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Impact of MLB’s future crackdown of foreign substance

Is everybody doing it? Will MLB actually crack down?

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MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago White Sox Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball seems to be in the beginning stages of a reckoning. Recently, much more attention has been brought to the use of foreign substances by pitchers, either from being generally noticed by viewers to being derided at length by current players. Indeed, pitchers’ machinations stretch across the major leagues – and probably into the minors – to get a greater advantage over their adversary.

Whether it be an innocuous mix – and perhaps an unavoidable one – of rosin and sunscreen, like Cubs’ pitcher Trevor Williams discusses on the Rose Rotation; or more sinister applications, if such a word can be used to describe anything done in the name of competitive advantage, like bat wax or pine tar, as Dodgers’ pitcher Trevor Bauer mentioned in this and prior tweets, there’s an advantage to be found, nonetheless.

In a recently published Athletic article written by Ken Rosenthal and former Nats’ beat writer Britt Ghiroli, the pair outlined, in great detail, thoughts and feelings of players regarding what’s currently going on in today’s MLB – with many players even going so far as to sign their names next to their complaints, something they’ve apparently been reluctant to do in the past.

In the article, one “National League club” was passing around a baseball which had been secured as a team member’s first hit. The article continues, “The players were stunned by how sticky the ball was – how hours after the ball was taken out of play, they were still picking glue strands off the rawhide.”

The Phillies’ star offseason acquisition, catcher JT Realmuto, is now on record of what he thinks is benefitting pitchers. Stated within the article, Realmuto lamented, “…it’s not because everyone got so much better in the last three years. To be honest, that stuff helps a lot,” with “stuff” being anything applied to the baseball to help with spin rates and overall stuff of pitchers.

Recently, the league made it known that it would be collecting baseballs from pitchers across the sport’s highest level, with potential ramifications, if any, to take place next season. Rest assured, they noted, no punishments would be levied this year, essentially giving pitchers carte blanche to do as they please with balls.

Despite that decree, umpire Joe West – who often finds himself in the umpiring spotlight for all the wrong reasons – recently made Cardinals’ relief pitcher Giovanny Gallegos switch caps due to the clear presence of a sunscreen and rosin mix on the pitcher’s cap.

St. Louis manager Mike Shildt had much to say about it during the postgame presser: “This is baseball’s dirty little secret, and it’s the wrong time and the wrong arena to expose it.”

Shildt went on to express how perhaps umpires should be enforcing these rules on pitchers who “are sitting there going into their glove every day with filthy stuff coming out,” adding that he’s sticking up for clean pitchers.

Shildt raises some good points and some not so good points. Firstly, perhaps he’s right that umpires should pay more attention to pitchers with something foreign plastered in their gloves – something that yields a baseball akin to the one described in that National League club’s anecdote. But as Williams noted in the above-linked interview, “sunscreen and rosin is absurdly sticky… pine tar is less sticky than sunscreen and rosin.” It should be noted that this mixture works well when the weather is warm, according to Williams, and not when it’s cold.

As for Shildt’s point about it being the wrong arena to challenge baseball’s “dirty little secret,” I’m not buying that proposition. Had it been the other club’s pitcher, in this case the White Sox, Shildt likely wouldn’t have taken issue with the enforcement. Since it affected his team negatively – by the way, Gallegos wasn’t ejected, he was only made to change hats – he took issue with the exposure to the problem in that particular arena. One more thing: This isn’t baseball’s dirty little secret; everybody knows it’s happening, and they’ve known for a while – it might just be that not enough people cared.

But now Major League Baseball has a very challenging stance to defend properly. If sunscreen and rosin, for example, is as potent a mix as Williams says it is – and I have no reason to doubt that assertion – what’s the league to do? Rosin is sanctioned by the league as a resource to improve pitcher grip and you obviously can’t outlaw sunscreen. For pitchers, the two are bound to mix, which results in an unenforceable consequence of those two necessities being exposed to one another.

Some may wonder what the large effect of sticky substances can have on the game itself. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a spin rate revolution. While it’s possible that some pitchers are working and finding ways to increase spin rate organically, it’s unlikely. The previously mentioned Trevor Bauer has been sounding the alarm on foreign substances for years now, but it became clear that baseball had no intention of cracking down; not only that, nobody seemed to have any intention of caring.

Over the last three years, Bauer has seen a massive uptick in spin rate on his fastball, going from 2,410 rpm in 2019 to 2,834 rpm in 2021. That uptick falls roughly in-line with what he claimed on Twitter in 2018. The Dodgers’ star righty has been talking about this phenomenon for years and most people simply ignored him, so he decided to utilize this knowledge.

If a fastball, for example, has a greater spin rate, the pitch will appear to have more ride, which results in batters swinging underneath the offering because their brain expects gravity to act upon the ball and drop it slightly lower in the zone – but that doesn’t happen. The greater the Magnus force, the less the ball drops over the course of the pitch’s life; the ball pushes the air downward, which creates an equal/opposite force upward. This article from Driveline explains the aforementioned very well, with GIFs included for your viewing pleasure.

If, then, Major League Baseball determines a way to effectively limit pitcher usage of “foreign substances,” it may be the case that the gripes we have about the modern game will begin to cease to exist. Home runs are down, marginally, but strikeouts are racing ahead just as they have been – and perhaps to a greater extent.

New “Manfred balls” are producing an undesired effect: Less offense, better pitching — or so it would seem. We’re on a historic pace for no-hitters and strikeouts are through the roof; we’ve seen fewer home runs, which is a positive for some and not for others. When folks complained to get different baseballs, their hope was that baseball would return to how it was prior to the last decade. Thus far, that’s not been the case.

Now talks of lowering the mound – or even moving it back – have proliferated in certain circles. Without doctored baseballs, you have to wonder whether or not these offensive woes around baseball would persist. If baseballs are monitored more closely, perhaps we wouldn’t have to resort to such drastic measures, like when the league lowered the mound in 1969.

Because the chief concern of major league hitters, according to that aforementioned Athletic article, is that pitchers are doing things with baseballs that people shouldn’t be able to do, it would make sense that the strikeout rate would recede and offense would see a boost moving forward.

Still, the prospect of diligently ensuring balls remain clean is daunting; in fact, it seems an almost insurmountable obstacle faced by the league.

While most of Major League Baseball, sans Joe West, haven’t cracked down on pitchers utilizing various substances, three minor league pitchers over the last week were ejected for foreign substances, according to Baseball America.

Perhaps that’s evidence that it can be done; furthermore, maybe minor league baseball is giving us a glimpse of what to expect next year and in each year thereafter. If that’s the case, pitchers will eventually adjust to the new expectations – or so you’d think – and eventually games would proceed without stoppages in play in order to adjudicate punishments for wayward pitchers.

Nevertheless, this year won’t produce much in the way of altered outcomes regarding ball doctoring. It will be interesting, though, to see whether or not umpires continue to command pitchers to alter their uniform in order to conform more closely to these apparently new edicts in baseball. I don’t imagine the league will issue a directive to umpires to not crackdown on pitchers using foreign substances and it will remain at the discretion of the officiating staff.

It won’t be this year, but compelling changes could be coming down the line in the imminent future in Major League Baseball.