The weeks and months of hemming and hawing over what MLB should or shouldn’t do regarding pitchers using foreign substances — also known as “sticky stuff” — came to a conclusion Tuesday, when the league announced steep enforcement measures to curb the use of anything from Spider Tack to the seemingly benign combination of rosin and sunscreen.
The punishment for pitchers found using — or even possessing — a foreign substance will be an ejection and 10-game suspension, according to a release from MLB on Tuesday. The enforcement will include random checks from umpires during games, beginning Monday.
The use of foreign substances to doctor baseballs has long been prohibited, but enforcement has often been lax or even entirely absent.
As offensive numbers slide to near-record lows this season, though, the issue has come to a head. The league-wide batting average entering play Tuesday is .238 — one percentage point above 1968, coined the Year of the Pitcher. The average 8.95 strikeouts per game this year is the highest-ever total.
In March, MLB began a data-collection process to assess the prevalence of foreign substance use. That included daily on-site monitoring reports from the clubhouse and dugout areas before and during games; video review; collecting baseballs used in-game by every team; and analyzing spin rates through Statcast data.
The information was inconclusive, MLB said. Many of the baseballs collected had dark-colored marks that were sticky to the touch, and testing by third-party researchers confirmed that the use of foreign substances does impact performance by increasing spin rates.
“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.”
The largest argument for the use of foreign substances is to enhance the pitcher’s grip. After Nationals pitcher Austin Voth was hit in the face by a fastball while batting June 6, breaking his nose, manager Dave Martinez called for a “happy medium” when it comes to enforcement.
“I’m afraid if we don’t come up with something — something unified for everybody — you’ll see a lot more of that,” Martinez said at the time. “And that’s a scary feeling because these guys throw 95, 96, 97, some guys throw 100. So hopefully they’ll come up with some kind of a happy medium to resolve the baseball issue with the sticky stuff.”
When speaking to the media Monday, Washington ace Max Scherzer echoed a similar idea. He understood “that there’s been bad actors throughout the game” trying to find a competitive advantage, using adhesive substances that go beyond pine tar or sunscreen and rosin. But there is a benefit to increased control of the baseball, and there are advocates on the mound and at the plate.
“Pitchers want to have that tack and hitters want pitchers to have that tack to prevent serious injury,” Scherzer said. “That’s the delicate balance that we’re having to play with.”
The delicate balance is hard to navigate when some pitchers began manipulating spin rate — adding velocity and movement to pitches — through foreign substances such as Spider Tack. But MLB isn’t straddling that line. Instead, the league is outlawing the use of any foreign substances, including the more innocuous substances.
Michael Hill, MLB’s senior vice president of on-field operations, said in a statement the more traditional substances can still be used to find a competitive advantage and asking umpires to discern between those substances during a game “is not practical.”
“Pitchers used sunscreen & rosin everyday (myself included) for control of the baseball,” former Nationals reliever Jerry Blevins tweeted. “Other pitchers used foreign substances to enhance the spinrate. The old, ‘give an inch, take a mile.’ It went too far. This is why we can’t have nice things.”
The league disputed the idea that foreign substances improve player safety. According to MLB, 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.”
MLB noted that through May 31, the 2021 season has the highest rate of hit-by-pitches of any season in the past 100 years.
The enforcement will take the form of random checks during games from umpires. Starting pitchers will have more than one mandatory check each game, and each relief pitcher will be checked once the inning ends or once they are removed from the game. A “thorough check” will include looking at a player’s hat, glove and fingertips. Catchers will also be subject to inspections.
An umpire can also perform a check at any point during the game if they notice the baseball has an unusually sticky feel to it, or if they notice the pitcher repeatedly touching his glove, hat, belt or any other part of their uniform to potentially apply a foreign substance to a ball. The rosin bag behind the mound will still be permitted.
There is no challenge system for teams; the umpiring crew has sole discretion on whether a player has violated the rules. And if a position player applies a foreign substance to a ball for a pitcher, both he and the pitcher will be ejected and suspended.
As part of the strict enforcement, MLB is not allowing any club to replace a player on the roster who is suspended for an on-field violation. The punishments for repeat offenders will become progressively more severe.
The league hopes these measures lead to a slight uptick in offensive production. When news first broke at the beginning of June that MLB was planning to enhance enforcement of foreign substance use, the offensive numbers were even more feeble than they are now.
Over the final 15 days of May, the batting average was .235 with a 24.7% strikeout rate. In the first 15 days of June, though, batters hit .246 with a 23.4% strikeout rate. Those are small sample sizes in a long season, but MLB hopes the numbers can tick upward now that enforcement begins next week.
“This is not about any individual player or Club, or placing blame, it is about a collective shift that has changed the game and needs to be addressed,” Manfred said in a statement. “We have a responsibility to our fans and the generational talent competing on the field to eliminate these substances and improve the game.”
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