Chances are, you’ve heard a lot about baseball’s sticky issue lately. Rumors of “crackdowns” and mentions of “foreign substances” and “cheating” have been common on social media.
But what’s it really all about? Let’s take a look.
What’s happening with pitchers and foreign substances?
It’s always been illegal for a pitcher to apply pretty much anything to a baseball in an effort to get more movement on the ball, but for the most part it’s been a rule without much teeth, just an occasional suspension here or there when a pitcher blatantly breaks the rules and an opposing manager asks the umpire to check.
That’s ending soon(ish).
Baseball announced this past offseason that it was taking a closer look at the issue, and spent the first few months of the season collecting baseballs from pitchers across the sport — not just Trevor Bauer — in an attempt to get a handle on how widespread the problem actually is. ESPN reported on June 5 that a plan is being “swiftly advanced” to start the actual cracking-down process, possibly being implemented as soon as “10 days to two weeks,” which would start June 15.
Exactly how it will work hasn’t been revealed. Josh Donaldson, a former MVP, has an idea, though.
“If you want to clean the game up — because to me, this is going to be the next steroids of baseball ordeal, because it is cheating and it is performance-enhancing — the only way they get it through and to get it out of the game is if they get checked every half-inning,” Donaldson told The Athletic. “If a new pitcher comes out, they get checked immediately by the umpire. Once they start doing that, it’ll be gone, and you’re going to start seeing offense come back into the game.”
Checking every half-inning isn’t going to help pace-of-play issues in the short term, but if the goal is to get rid of the sticky stuff, maybe that’s a short-term price MLB is willing to pay.
“They want to make it so whatever we do, we do it consistently, so it doesn’t look we’re targeting any one pitcher, which I think is very important,” senior umpire Joe West told The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal this week. “Baseball wants everything to be above board.”
Why are sticky substances illegal for pitchers?
The tenet of fair play says every player is operating with the same equipment, with the same set of rules. So when it comes to pitchers, nothing other than a short list of approved items can be used or added to a baseball. All MLB baseballs are rubbed up with mud from a secret spot on a tributary of the Delaware River, so they’re not super slippery. Pitchers are allowed to use a bag with rosin — a sticky substance made from fir tree sap — to get a little extra grip. The bags are behind the mound at all times.
But here’s the thing: Pitchers have always tried to cheat. Not every pitcher, of course, but it’s not a stretch to say that in every single MLB season, at least some pitchers have tried to circumvent the rules to add a little movement to the baseball. In some cases, especially in the first century of the sport, the idea was to either scuff up the surface of the baseball or add something to the surface of the ball to add movement. A baseball with uniform leather/seams will move in a way that’s familiar to the pitchers and the hitters. But one that’s scuffed or cut or otherwise altered will move in an unpredictable way, and that unpredictability is a huge benefit for the pitcher.
But that’s not the case with this current “crisis.” This is about grip, especially on four-seam fastballs. Added grip means added spin, and that means added movement. Added grip also means pitchers can throw harder because they have more control of the baseball as it’s leaving their hand. That extra velocity means extra spin and extra movement, and extra movement means missed bats and baffled hitters, which means more strikeouts for pitchers.
Think of it this way: Relying on the Delaware River mud and rosin for grip is like driving a go-cart. They get the job done, kind of. But the new stuff pitchers are using, the reason we’re having this conversation today? They’re like driving a damn IndyCar vehicle.
Why are foreign substances a big deal for MLB now?
This, folks, is a loaded question. Let’s start with this: MLB has a long history of ignoring a problem until it just becomes too much to ignore. It’s not just this current administration. The steroid era is the most recent parallel. Steroids were a part of the game for years, and MLB didn’t really do anything to try to stop the use, despite the known health risks. It wasn’t until records started to fall — big, huge important records — that MLB finally started to take steps to address the issue. You can bet that if Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had stalled out at 55 home runs in the summer of 1998 and never reached the Maris/Ruth levels, things would have been different. Same thing if Barry Bonds never approached Hank Aaron’s career total. But they did, and then baseball acted.
You’re seeing the same things now. Strikeout numbers have been up for the past decade-plus, but they’re reaching mind-boggling levels now, levels that can’t be explained away with mentions of launch angles and hitter approaches. Think about this: In his storied career, strikeout king Nolan Ryan topped the 11.0 K/9 mark twice in 27 seasons. In 2020, there were 17 pitchers with at least nine starts who had a K/9 of 11.0 or better. And there’s this: The MLB-wide strikeout percentage for batters last season was 23.4 percent; in 2021, it’s up to 24.1 percent. Read that again. Basically, one of every four plate appearances ends with a strikeout. That’s not good for the game. And people will point to the no-hitters, too — six in the first two months of the season. That’s a good talking point, but the truth is these new crackdowns were coming before those no-hitters happened.
