Nobody Is Innocent as MLB Cracks Down on Pitchers Using Sticky Stuff

Zachary D. RymerJune 17, 2021

DENVER, CO - JUNE 14: Austin Gomber #26 of the Colorado Rockies has a word with umpire David Rackley #86 regarding his handling of the ball while pitching after the top half of the first inning at Coors Field on June 14, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Now that Major League Baseball's crackdown on foreign substances is finally here, all sorts of potentially avoidable Hell is poised to break loose.

After first warning pitchers in March that it was drawing a line on pitchers applying pine tar and other sticky stuff to the ball, MLB is now set to enact a new set of protocols that are meant to enforce Rule 6.02(c)(7).

According to Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com, starting pitchers and relief pitchers are now subject to at least one mandatory inspection by umpires per game. If a pitcher is found to have applied a foreign substance or even be in possession of one, he'll be immediately ejected and automatically suspended for 10 games.

Per Bob Nightengale of USA Today, these new protocols will go into effect on June 21.

Unsurprisingly, the mood among the league's pitchers right now is one of outrage.

Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow, for example, pointed to the crackdown as the likely cause of injuries to his ulnar collateral ligament and flexor tendon. Chicago White Sox left-hander Carlos Rodon, meanwhile, sees a cognitive dissonance in relation to MLB's handling of the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal:

White Sox Talk @NBCSWhiteSox

Carlos Rodón goes in on MLB commissioner Rob Manfred:<br><br>"You're giving out 10-game suspensions for cheating, but you give the Astros no suspensions at all." pic.twitter.com/ZFAwU7H5cp

But while Glasnow, Rodon and other pitchers who are ticked about MLB's new protocols have a gripe, they aren't the good guys in a situation where frankly there aren't any.

How Pitchers Brought This on Themselves

Pitchers can hate MLB's new enforcement policy all they want, but the average hitter is bound to have a different take that can be summed up in four words.

It's about freakin' time.

After all, it's not as if MLB is only now outlawing pitchers from doctoring the ball. The league first banned pitchers from using spit, resin and other substances ahead of the 1920 season, in which Carl Mays killed Ray Chapman with a wayward spitball.

For decades after the fact, however, there was an unspoken agreement between pitchers and hitters that the use of foreign substances was fine so long as the pitcher was merely trying to get a better grip. In those instances, the only real crime was being too obvious about it.

The arrival of Statcast in 2015 changed everything, specifically by introducing the term "spin rate" into the popular consciousness.

Because more spin typically equals more movement, velocity was no longer the only tangible quality for pitchers to covet. And as Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated reported in 2018, there was no better way for pitchers to improve their spin than by using a little something on the ball.

With the Statcast era now in its seventh season, spin rate is an all-too-obvious cause of the unlevel playing field marked by six no-hitters, a historically low .238 batting average and an all-time high strikeout rate. 

Whereas pitches with a spin rate of at least 2,500 revolutions per minute accounted for only 12.1 percent of all swings and misses in 2015, that figure has more than doubled to 27.0 percent in 2021. Relatedly, this season has already seen more 2,500-RPM pitches than there were throughout the entirety of the '15 season.

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant.

It is, of course, impossible to prove that baseball's spin-rate problem derives entirely from pitchers doctoring the baseball. Yet there's little question that the practice has become widespread in recent years. According to Eno Sarris of The Athletic, one coach even estimated that "99.9 percent" of pitchers use something on the ball.

“I understand there’s a history of foreign substances being used on the ball, but what we are seeing today is objectively far different, with much tackier substances being used more frequently than ever before," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. "It has become clear that the use of foreign substance has generally morphed from trying to get a better grip on the ball into something else -- an unfair competitive advantage that is creating a lack of action and an uneven playing field.”

In context of all this, it's little wonder that MLB issued its first warning in February 2020 and then threatened increased monitoring as it took an even firmer stance—one that notably involved inspecting balls and analyzing spin rates—this March. With the latter, especially, MLB effectively challenged pitchers to give in or call the league's bluff.

Pitchers who did not take the league seriously may have underestimated the powder-keg nature of the situation. It was apparent as soon as MLB collected suspicious balls thrown by Los Angeles Dodgers ace Trevor Bauer in April that the league meant business. And after largely staying quiet in previous years, hitters finally came out swinging at baseball's sticky stuff problem.

"Nobody is speaking up for the hitters right now,” Josh Donaldson, the Minnesota Twins' veteran third baseman, told reporters earlier in June. “It's probably not going to be [taken] as serious as if it's a rookie or somebody else who doesn't have the time in the big leagues. I felt it was almost a responsibility for me to say something with this, that's how serious I think it is."

