June 16, 2021

MLB Crackdown On Illegal Substances Will Begin Next Monday (June 21)
Rule That Has Existed For Decades Will Now Suddenly Be Enforced Mid-Season

Major league baseball umpires will start enforcing already-existing rules against the use of foreign substances by pitchers, beginning next Monday, June 21.

Buster Olney (ESPN) reports:

According to sources, the foreign substance checks will be designed to work like a DUI checkpoint, with randomness built in to reduce any pitcher's possible comfort level with the idea of violating the rule or applying substances after being checked during a game. There could be something in the range of eight to 10 checks per game, with each starting pitcher being stopped by umpires perhaps a couple of times per game. Position players will also be monitored for substances that might be ferried along to the pitcher on the mound for use -- perhaps by rubbing a baseball against a pant leg, for example, or belt.

MLB recognizes that the foreign substance checks might slow down the game, so the umpires may be advised to conduct much of this new business as pitchers leave the mound after an inning or outing -- during commercial breaks, essentially.

Any pitchers caught using illegal foreign substances will be ejected and suspended for 10 games. 

MLB says starting pitchers will be subject to more than one mandatory check each game and relief pitchers will be checked after concluding the inning in which they entered a game or when they are removed from the game, whichever comes first. Catchers will also be subject to routine inspections, as will position players. However, any non-pitcher found with a substance will not be punished (although  any player refusing to be inspected will be ejected and suspended). Only pitchers will be held responsible for any foreign substances. All suspensions will be with pay.

Jeff Passan (ESPN) writes:

Some teams already have asked pitchers who relied heavily on foreign substances to throw bullpen sessions without any grip enhancers to prepare for the future, two players and an official told ESPN. Teams recently received reports from the league of pitchers on their team that had been caught using substances, two general managers told ESPN.

That sort of preparation portends a change that already has taken root. Multiple pitchers who asked for anonymity to avoid any punishment from the league told ESPN they either have stopped using foreign substances altogether or shifted from Spider Tack to pine tar . . .

Commissioner Rob Manfred stated:

I have determined that new enforcement of foreign substances is needed to level the playing field. 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. 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. . . .

Many baseballs collected [by MLB] have had dark, amber-colored markings that are sticky to the touch. MLB recently completed extensive testing, including testing by third-party researchers, to determine whether the use of foreign substances has a material impact on performance. That research concluded that foreign substances significantly increase the spin rate and movement of the baseball, providing pitchers who use these substances with an unfair competitive advantage over hitters and pitchers who do not use foreign substances, and results in less action on the field.

In addition, the foreign substance use appears to contribute to a style of pitching in which pitchers sacrifice location in favor of spin and velocity, particularly with respect to elevated fastballs. . . .

This is not about any individual player or club . . . It is about a collective shift that has changed the game and needs to be addressed. We have a responsibility to our fans and the generational talent competing on the field to eliminate these substances and improve the game.

MLB senior vice president for on-field operations Mike Hill stated:

Unfortunately, the enhanced monitoring we implemented at the start of the season has had no impact on the behavior of many pitchers. The information we collected over the first two months of the season shows that the use of foreign substances by pitchers is more prevalent than we anticipated. We have taken these steps to police the use of foreign substances by pitchers this season because such brazen violations of the rules directly impact the fairness of the competition, the safety of our players, and the quality of the product on the field.'

Small Sample Size Alert: Since the owners meeting on June 3 regarding the coming restrictions, spin rates have dropped. According to Statcast data:

Fastball spin rates averaged 2,306-2,329 revolutions per minute each week from the start of the season though June 5. . . . [T]he average declined to 2,282 during the week of June 6 and dropped to 2,226 on Sunday.

The major league batting average was .232 through April, down from .252 two years ago and under the record low of .237 set in 1968, and it was .236 through May, its lowest since 1968.

The average rose to .247 in the week of June 6, lifting the season average to .238.

