably prescient episode of Bob’s Burgers, from over a decade ago, predicted the latest MLB pitching scandal with uncanny accuracy.
The first season finale of the animated TV series Bob’s Burgers finds the Belcher family — made up of restaurateur parents Bob and Linda, and children Tina, Gene, and Louise — attend a minor league baseball game. The episode, released in 2011, sees a goateed Torpedo Jones come in to pitch for the Wonder Wharf Wonderdogs after the seventh-inning stretch. Bob is in awe of his childhood hero and recounts that he attended Torpedo’s most famous game, where he pitched something called the “split-finger skadoosh”. With that one pitch, the pennant was clinched. The skadoosh seems to be a knuckleball — Bob explains that its volatility is the reason Jones had a short stint in the majors.
Bob ends up gifting one of his burgers to Torpedo, and to his delight, Torpedo loves them. But Bob soon learns that Torpedo isn’t gobbling up the burgers that Bob begins to regularly cook him — no, Bob’s hero is using the grease from the burgers to improve his pitch.
That sounds familiar.
What did Bob’s Burgers know about the future of cheating in MLB pitching?
Though not covered in burger grease, the June 4 cover of Sports Illustrated shows a close-up of a baseball, gripped in between three fingers, slathered in sticky syrup. “This Should Be The Biggest Scandal in Baseball” reads an article by Stephanie Apstein and Alex Prewitt in the issue, where they outline the various substances pitchers are using to cheat: sunscreen, hair gel, pine tar, resin, and so on.
Of course, the fact that pitchers have been cheating doesn’t come as a shock: baseball is a game of sabermetrics and if you look at this season’s hitting statistics individually, they stand out as curious anomalies — together, they paint a starker picture of what’s going on. The league batting average is at an all-time low and the strikeout rate is at an all-time high. This season, which is only three months in, has already tied the MLB record for no-hitters, with seven no-nos. To compare, in 2019, there were only four no-hitters; in 2018, three.
But the biggest number, the biggest metric, that reveals something unusual is happening is the spin rate. Spin-rate denotes the revolutions per minute (RPM) of a pitch: the more spin there is to a pitch, the harder it is to hit. And these substances — Bullfrog sunscreen, Spider Tack, Firm Grip spray — allow pitchers to dramatically increase their spin rate. The Los Angeles Dodgers have seen a 7.04 percent increase in their pitchers’ spin rate compared to just last year, the Chicago White Sox pitch at a 4.20 percent increase.
Yet, navigating this scandal is difficult. The MLB has always been inconsistent with their attitudes towards the use of foreign substances: for instance, there are substances pitchers use now that are not necessarily legal but aren’t punished, mainly because they are welcomed by hitters who understand that having a firmer grip on the ball results in a smaller likelihood of them being hit. One example of a substance like this is rosin, made from the sap of a fir tree, which allows pitchers to have a better, tighter grip on the ball. The MLB does little to nothing to monitor its use. And so it is understandable that pitchers are confused about how to approach their transparency with regards to this newest iteration of sticky stuff — New York Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole went viral on Twitter a few weeks ago for stammering through his response to a question about his use of illegal substances. “I don’t quite know how to answer that, to be honest,” he says. In most other sports, players would be adamant about distancing themselves from any type of cheating. But not in baseball.
Back to the mustachioed Bob Belcher and the burger grease Torpedo Jones uses to improve his skadoosh — this episode premiered a decade ago, the pitching scandal broke this past year: is this a The Simpsons-esque case of premonition by way of TV; a show foretelling a scandal soon to come? Not quite. If anything, the Bob’s Burgers episode is a reflection of the precarious place baseball occupies within pop culture: one that is always associated with cheating. When baseball is not marred by steroid-using sluggers, it is plagued with spitballers, trash-can-bangers, and the like. Given all of these cheating scandals — and the 2011 release of Moneyball, a movie that proved baseball is a game that can be played as much off the field as on — it’s not surprising that cheating is a significant component of the game’s reputation.
When Bob goes to alert the owner of the Wonderdogs about Torpedo’s cheating, the owner brushes it off, not only insinuating that the games are rigged from the start, but that the pitcher’s improved performance is bringing in a more enthused crowd. This pressure to keep fans engaged is one that is familiar to the MLB: in 2020, several new rules were instated to increase pace of play, in the hope that shorter games would attract new fans. The problem with the latest pitching scandal is that it could turn viewers away from watching baseball: the fact of the matter is, teams that hit less are less fun to watch. But is it right for the MLB to only punish cheating when it threatens to affect viewership?
The MLB announced a couple of weeks ago that it would begin its campaign to crack down on this doctoring of pitches: pitchers who are found using these substances will be suspended for 10 games. Some are applauding this decision, others are questioning the motives — why, for instance, are pitchers facing more punishment than the 2017 Houston Astros who cheated their way to a World Series title (one that, incidentally, saw a surge in viewership)?
It’s clear that baseball’s desire to stay relevant plays a large role in its treatment of cheating. And pop culture has noticed.