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Let’s talk about the sticky stuff in baseball

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Baseball has a problem on its hands.

New York Yankees Vs. Boston Red Sox At Fenway Park Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

With batting averages continuing to plummet around baseball in correlation with a rise in strikeouts and pitcher velocity, there has been increased attention on what pitchers are doing to improve their performance. Recent articles at The Athletic, Sports Illustrated and ESPN have revealed just how widespread and extreme the use of foreign substances is in baseball.

One ball made its way into an NL dugout last week, where players took turns touching a palm to the sticky material coating it and lifting the baseball, adhered to their hand, into the air. Another one, corralled in a different NL dugout, had clear-enough fingerprints indented in the goo that opponents could mimic the pitcher’s grip. A third one, also in the NL, was so sticky that when an opponent tried to pull the glue off, three inches of seams came off with it.

Finally people in the game are starting to talk about what has been the biggest open secret in baseball - pitchers are using foreign substances on the ball. So let’s talk about it.

So, what’s wrong with using foreign substances on the ball?

Ever since pitchers were allowed to strike hitters out, they have been looking for ways to gain an advantage. In the early 20th century, pitchers figured out that if they used saliva on the ball, they could alter the movement of pitches, and later on pitchers began using more sophisticated foreign substances like petroleum jelly or scuffing the ball using an emery board.

In 1920, Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was struck in the head with a pitch and became the only player to ever die during a game. The discoloration of the ball due to pitchers doctoring it was said to be a contributing factor to him not seeing and reacting to the pitch in time. So baseball passed a rule outlawing the spitball, although 17 pitchers were allowed to be grandfathered in. Today, Rule 6.02 states “No pitcher shall...expectorate on the ball, either hand or his glove”, “apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball”, or “have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance.”

Okay, but balls are changed out all the time now, is player safety still an issue?

The number of hit-by-pitches in baseball has gone up significantly in the last four years, and is double the rate it was in the 1980s, but player safety is not the big motivation behind the scrutiny of foreign substances now. Instead, it is the imbalance between pitching and offense that is causing concern. The league batting average is down to .237, the lowest in modern baseball history. Strikeout rates are at the highest rates in baseball history. Some of this is because of an emphasis on hitting home runs, but what pitchers are doing to baseballs is certainly a factor.

“I’m tired of hearing people say that players only want to hit home runs,” says Rockies rightfielder Charlie Blackmon. “That’s not why people are striking out. They’re striking out because guys are throwing 97 mile-an-hour super sinkers, or balls that just go straight up with all this sticky stuff and the new-baseball spin rate. That’s why guys are striking out, because it’s really hard not to strike out.”

Haven’t foreign substances been around forever despite that rule?

Sure, Gaylord Perry had 314 wins and a Hall of Fame career despite being long suspected of putting vaseline and other substances on the ball. Joe Niekro was famously caught on television with an emery board used for scuffing the ball. Even more recently Michael Pineda, then of the Yankees, was suspended 10 games in 2014 for using a foreign substance. What has changed is how seemingly widespread the practice is now, and the impact it has had on the game.

So how do foreign substances help pitchers?

In the past, substances were applied to cause pitches to drop. Today, it’s all about spin rate. Spin rate is the speed at which a baseball rotates after it is pitched. The amount of spin on a pitch will determine its movement. A fastball with a high spin rate will appear to be “rising” to the hitter. However, a change up with a lower spin rate might have more movement. A 2018 study found that on pitches with a spin rate below 2,100 RPM (revolutions per minute), batters hit .304. But on pitches with a spin rate above 2,600 RPM, batters hit just .197. Former Royals Review writer Jeff Zimmerman found that a higher spin rate had a high correlation with higher swinging strike rates.

Foreign substances allow pitchers to get a better grip on a baseball and create more friction with the ball. The longer the ball stays in contact with a pitcher’s fingers, the more force he can generate to spin the ball. In recent years, teams have developed technology to track spin rates, and have tried to increase those rates to improve performance.

