As MLB studies doctored baseballs, Martinez hopes for new type originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
Amid a season in which pitchers are throwing no-hitters at a record pace, batters are recording fewer hits than they ever have and teams are using advanced analytics to study the game in a way past generations never could’ve imagined, Major League Baseball is conducting a league-wide study to determine the prevalence of doctored baseballs and understand how it affects the game.
Pitchers have used adhesive substances to make the ball stickier for the better part of the last century, dating back to the spitball popularized by Hall of Famer Ed Walsh in the early 1900s. However, today’s game reportedly has seen a rise in the number of pitchers using these substances that’s coincided with a decline in offensive production.
Nationals manager Davey Martinez acknowledged MLB’s efforts to look into the issue during his pregame press conference Friday but said the ball itself isn’t sticky enough for pitchers to get a good grip on it as is. With the health of hitters in mind, Martinez hopes MLB develops a different kind of ball that doesn’t need any extra substances on it for pitchers to grip it when sweaty or wet.
“If they can do something to make the balls a little bit more tacky so that pitchers can have a better grip, I’m all for it,” Martinez said. “For me that’s what the bottom line is, it’s just about the health of a hitter getting up there. You put nothing on that ball and you get your hands all sweaty, those balls are gonna slip. There’s no doubt about it. They’re gonna slip and I just hope that nobody really gets hurt.
“I know MLB is doing their due diligence looking at all kinds of different things, how to make this better. So hopefully, they’ll come up with something real soon.”
Today’s baseballs, manufactured by Rawlings, are treated to enhance grip before each game using special mud collected from a secret spot along the Delaware River. The league did make some changes to the ball before this season, hoping to increase their drag and cut into the increasing number of home runs being hit.
Yet while home runs are still coming in bunches, so are the strikeouts. That trend has most commonly been attributed to the launch-angle revolution, which saw hitters focus more on hitting home runs and driving the ball rather than swinging for contact. But according to The Athletic, the number of fastballs thrown with an elite spin rate has almost doubled since 2015 from 18 to 35 percent. The higher the spin rate on a pitch, the more it moves. The more movement, the harder it is to hit.
That doesn’t necessarily mean every pitcher is using these substances, however. The analytics that pitchers have available to them today have allowed them to see what their spin rates look like and identify how to improve them. Teams have also placed a premium on pitchers that throw hard and increased velocity typically requires greater spin as well.
Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman spoke in April about what he saw as a disturbing trend of organizations promoting young pitchers who throw hard but can’t control it. Hitters were and still are being struck by pitches at an all-time pace — even with these sticky substances out there. For Martinez, if MLB wants to crack down on pitchers doctoring balls, then he wants to see the league come up with an approved way for pitchers to maintain their grip.
“If you look at a hitter, they use the pine tar because of the grip,” Martinez said. “They spray stuff on the bat to give a better grip. [If] you don’t put that on a bat — as you can see when your hands get sweaty and your gloves are wet — you’re not gonna hold onto that bat. That bat is gonna go flying. Same thing with a baseball.”