MLB's crackdown on its pitchers' use of sticky substances to enhance spin rate was one of the stories of the 2021 season, and it looks like a 2022 comeback is on the horizon.
The league issued a memo to teams on Friday outlining an increased crackdown on such substances, according to Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci. The move comes after a suspicious rebound in spin rates late last season, raising the question of whether some of the league's pitchers figured a workaround for umpire inspections.
Starting on June 21 last year, umpires would search a pitcher's hat, belt and glove between certain innings to see if there was any evidence of an illegal substance. This year, however, umpires will reportedly search the top and bottom of the pitchers' actual hands. If a substance is found, the pitcher will be ejected and hit with an automatic suspension. He will also be ejected if he is seen wiping off his hand before a substance check.
The change will go into effect in spring training games this weekend and carry through the entire 2022 season.
From Sports Illustrated:
In the memo to clubs obtained by Sports Illustrated, senior vice president of baseball operations Mike Hill wrote, “If an umpire’s inspection reveals that the pitcher’s hand is unquestionably sticky or shows unmistakable signs of the presence of a foreign substance, the umpire will conclude that the pitcher was applying a foreign substance to the baseball for the purpose of gaining an unfair competitive advantage.” In such a case the pitcher is ejected and suspended automatically.
Hill continued in the memo, “If an umpire observes a pitcher attempt to wipe off his hands prior to an inspection he may be subject to immediate ejection.”
Catchers and position players could also reportedly be subject to a search. Starting pitchers will see multiple checks per game, while all relief pitchers will be checked at least once.
MLB has good reason to believe some pitchers started using sticky substances again
Much was made of the midseason drop in spin rates last year, triggered by MLB's crackdown against sticky substances.
Pitchers stopping between mound and dugout for an awkward interaction with an umpire became a regular site across the league, some handling it better than others. Offense ticked up as spin rates fell, due to diminishing pitch movement, and it seemed like MLB had rather abruptly overcame a recurring issue in recent years.
Of course, baseball is a game of adjustments, and it seems some pitchers adjusted:
sticky stuff is back! Or at least spin rate is. Hard for me to believe it has recovered this much without pitchers going back to the Spider Tack (or related substances). https://t.co/WXGUYbekSN pic.twitter.com/fPLLps8YVP
— Rob Arthur (@No_Little_Plans) October 12, 2021
How a rebound could happen — especially under the microscope of some eagle-eyed viewers — is unclear, but there are a lot of different substances out there and a lot of places on the human body to put them.
Put it this way: between opening day and June 2, the day before pitchers were notified of the upcoming crackdown, the average four-seam spin rate in MLB was 2,318 rotations per minute. Between June 3 and June 20, a sort of grace period between notification and enforcement, rates fell down to 2,269 rpm. In the first month of enforcement, rates were down to 2,232.
For a league-wide average, such a decline is dramatic. However, in September, the average spin rate was back up to 2,262. That's not all the way back to pre-initial crackdown levels, but it's enough of an increase to raise an eyebrow for some.
That group apparently included the commissioner's office, so now umpires are about to get very familiar with pitching hands this year.