Baseball wasn’t worried so much about the cheating itself; baseball only really became concerned when the cheaters became too good at the cheating.
Too much blame is going to be heaped on the pitchers who are caught with substances, or when it’s noticed that spin rates drop dramatically. That sucks, honestly. MLB has turned a blind eye to the situation for so long that it’s just been an accepted part of the sport. We drew a parallel to PEDs, but let’s be clear: This doesn’t have a moral element like steroids. There’s no health component. For decades, a thing was allowed to happen, and now suddenly it’s not. That’s on MLB.
And there’s also this: The Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association expires on Dec. 1, and the negotiations are not going to be pretty. You’ll certainly hear talk of work stoppages, and it’s not unrealistic to think that might happen. And one tried-and-true tactic heading into a contentious negotiation is to attempt to erode unity on the other side. In this case, the theory goes, MLB is trying to pit pitchers vs. hitters against each other in hopes that it will impact the MLBPA’s solidarity. MLB powers-that-be will deny it to their last breaths, of course.
What exactly is the ‘sticky’ foreign substance?
The rosin bag, as you know, is legal. Encouraged, even. Pitchers without any sort of grip tend to throw baseballs that accidentally strike hitters. But when a little rosin is mixed with a little extra sunscreen, that’s where things start to get complicated. Again, though, if it had just stopped there — it resided there for a long, long time — we wouldn’t be having these conversations. Same thing, honestly, with pine tar. It’s long been a “bonus” part of a pitcher’s bag of sticky tricks. Just don’t blatantly use it (as Michael Pineda of the Yankees did in 2014).
Lots of things get sticky, quickly. Any parent can tell you that. And I feel safe saying we would all be shocked — and pretty amused — at some of the things pitchers have used over the decades to get a little extra movement. You put snot on the ball?
The might-have-pushed-it-over-the-line stuff, though? That’s stuff like Spider Tack, a substance developed to help power-lifters hold on when lifting stupid amounts of weight, and Pelican Grip Dip. Neither of these things were designed specifically for pitchers, but they create an incredible amount of friction, which leads to an incredible amount of spin. And, again, an incredible amount of spin leads to an incredible amount of movement and an incredible number of swings and misses.
This quote, from Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon to Sports Illustrated, is eye-opening.
“There’s some [pitchers] where, if you swing where your eyes tell you, you won’t hit the ball, even if you’re on time,” Blackmon says. “I have to go out there and if my eyes tell me it’s in one place, I have to swing to a different place. Which is hard to do. It’s hard to swing and try and miss the ball. But there’s some guys where you have to do it, because their ball and the spin rate or whatever is defying every pitch that you’ve seen come in over the course of your career. … I basically have to not trust my eyes that the pitch is going to finish where I think it’s going to finish and swing in a different place, because the ball is doing something it has no business doing.”
How will guilty MLB pitchers be punished?
Nothing’s been announced yet, but we can look at past precedents. Last week, four minor league pitchers were suspended for 10 days each when they were caught using illegal foreign substances on baseballs. Minor league players are subjected to vastly different standards, of course, partially because they don’t have a union — that’s an entirely different column — but the length of those were consistent with past MLB suspensions. In 2014, Pineda was suspended 10 days when he was found with pine tar smeared on his neck. In 2004, Cardinals pitcher Julian Tavarez was suspended 10 days for applying a foreign substance to the baseball.
“Believe me, whenever you do something like this, there’s going to be pushback. There are going to be complaints. And there will be mistakes made,” West told The Athletic. “Don’t think everything is going to be perfect. It doesn’t happen that way.”
So 10 games makes sense for a first suspension. But what about repeated violations? Let’s not pretend that PED infractions (those are a health risk) and sticky substance issues are the same, but it’s an established guideline to use as a guide. The first PED suspension is 80 games, the second is a full season (Robinson Cano is currently serving a 162-game suspension), and the third is expulsion from baseball.
It’s hard to imagine expelling a pitcher for sticky fingers, right? Doubling the suspension each time would make sense, though. First 10 days, then 20 (add a postseason ban), then 40 plus postseason, then 80 plus postseason and so on. But, again, that’s just an educated guess.