The strikeout percentage since June 3 is 23.4%, down from 24.2% until then, and the walk percentage is 8.4%, down from 8.9%.

It's worth remembering that the foreign substance rule has been part of the rule book for decades, but there has been an unspoken agreement among teams to use banned substances and not call anyone out for it, and umpires have essentially turned a blind eye except in the most obvious and egregious instances. When this new era of enforcement begins, only rosin will be within the rules.

Rule 6.02(c):

(c) Pitching Prohibitions

The pitcher shall not:

(1) While in the 18-foot circle surrounding the pitcher's plate, touch the ball after touching his mouth or lips, or touch his mouth or lips while he is in contact with the pitcher's plate. The pitcher must clearly wipe the fingers of his pitching hand dry before touching the ball or the pitcher's plate; EXCEPTION: Provided it is agreed to by both managers, the umpire prior to the start of a game played in cold weather, may permit the pitcher to blow on his hand.

(2) expectorate on the ball, either hand or his glove;

(3) rub the ball on his glove, person or clothing;

(4) apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball;

(5) deface the ball in any manner; or

(6) deliver a ball altered in a manner prescribed by Rule 6.02(c)(2) through (5) or what is called the "shine" ball, "spit" ball, "mud" ball or "emery" ball. The pitcher is allowed to rub the ball between his bare hands.

(7) Have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance.

Back on June 8, Lindsey Adler (The Athletic) offered a lengthy and informative Q&A "about MLB pitchers, Spider Tack and other foreign substances". Some of that article:

What is "sticky stuff"?

Broadly, sticky stuff or foreign substances in this context is anything a pitcher uses to give him better control over how he manipulates the baseball. There's a variety of substances that pitchers use and have used while throwing a baseball: Pine tar, a mixture of sunscreen and rosin, vaseline, spit, hair gel, homemade concoctions of some of the above substances plus boiled Coca Cola, Pelican Grip Dip (a commercial mixture of pine tar and rosin), Spider Tack (a rosin-based paste developed for strong man events in which powerlifters carry 300-pound stones with their hands), etc.

They exist on a relative spectrum, with something like hair gel adding a little bit of tacky feel and Spider Tack essentially creating a bond between the pitcher's hand and the baseball. The Athletic's Eno Sarris wrote extensively about the difference between these substances in April. . . .

Why do pitchers use sticky stuff?

. . . The first — and reason pitchers have used foreign substances historically — is to have better control of the baseball. The second — and issue at the heart of this situation — is to manipulate and increase spin on the baseball. . . .

Many hitters are fine with sticky substances like sunscreen and rosin or pine tar because they're the ones standing in the batter's box, hoping the pitcher knows where the baseball is going when it's leaving his hand. . . .

Spin rate can be enhanced by the classic sunscreen-and-rosin or pine tar options, but as the industry's understanding of spin has grown in recent years, so has the trend of pitchers looking for something stickier and less familiar to the game.

Why is spin important?

. . . Backspin on a fastball gives it the "rising" effect as it resists gravity for longer than the standard perception of gravity would expect. Spinning the ball forward makes a curveball tumble, and spinning it horizontally makes a slider break. Directional spin is important — a pitch that rotates like a football, known as "gyro spin" — is going to have less break and look more predictable to a hitter than a pitch that spins horizontally or vertically. . . .

What changed to make this issue about spin and not control?

Technology evolved so teams could quantify spin rates and spin angles. Teams could then study the value of those factors and how to get the most out of them. Trackman systems began providing data to teams around 2010-2011, and analysts started the process of learning how spin and spin direction correlate to pitch movement and therefore things like swing-and-miss rates. . . .

So how does this relate to sticky stuff?

We understand broadly that spin can be generated through friction . . . This is believed to have started a trend of pitchers looking for even stickier substances to increase their spin rate. . . . The belief is that a little bit of pine tar used the way pitchers have for decades increases it around a few dozen rpms. Spider Tack can add hundreds of rpms to a pitch — which with the right pitcher can take their pitch from good to elite. . . .It is also unclear how much spin can be added to a pitch just through mechanical and release changes. . . .