For pitchers, all these roads have led to a long overdue L in the "Getting Away with It" column. All they can do now is try to pitch as they technically should have been pitching for the last 100 years.

How MLB Screwed This Up

Even if MLB is doing the right thing, however, both its timing and its true reasoning are suspect.

Indeed, the timing of it all was at the crux of Glasnow's rant about the new rules Tuesday:

B/R Walk-Off @BRWalkoff

Tyler Glasnow sounds off on MLB's foreign substance crackdown and how it may have led to injury 😳 pic.twitter.com/47rcTnpk0l

Of particular relevance is this part (h/t Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors):

“Do it in the offseason, give us a chance to adjust to it. But I just threw 80-something, 70-whatever innings, and then you just told me I can't use anything in the middle of the year? I had to change everything I'd been doing the entire season. Everything, out of the window, I had to start doing something completely new."

At least in theory, Glasnow's wish of an offseason notice might have been granted just before Opening Day. If MLB had issued a memo, say, in January in response to a certain lawsuit that was making headlines at the time, pitchers could have adjusted as needed during spring training. By the time the actual memo went out, it was much too late for that.

It's also hypocritical for MLB to suddenly take such a strong stand against grip enhancers when the league itself apparently knows there must be something more to the pitching equation than cowhide and human skin.

As Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported at the time of MLB's first sticky-stuff warning in February 2020, the league was kicking around the idea of developing a "substance that could be rubbed on the baseballs that provides desired grip without allowing a huge advantage in spin."

This March, Jesse Rogers of ESPN reported that the effort was ongoing with the league in "early stages of working to create a new, stickier substance to rub each baseball with before games."

If this is true, MLB could have waited on cracking down on the sticky stuff that's in use now until it could offer something else that was A) reasonably effective and B) totally legal. Maybe that wouldn't have been a major public-relations victory, but it would have been a fair compromise with a bloc of players that makes up more than half the league.

To this end, New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole practically pleaded with MLB on Wednesday:

"We are aligned in a lot of areas with the commissioner's office on this. ... Please, just talk to us, please just work with us. I know you have the hammer here. But we've been living in a gray area for so long. I would just hate to see players get hurt. I would hate to see balls start flying at people's head. I had a really tough time gripping the baseball tonight, especially early when it was windy. I don't really care to be inflammatory here, so I am just going to leave it at that."

As Bauer put it in NSFW terms, it's precisely because the league wanted the immediate satisfaction of a PR victory that the current mess exists:

Trevor Bauer (トレバー・バウアー) @BauerOutage

Actively encouraged players to continue playing how that have in the past, that’s a lie. There’s no integrity in that. So save it with the competitive integrity bullshit @mlb. All you care about is the bottom line of the business, and public perception negatively affecting it.

Mind you, this might even be the charitable perspective on the real motivation behind MLB's sudden crackdown on foreign substances.

With the league's collective bargaining agreement set to expire this December, what MLB may really want is the players divided amongst themselves rather than united against the league. On a battlefield under those conditions, the league would have a clear advantage in negotiations.

So, What Happens Next?

Regardless of what happens in the long-term future with regard to the sticky-stuff conundrum and the CBA negotiations, there's a big enough question of how the new protocols are going to impact the final months of the 2021 season.

For one thing, Glasnow probably won't be the last pitcher to suffer an injury that could arguably be linked to the foreign substance crackdown. Because even if it sounded like he was speaking out of frustration, there is some science there:

Jimmy Buffi @jameshbuffi

The same muscles that contribute to grip strength also protect the UCL. When they’re fatigued, the UCL is more vulnerable https://t.co/GwjZfUxX6M

It's also not just pitchers who have to worry about getting hurt.

Without sticky stuff, some hurlers are bound to have trouble throwing the ball over the plate. That could result in more hit by pitches, and that problem is already bad enough as is. This season and last season have seen batters get hit at historically high rates that were last seen in the 1890s, and too many of these HBPs have been downright scary.

One thing that could dull the pain of extra HBPs for hitters, though, is if offense spikes as pitchers struggle to retain the nastiness of their substance-aided stuff.

Even now, hitters are already heating up amid a leaguewide spin-rate decline in June. If they heat up any further, the offensive splits for the first and second half of 2021 could end up being the most extreme of any season in MLB history.

In any case, Pandora's box has been opened as MLB has basically forced its players into an all-new status quo. And the messier it gets, the easier it will be to lament that it didn't have to happen this way.

Stats courtesy of Baseball ReferenceFanGraphs and Baseball Savant.