The worst-kept secret in baseball performance enhancement is pitchers' use of grip-improving substances like pine tar.
One MLB executive compared it to Steroid Era-level performance enhancement.
“It’s better than steroids,” a player development executive told Eno Sarris of The Athletic.
Pitchers have been using the substances in increasing numbers over the last half-decade or so, leading to sizable spikes in spin rate around the sport. Spin rate increases the break on pitches, making them more difficult to hit.
Sarris spoke to nearly 20 people around baseball, with most estimating that at least three-quarters (if not more) of pitchers are using some kind of grip enhancement.
“My guess on total MLB players using some sort of grip enhancement … 99.9 percent,” one coach said.
Trevor Bauer, who has the highest spin rate in baseball, wrote of the phenomenon in February.
“For eight years I’ve been trying to figure out how to increase the spin on my fastball because I’d identified it way back then as such a massive advantage,” Bauer wrote for The Players’ Tribune. “I knew that if I could learn to increase it through training and technique, it would be huge. But eight years later, I haven’t found any other way except using foreign substances.”
Policing of the issue has been almost nonexistent due to its proliferation. Managers have been hesitant to call out any malfeasance because it would be easy for the opponent to flip the script and call out his own pitchers.
While its use is a clear violation of MLB rules, the sport has begun exploring options to legalize certain substances due to the difficulty of policing it out of the game. In some cases, players have started using clear substances on the ball, making it almost impossible to detect.
“Pressure is on in the league,” one coach said. “Front offices value spin and velo. If everyone around you is getting favoritism from the front office and having higher success rates because they are using sticky stuff, then you’ll most likely start to learn how to use it.”