clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

MLB’s foreign substances crackdown is flirting with disaster

New, 109 comments

As predicted, this is trending toward self-manufactured scandal and a leaguewide experiment with no apparent controls.

Arizona Diamondbacks v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images

While the MLB season progresses with a growing sense of normalcy as attendance restrictions are lifted around the country, much of the baseball world is now bracing for another round of strangeness. The league officially announced on June 15 that their crackdown on foreign substances for pitchers is set to begin on June 21. After previously advising pitchers that they should continue as they were while the league studied the issue this season, the league has suddenly decided to spring this in the middle of the season, putting pitcher health and effectiveness in jeopardy, with no real clarity to the rule or its potential enforcement.

Certainly the letter of the law hasn’t changed. Pitchers have never formally been allowed to use anything but rosin on their hands. However, in practice, just about every pitcher in the game uses something to get a better grip on the ball, as they have for the game’s entire history. Teams themselves promote it. A rule that has never been enforced this way is suddenly going to be a problem, and all at the discretion of umpires with no real training or clarity as to how to go about it.

How did it come to this?

Perhaps the most ridiculous part of this is just how long the league has been thinking about solutions with no action. They’ve tacitly acknowledged that the ball as manufactured isn’t grippy enough in the hand. And it’s been no secret at all that pitchers have taken matters into their own hands throughout baseball’s history with little concern or complaint.

As early as the 2016-2017 offseason the league was well aware of a developing problem with pitchers turning to higher tech solutions to enhance their ability to spin the baseball. They worked with Rawlings to devise a baseball with a tackier cover, either via the manufacturing process, or by something that could be uniformly applied before each ball went into game use. Apparently all these efforts have failed, despite the seeming wealth of simple, uniform solutions that could’ve dealt with the problem before it blew up into something that looks a lot to fans like another performance enhancing scandal. So short-sighted has the league’s handling of the question been to date, that for some players, it’s hard not to see it as a purposeful attempt to create a scandal to embarrass players prior to the next CBA negotiations.

The central issue is that in terms of substances, some major league pitchers have participated in a sticky substance arms race in recent years, increasingly turning to advanced grip enhancers like the now ubiquitous Spider Tack, a product used by weightlifters to avoid their hands slipping off the bar under heavy strain. The commoditization of spin rate over the past half decade has also spread all the way into the amateur ranks, where a high school pitcher with high spin rates may command hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra money just for that trait alone. Once you’re paying people for their ability to spin the ball, you’ve put incentives in place to spin the ball as fast as possible, by whatever means available.

So there is a legitimate issue here that needed to be dealt with. Unfortunately, the league’s decision to crack down on anything used to get a good grip on the ball seems likely to create more issues than they’re going to solve, while experimenting with pitchers’ health in the middle of the season to boot.

As Dodgers pitcher, and noted early critic of the timing and methodology of the crackdown, Trevor Bauer, has described it, using something like sunscreen and rosin, or a tiny amount of pine tar, is like going 60 mph in a 55 mph zone. Basically everyone does it, and it’s just a standard part of the game that has been unofficially sanctioned for over a century. Those substances provide grip, but don’t appear to radically boost spin rate.

The problem is when things go beyond that into more reckless territory that this gets out of hand—so to speak—with certain pitchers gaining a major edge in performance by their use of high tech sticky substances for grip enhancement. The use of something like Spider Tack or FirmGrip spray can potentially add hundreds of rpms and take things well beyond normal practice. However the league appears to draw no distinctions between those substances, the sunscreen or pine tar methods, or even simply the combination of rosin and sweat on every pitcher’s hand and arm.

Since the league’s memo on the subject dated June 3, some have suggested this is all posturing from the league, and won’t actually cause any changes. Those folks are quickly being proved wrong as spin rates are suddenly dropping all over the place. The real test will come over the next month as pitchers are forced to throw with the dry ball, with nothing but rosin allowed on their hands. Tracking spin and injury rates is going to be a full time job trying to parse the effect this will have on the game.

As Tyler Glasnow of the Tampa Bay Rays explained following his injury diagnosis last week, he stopped using sunscreen with rosin in early June and immediately began dealing with unfamiliar soreness throughout his arm. The change forced him to alter his grips and use more pressure on the ball throughout his motion. A couple starts on and Glasnow now has a partially torn UCL and will miss the rest of the season. It’s hard to draw an exact correlation there, as injuries are pretty unpredictable in the first place, but Glasnow’s complaint makes good sense and has a lot of pitchers worried.