The Athletic found that since 2015, “the percentage of fastballs thrown with spin rates over 2400 RPM has nearly doubled, from 18 percent to 35 percent.” Sports Illustrated reported that league-wide, spin rate is up 0.52 percent this year, but for some teams it is up by as much as 7 percent. Some of this could be because teams are giving more opportunities to pitchers with high spin rates, or have found ways to increase spin rates in pitchers. But as Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer wrote in 2020:

“I’ve been chasing spin rate since 2012. 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. 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.”

What kind of foreign substances are we talking about here?

This isn’t like Eddie Harris in the film Major League using Crisco, Bardol, and snot on the ball. Pitchers are using sticky adhesive materials, commonly some sort of pine tar/rosin mixture. Products like Pelican Dip Grip and Tyrus Sticky Grip, used as pine tar for hitters, have become popular with pitchers as well. Some can use rosin mixed with sunscreen in a pinch.

But the one that has gotten the most attention is Spider Tack, a substance invented to allow strongman competitors to get a better grip on the objects they lift. Eno Sarris of The Athletic had a retired pitcher use the rosin/polymer blend as a demonstration and found his spin rate increased by 500 RPMs, or 25 percent. Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole was asked point blank by reporters if he used the substance, and his non-denial raised some eyebrows.

Aren’t hitters okay with pitchers using foreign substances though?

Some are, at least publicly. Mets first baseman Pete Alonso said it was fine with him if it helped pitchers keep the ball in the zone. Reds outfielder Nick Castellanos also downplayed it a bit saying he didn’t want to complain about it and give pitchers and advantage. The adage in the past had been that allowing pitchers to get a better grip helped keep hitters safe by reducing hit batters.

But the decline in batting averages and rise in hit-by-pitches contradicts the line of thinking. Orioles Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer responded, “I hit 38 guys in (3,948) innings and now people are saying you need it for grip? It’s an excuse, we all know that. They are using it to be better.”

Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson has been particularly outspoken against foreign substances.

“What these guys are doing now (is) performance-enhancing, to where it is an actual superglue-type of ordeal,” Donaldson said. “It’s not about command. Now, it’s about who’s throwing the nastiest pitches, the more unhittable pitches. It’s proven.”

Are Royals pitchers using foreign substances?

If they are, they’re not telling anyone! The Royals are sixth in baseball in average spin rate as a team, a slight increase from last year. General Manager Dayton Moore told The Athletic, “It is wrong to cheat. If the rules say it’s illegal, then it ought to be enforced.” Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield recently denied the team was using anything and advocated for a level playing field.

If Royals pitchers are using, they’re certainly not alone. Sports Illustrated reported one recently retired pitcher estimated “80 to 90%” of pitchers are using it in some capacity.”

Who is to blame for all this?

In a lot of ways, this mirrors the performance-enhancing drug (PED) scandal of the late 90s and 2000s. Back then, PEDs were not technically against the rules, and baseball turned a blind eye towards hulking sluggers bashing home runs at unprecedented rates. With foreign substances, there is at least a rule on the books, it just wasn’t enforced very well. So can you blame pitchers for wanting an edge?

As Britt Ghiroli of The Athletic put it:

It should start with the league that allowed it, which — again — has waited and waited until a problem blew up to actually address it. Just like steroids. Just like the video review room.

How did we get here? By the sport closing its eyes and looking away from the problem, game after game, year after year.

What is MLB doing to crack down on this?

Back in March, baseball sent a memo to all teams saying they would be analyzing spin rates and baseballs to determine evidence of foreign substances. They emphasized umpires would continue monitoring for doctored balls and that discipline would be handed out. In a May 26 game, umpires confiscated the cap of Cardinals pitcher Giovany Gallegos for suspicion of foreign substances, but did not eject him.

More recently, owners met last week to discuss the issue and could roll out a new enforcement regime as early as next week, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney. To combat the issue, baseball could have pitchers checked randomly by umpires, beefing up suspensions, and subjecting position players to foreign-substance checks as well. Baseball could also use a precoated ball that Rawlings has developed for use in Asia, although early tests show the tack wears away too easily. Just the added scrutiny from MLB has perhaps caused some pitchers to have significantly diminished RPMs.

High-level athletes are always looking for an edge, and some may bend or even break the rules to find it. Baseball has turned a blind eye for a long time, but hopefully cracking down on foreign substances now can bring some balance back to the game.