The sticky stuff rundown: What you need to know about MLB’s latest controversy

·7 min read

In the span of a few weeks, pitchers’ practice of using tacky substances to better spin the ball has become the hottest topic in the baseball world — engulfing the narrative of the season, placing extreme scrutiny on some star players and forcing another reckoning over MLB’s control of the game.

But it’s a very complex conversation. So here’s what you need to know to get a … grip … on the sticky stuff controversy.

Why is everyone in baseball suddenly talking about sticky stuff?

MLB emerged from owners meetings in early June resolved to ramp up enforcement of a mostly ignored rule that bars pitchers from applying foreign substances to the baseball. After years of inattentiveness to the issue, umpires will be instructed to conduct frequent inspections looking for sticky stuff on pitchers’ gloves, hats or uniforms beginning June 21, per a report from ESPN's Jeff Passan. A violation will result in a 10-day suspension with pay.

This follows an early season practice where MLB took a sampling of balls to study what sticky substances were being used and how prevalent they are. The decision to crack down on applying the grip-aiding goos reportedly came after presenting their findings.

It immediately set off a firestorm of conversation about the practice, and Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole was thrust into the spotlight when gave a jarringly awkward non-answer about whether he has used Spider Tack — one of the more extreme substances in use around the game.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MAY 21: Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer (27) looks on during a MLB game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants on May 21, 2021 at Oracle Park in San Francisco, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Trever Bauer, now of the Dodgers, has advocated for enforcement of the foreign substance rule and very publicly sought to prove the advantage sticky stuff can provide. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

So is this new?

No. Pitchers have long used a variety of technically illicit methods to change the way the baseball spins out of their hand, and thus how it moves on its way to the plate. To the extent the rule has been enforced at all in recent decades, it has relied upon opposing managers to notice an illegal substance and ask the umpire to check the pitcher. It usually required an especially egregious case, like the Michael Pineda pine tar incident in 2014, to stir a manager to action.

[Related: How crackdown could create tough choices for minor league pitchers]

When Statcast was rolled out in the 2015 season, the sport began to quantify the benefits of spin rate, or how fast the ball spins. Reigning NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer called attention to the benefits of using sticky stuff earlier in his career and has provided evidence of its impact by publicly hinting at when he did and did not use it.

The use of sticky substances has since become more of a scientific pursuit, and more of an understood edge that no player, team or manager wants to concede. Managers calling out other teams, then, is unlikely since they are undoubtedly aware at least some of their players are likely using as well.

Is everyone using sticky stuff cheating?

Well, technically. But it is more helpful to resist the urge to pin this on players or label people as “cheaters” and instead think about the issue as a systemic one

In the Astros sign-stealing scandal, one team was going to extreme lengths far beyond the efforts other teams made in the same pursuit. In the realm of sticky stuff, it’s more of an open, evenly dispersed secret. If there is an aggrieved party to be found, it might be hitters, but they have mostly called for a level playing field instead of stoking scandals around individual players.

The fact is that every pitcher and every team — from the low minors to the highest-paid stars — is aware of these substances and has made choices on whether or how to use them largely without fear of punishment or consequences. Up until now.

Why crack down now then?

The league views this as one of several mounting problems tilting the game toward pitchers’ advantage and suppressing offense. Strikeouts continue to climb and the league’s 2021 batting average is dueling with 1968 for an all-time low.

Enforcing this rule would theoretically put a check on the escalating imbalance between pitcher and hitter.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - MAY 26: Manager Mike Shildt #8 of the St. Louis Cardinals argues with umpire Joe West #22 after being ejected from the game in the 7th inning against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on May 26, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. The Cardinals defeated the White Sox 4-0. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt was ejected in May after umpire Joe West confiscated the cap of pitcher Giovanny Gallegos, but allowed him to remain in the game. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Is it really a driver of the sport’s offensive downturn?

Increasing spin certainly makes pitchers more effective, in general. Spin increases alongside velocity, but isolating for that, research suggests it is difficult or impossible to significantly improve on a pitcher’s natural spin rates without artificial aid. If a 95 mph fastball that usually spins at 2700 rpms is suddenly going to spin at 2400 rpms, what data we have indicates that would be a boon for hitters.

But given the secrecy around these substances and their apparent prevalence, it’s hard to figure out exactly how much of pitchers’ success is attributable to the benefits of extra grip.

It feels safe to say they will not suddenly transform the offensive environment, though. Never-ending velocity gains and optimized pitching strategy won’t be undercut by a removal of sticky stuff, and even a harsh crackdown is unlikely to totally stop the pursuit of extra grip. One report indicated players could use more mundane items — like bubble gum or hard candy — to find a version of this same advantage

In the big picture, the ball itself has been a bigger factor in shaping the game in recent seasons, and MLB said before the season it was deadening it to combat the home run surge that has dominated the landscape — and propped up scoring even as pitchers whiffed more and more hitters — over the past five years.

What will the crackdown look like?

It remains to be seen, but Passan reports MLB will be setting an almost unbelievably hard line, instructing umpires to check players for any sticky substance “from the widely used sunscreen-and-rosin combination to Spider Tack.” With enforcement set to begin June 21, teams have reportedly told players to throw bullpen sessions with no grip assistance.

The hard line has raised questions — from players and fans alike — about how the league plans to realistically ban pitchers from touching sunscreen in a summer sport played mostly outdoors. 

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But this is a symptom of the scramble to enforce this rule midseason. After months of using in-depth testing and data to identify the shape of the problem, MLB’s plan now hinges on umpires identifying sticky substances by sight and feel — and is apparently forging ahead despite having to bake in the understanding that umpires almost certainly won’t be able to reliably distinguish between a sunscreen-and-rosin mixture and a designer grip aid. 

How strident they are about rooting out sticky stuff will have huge implications for the game in the coming weeks. Any number of scenarios could raise existential questions for a league rushing to smash the nearest button it thinks will help offense. 

Among the potential issues: How many pitchers is MLB willing to have suspended at one time? Do we even know what pitching at 95 to 100 mph looks like without the use of tacky substances? Will batters be in danger?

The umpire inspections the crackdown relies upon will apparently occur between innings, when telecasts are usually in commercial.

Are there betting implications?

The next frontier of this story is the rush to discern which pitchers will and will not be affected. That could influence betting lines and the eventual outcomes in the Cy Young races — where Jacob deGrom and the aforementioned Cole are favored at BetMGM — not to mention team performance and game totals.

Discerning changes in a pitcher's deployment of sticky stuff is tricky and can't be done by simply eyeballing spin rates. But if enforcement really does change behavior, it could become apparent in the metrics over time. Some early looks at how the specter of the crackdown has influenced individual players indicates that deGrom, for instance, hasn't changed a thing.

But we won't fully be able to grasp the impact of any change until we get a significant sample of pitching after enforcement begins.

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