MLB's New Rules for Doctored Baseballs Could Backfire Spectacularly

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 25, 2021

Baseballs are shown in a bucket after use during fielding practice at a spring training baseball workout for pitchers and catchers Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, in Avondale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

If Major League Baseball has its way, the 2021 season will be completely free of sticky situations.

After merely warning that it would crack down on pitchers using foreign substances on the baseball ahead of the 2020 season, the league means business this year. According to Jesse Rogers of ESPN, MLB officially has new policies designed to actually police the practice.

These include:

  • Monitoring pitchers' spin rates for suspicious increases that warrant investigation
  • Use of a third-party lab to inspect balls that show signs of having been doctored
  • Compliance officers who'll keep a watchful eye on dugouts, batting cages and bullpens
  • Players subject to discipline even if they're not caught during or after a game

Whereas MLB previously relied on a sort of honor system, all this amounts to an actual effort to enforce rules—which prohibit the use of pine tar and other sticky substances—that have been on its books for decades.

This could change everything for good...and ill.


The Potential Benefit of Undoctored Baseballs

Though pitchers have been doctoring the baseball for about as long as the sport has existed, the practice has come under increased scrutiny as its advantages have come into sharper focus in recent years.

Ever since "spin rate" entered the baseball lexicon with the introduction of Statcast in 2015, it quickly joined velocity as a defining feature for pitchers. As evidenced by how the leaguewide spin rate has risen on an annual basis, the league's hurlers have clearly taken notice.

Though the relationship between the two is complicated, more spin generally equals more movement on a pitcher's pitches. The more a pitch spins, the better chance it has of inducing a swing-and-miss:

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

There are obviously other forces at work, but this draws a clear line between baseball's ever-rising spin rate and its ever-rising strikeout rate. To wit, nearly a quarter (23.4 percent, to be exact) of all plate appearances ended in a strikeout last year.

Pitchers, therefore, have an obvious incentive to chase after spin. And as Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated explained in 2018, there's perhaps no better way for them to do so than by doctoring the ball: "Pitching labs have since figured out there is a way to improve the spin rate: load up pine tar or a similar sticky substance on your fingers. With more tackiness, you can create more spin."

If MLB's effort to curb the use of foreign substances succeeds, high-spin pitches won't be entirely eradicated. Some pitchers simply have a knack for spinning the ball. Others can develop such a knack through totally legal means, such as using high-speed cameras to study and tweak their grips.

Yet the new rules will almost certainly make a difference, and it could be big enough to knock dozens of revolutions per minute off the average pitch and, by extension, a percentage point or two off the league's strikeout rate.

That would naturally be a boon to hitters, who frankly needed a bone thrown their direction after learning in February that Major League Baseball is de-juicing the balls for 2021.

Fewer strikeouts would also be a good thing for baseball as an institution because that would theoretically mean more balls in play. And balls in play are...[checks notes]...well, just plain fun.


How Many Pitchers Should Be Worried?

While MLB threatened to take action against pitchers who used foreign substances in 2020, the league never actually changed its procedures for catching them in the act. Unsurprisingly, nobody was caught or punished. Because of that, we can't single out which specific pitchers are on notice right now.

What we can say, however, is that MLB's new rules are bad news for more pitchers than you might think. 

When Eno Sarris of The Athletic conducted a survey of hitters, pitchers and coaches in 2020, he was met with estimates that the percentage of pitchers who use some sort of foreign substance on the ball was between 75 and 100 percent.

"My guess on total MLB players using some sort of grip enhancement...99.9 percent," said one coach.

It's therefore fair game to have suspicions about every pitcher, but perhaps especially guys who are known for high spin rates. That particular description matches some of the biggest names in the sport, including Trevor Bauer, Walker Buehler, Sonny Gray, Yu Darvish, Clayton Kershaw, Tyler Glasnow, Dinelson Lamet and Gerrit Cole.

Cole has already been implicated in ex-Los Angeles Angels staffer Brian "Bubba" Harkins' defamation lawsuit against MLB and the Angels. Harkins alleges that pitchers used to go to him for a special substance known as "Go-Go Juice."

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Though Bauer hasn't been named in any lawsuits or formally accused of using foreign substances, he certainly invited scrutiny during his Cy Young Award-winning campaign for the Cincinnati Reds in 2020. Indeed, it is suspicious that his average spin rate rose nearly 400 points from the previous year.

Regardless, the only bright side for pitchers who have been doctoring the ball is that MLB at least gave them fair warning. It's now on them to either knock it off or do a better job hiding it.


Beware the Unintended Consequences

Though there are good intentions behind MLB's new regulations, it's no secret where such things tend to lead.

There's sound logic behind the notion that reducing spin will also reduce strikeouts, but spin isn't necessarily all pitchers are going for when they use foreign substances. They might simply be trying to get a good grip on the ball, particularly on days when the weather makes it difficult to do so.

In theory, making it harder for pitchers to get a grip could make it harder for them to throw the ball with their usual precision. That could mean more walks and more hit-by-pitches, which would work against the effort to get more balls in play.

An increase in home runs would likewise work against that effort, and any reduction in spin could result in a barrage of those. In 2020, hitters slugged .442 against pitches in the 2000-2500 RPM range, compared to just .360 against anything above that range.

Likewise, there's now strong potential for bad public relations. It won't be a good look for the league if it has to punish any of its high-profile stars. Nor will it be a good look for the league if there are willy-nilly accusations and suspicions.

It also wouldn't be surprising if certain teams try to get around the new rules by concocting a proprietary substance that's equal parts effective and undetectable. If word of that got out, MLB could have a Houston Astros-style scandal on its hands.

Altogether, there are many ways in which MLB's crackdown on pitchers using foreign substances could backfire. If any of them come to fruition in 2021, it could be back to the drawing board.

Maybe then the league would take the easy way out and simply legalize it.


Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.


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