Why is MLB cracking down now?

Use of the really sticky stuff to increase spin rate is believed to have become much more prevalent in recent years, and it coincides with a season when MLB-level offense is curiously low. . . . Hitters who were fine with a bit of pine tar for control are not happy with the use of tackier substances to increase spin. Additionally, the rate of high-spin pitches has increased exponentially in recent years. The Athletic reported in May that since Statcast began tracking spin rate publicly in 2015, "the percentage of fastballs thrown with spin rates over 2,400 rpm has nearly doubled, from 18 percent to 35 percent."

What is MLB doing about this?

About a week before the start of the 2021 season, MLB issued a memo to its clubs saying that it would begin collecting data on foreign substance usage with the goal of creating a plan for enforcement down the line.

The league began collecting random baseballs from games and testing them for substances and tracking spin rate data using Statcast. This essentially created a period in which players knew the league was watching them, but they would not be punished. . . .

In early June, MLB had an owner's meeting in which the issue of foreign substances was raised as a serious concern for the game, and the league intends to move forward soon with expanded enforcement of its longstanding rule. . . .

What will happen when MLB begins its crackdown?

The impact of decreasing foreign substance usage could be significant. Pitchers are likely to have less control and command of the baseball, leading to more bases on balls or hits by pitch. Some within the game believe that sticky stuff gives pitchers a sense of security when airing out high-90s velocity, and pitchers may (or may not) become more reticent to throw as hard as they can if they don't know exactly where the ball is going to end up. Decreasing usage of things like Spider Tack would affect pitch movement, and potentially give hitters a better chance of making contact with the ball and putting it in play.

It's unclear how the MLBPA will respond to any potential punishments, though the union is in a strange spot representing both hitters and pitchers.

Rays pitcher Rich Hill believes the players' union "dropped the ball" on this issue:

The players' association had the opportunity to work with MLB, and MLB used their strong hand to put it on the players, and that's unfortunate that this is what happened. . . . I feel like they should have come together and settled this, and handled it like professionals. I feel like a rule change in the middle of the season is very difficult for everybody across the league.

Hill's teammate, Tyler Glasnow said his recent injury (partially torn elbow ligament) was due to trying to adapt before enforcement.

I switched my fastball grip and my curveball grip. I had to put my fastball deeper into my hand and grip it way harder. Instead of holding my curveball at the tip of my fingers, I had to dig it deeper into my hand. I'm choking the shit out of all my pitches. . . . I'm sitting here, my lifelong dream. I want to go out and win a Cy Young. I want to be an All-Star and now it's shit on. . . . I'm clearly frustrated.

Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer ripped MLB for springing the rules on players mid-season:

They've knowingly swept this under the rug for 4 years. Now they implement a knee jerk reaction to shifting public perception. Hard to hear them talk about 'competitive integrity' when they have no integrity to begin with. . . .

To be clear, the memo is fine long term, and it will serve to level the playing field. That is a good thing. But to implement it mid season when for 3 months you've promised players and teams that nothing about your chosen enforcement of the rules would change this year and 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' . . .

Red Sox manager Alex Cora:

This is one of those topics that right now is loud. Everyone is talking about it but hopefully after a week or two weeks, it's enforced and we talk only about the game . . .

If this is as big as people see it and the information provided shows, maybe the stuff is going to come down a little bit. Throwing 99 and let-it-rip all of the time, it's not going to play and you have to actually pitch instead of throw. If that's the case, maybe it's a better quality of baseball. . . . Stuff-wise, it might come down a little bit but at the same time, athletic-wise, we are at another level.

1 comment:

johngoldfine said...

I keep wondering what a wild-west scenario would look like: pitchers free to put anything they like on the ball, batters free to use corked, shaved, metal bats....