Pitchers train all spring to get used to a ball that the league has constantly tinkered with in recent years to begin with. Forcing them to suddenly pitch with a dry ball, also forces them to hold on tighter, engaging their forearm muscles throughout their delivery in way their bodies are not at all used to. In Glasnow’s case, he’s absolutely convinced that this was the cause of his injury.

Enforcement

Starting Monday, June 21st, crew chiefs will inspect starters twice a game as they come off the mound. Relievers will be inspected as they come off the mound, or in the case of closers, when they enter the game. Offending pitchers, at least in the view of umpires who have zero expertise by which to judge, will be ejected and suspended 10 days with pay, but their roster spot cannot be filled during the suspension period. As a result, other pitchers will end up carrying a heavier workload while a teammate is serving a suspension. Perhaps that’s designed to create peer pressure against these practices, but it’s also liable to create even more injuries.

Just as importantly, what are umpires supposed to look for? Where is the objectivity when there are no standards by which to judge what is too sticky?

There’s no standard test for any of the substances they want out of the game. There’s no process to collect a sample from a pitcher’s hand that could be later tested to determine if the umpire was correct or not. Instead, this is going to be completely arbitrary and up to each individual umpire’s discretion. The potential for pitchers to be ejected for substances like sunscreen, or even simply rosin and sweat, means that there’s no way to actually guarantee being in compliance with the stated goal of getting the Spider Tack and FirmGrips of the world out of the game.

Rosin and sweat, with enough friction, produces a sticky film that to the touch, could easily resemble stickiness produced by the prohibited substances. Pitchers still have to wear sunscreen during day games outdoors. How can an umpire determine intent just because a bit of sunscreen was sweated off the arm to the hand, or got there simply by brushing one’s face prior to gripping the ball? How can he decide what is too sticky, when the permissible substances create stickiness as well?

The league is ostensibly really looking to crack down on the Spider Tack’s of the world, but what they’ve created is a system where unqualified umpires are going to be making these judgments on the fly, with no clear standard between them. That’s far too much power to put in their hands.

Solutions

For now, there’s no real recourse to the league’s hasty decision, and with no objective standards, no chemical tests, there is nothing to prevent this being anything more than another ump show. This is potentially a colossal error on the league’s part, particularly as plenty of good suggestions exist.

They could have simply found a substance that would be universally permitted. You could put a tin of it next to the rosin bag, or they could use a spray can like FirmGrip, or one of the other products hitters use to grip the bat better. Develop a chemical swab test for the approved substance, and anything else that reacts differently in such a test would result in ejection and suspension. Not simple, but not at all hard for a major professional sports league, right?

For decades, the baseball cover has been too slick to grip and throw effectively on its own. The default solution has been to rub a supply of balls for the game with mud to provide a little bit of tackiness and take some of the manufacturing sheen off. The problem is that those balls quickly dry out, with the mud turning to a coating of dust that actually impedes grip. That dusty feeling, more than anything else, is why pitchers turned to sunscreen or pine resin to rub up the ball in the first place, long before anyone was measuring spin rate looking for a competitive edge.

Trevor Bauer’s solution, which he’s apparently been pitching to the league for a half decade now, is a machine located in the home dugout that sprays the balls with a uniform coating of something to provide tack prior to each game, or by inning. That seems like a perfect option. It doesn’t matter how sticky the substance, as long as it’s the same for everyone. Any other substance then found on a pitcher’s hand, preferably confirmed by an actual swab test, rather than each umpire’s individual sense of what is too sticky, would then result in ejection.

Point being, there were plenty of ways to go about this that wouldn’t get pitchers hurt, and wouldn’t compromise their feel for the ball in mid season, with only a few bullpen sessions to try to adapt. The fact that the league didn’t take any of the logical steps, and even encouraged pitchers not to change their methods this year in a preseason memo, only to do a complete 180 in June, has many players now in a conspiratorial frame of mind. By creating a “scandal” where none need have existed, some players feel as though this is another attempt to undermine the Players Association in CBA negotiations this fall.

As for MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, let’s hope this plays out in the spirit of his comments. Getting the high tech substances out of the game makes good sense even if the timing is asinine. The problem is the lack of standardization in the league’s process, and the arbitrary decisions now pushed on the umpiring crews.

“This is not about any individual player or club, or placing blame,’’ Manfred said, “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.”

We can only hope they’ve instructed umpires to be extremely judicious in their policing, until fair, objective processes can be designed. If umpires take it upon themselves to aggressively enforce this, we’re in for a real mess. The next few weeks may be extremely chaotic anyway. Hopefully a rash of pitcher injuries won’t be a prominent part of it.

For a quick, 10 minutes that explains the whole thing perfectly from a pitcher who has been at the center of controversy since he first called it out, check out this pre-game interview with Trevor Bauer from a few days ago.