MLB’s Sticky Substance Ban Belies Hidden Ball Trick

·7 min read

Major League Baseball has decided to enforce rules already on the books to stop pitchers from doctoring the baseball, beginning with Monday’s games. Pitchers caught applying substances will be ejected and suspended for 10 games.

Perhaps even more significantly, teams won’t be able to replace that pitcher on the roster during the suspension period, meaning a relief pitcher caught is a relief pitcher officially lost for 10 games.

“The only thing I don’t like about the rule, I believe, is that if somebody gets suspended, they’re getting paid,” New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said this week in the wake of receiving a nine-page memo from MLB about the subject. “It’s a public relations ding. They’re getting a 10-game paid vacation of sorts, but their team has to play short, which is a difficult hardship to be dealing with.”

While sticky substances have grabbed headlines in recent weeks, there’s another theory about why pitching has been so dominant during the opening months of this season: changes to the baseball itself. The ball is so slick pitchers have to use a foreign substance to control it, and even a slight variation in weight and composition can change the dynamics of throwing the ball.

Sportico reported this past February on how MLB slightly altered the specifications of the baseball heading into spring training. And now a data scientist who has long analyzed the construction of the ball itself says that might be as much a reason for the record number of batters being hit by pitches and a historic low in collective team batting averages.

“MLB’s conclusion that this season’s high hit-by-pitch rate is due to the prevalence of foreign substances is inherently flawed,” Dr. Meredith Wills, who has tested the new baseball and compared it with other versions, told Sportico. “The new ball performs differently in ways that has nothing to do with sticky stuff.… They can’t treat this as a foreign substance problem and ignore the ball. That’s not good science.”

Rawlings, the company that produces the baseball and is owned in part by MLB, made a mechanical adjustment in the way the ball is woven that has decreased its weight by 1/10th of an ounce, an MLB spokesman said.

The latest variation of the ball was tested in a lab, but not on the field. And without a minor league season in 2020 because of COVID to use as the usual proving ground, it was simply put into Major League play this year.

What could go wrong?

The hit-by-pitch ratio through the first 2,020 games is 0.43, the highest for a full season trajectory in the past 100 years, MLB said in a press release, blaming that solely on pitchers applying foreign substances on the new ball. That number has been climbing steadily for years, from 0.31 in 2012 to 0.41 in 2019, the last 162-game season. During 2020’s 1,796 games, played during the pandemic-shortened, 60-game season, the rate was 0.46.

According to Wills’ theory, the new ball has been a big part of the problem.

“It would explain some of the outrageous control problems we’re seeing,” Wills said. “Pitchers are being forced to relearn how much the ball will break. Sounds like the most outrageous and pointless HBPs—especially high ones—might be because of these balls.”

MLB has been pondering the impact of the ball on increased home run production for several years, releasing a study in 2019 that concluded the ball was not juiced, as many pitchers, including Justin Verlander, suspected at the time.

A 27-page MLB-sponsored report concluded the varying height of the stiches weaved by hand on each ball, and the uneven application of river mud applied to the surface to lessen slickness, had an impact on home runs. The slickness created a propellant effect on the flight of the baseball, allowing it to travel farther, a subject that’s still under study.

MLB told Rawlings, which produces the baseballs out of a facility in Costa Rica, to research and make changes.

It was determined that the tightness of the innermost of four weaves around the rubber core would be loosened, thus slightly changing the weight and distance the ball travels. The current spec weight for each ball is 5 ounces to 5.25 ounces, keeping it consistently toward the middle of that range.

Home runs jumped from 4,186 in 2014 to 6,776 in 2019. At the same time, strikeouts leapt from 37,441 in 2014 to 42,823 in 2019, with a commensurate increase in walks from 14,020 to 15,895 during the same five-season period.

While total home runs and walks are about the same right now in comparison to the abbreviated 2020 season, strikeouts are way up from 15,586 in those 1,796 games last year to 18,080 so far this year. Meanwhile, the composite batting average of the 30 teams is .238, the lowest since .237 in 1968. After that season, MLB responded to the lack of offense by lowering the height of the pitching mound.

“The lighter, smaller ball makes it easier for pitchers to crank velocity,” Wills said. “Meanwhile, the higher seams make grip easier and likely enable more break. The higher seams increase drag, since apparently they’re higher enough that it dominates the smaller ball.”

Rawlings has also been working on a substance that will make the ball less slick when it comes out of the box, eliminating the need for applying river mud so unevenly, but that hasn’t been perfected. Thus, the door opened for pitchers to openly use their own substances to compensate, and MLB found the proof.

After listening to complaints from “position players, pitchers, umpires, coaches and executives” and collecting thousands of baseballs, MLB found that many had “dark, amber-colored markings that are sticky to the touch.”

“I have determined that new enforcement of foreign substances is needed to level the playing field,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said. “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.”

Thus, MLB invoked the clause in Rule 3.01 to suspend a pitcher with the option of delving out heavier punishment to repeat offenders.

Because the rule was already on the books, MLB didn’t have to negotiate with the players’ union, which is taking a “wait and see” approach to how the alteration will affect the game. Already, star starting pitchers like Gerrit Cole of the Yankees and Tyler Glasnow of the Tampa Bay Rays are asking MLB to revisit the rule change.

“Please just talk to us, please just work with us,” Cole said after he had trouble gripping the ball during his latest start in Buffalo Wednesday night. “I know you have to hammer here. We’ve been living in a gray area for so long. I would just hate to see players get hurt. I would hate to see balls start flying at players’ heads. I had a really tough time, especially early when it was windy.”

Glasnow said he suffered a partial tear of the UCL in his right elbow since his reliance on sticky substances recently came to an end and is out indefinitely.

“I have to change everything,” he said. “I truly believe that’s why I got hurt. I’m frustrated MLB doesn’t understand. You can’t just tell us to use nothing. It’s crazy.”

But that’s exactly what MLB is doing. Rosin and a pitcher’s own sweat are the only substances allowed. And just like changes in the composition of the baseball, this harsher position about the use of foreign substances will certainly have unknown ramifications. Even management personnel in the front office or on the field are culpable and can be suspended if MLB learns anyone has knowledge of a pitcher on their club illegally loading up the baseball.

“MLB is trying to come up with a balanced game between offense and pitching,” Cashman said. “Everybody’s going to be dealing with it. So whatever the new norm is going to be, everybody’s dealing with the new norm. You have to play it out. See what it looks like. Pitching should go backwards and offense should go up if all this stuff is accurate.”

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