Why a new baseball may be the ultimate solution for MLB's sticky stuff problem

·6 min read

Update: This story has been updated with reporting that the baseball to be used in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics is not pre-tacked.

In a week-and-a-half of semi-regular on-field pitcher inspections, the vast majority have been unremarkable. MLB’s controversial mid-season crackdown on the use of foreign substances has, as far as we can tell, gone pretty well. Especially when you consider that pissing off the pitchers was not only unavoidable, it was sort of the point.

The sudden enforcement of a long dormant rule was less about the sanctity of the sport and more about the style. Hits had gotten scarce, strikeouts too easy to come by, and so it was time to make the environment a little less friendly to the guys on the mound. Is it any wonder they aren’t thrilled? The leaguewide stats show an uptick in offense since news of the coming crackdown was reported, but the direct effects are still murky — offense always increases in hotter weather, and even June’s slightly subdued strikeout rate is still historically high.

All that and there hasn't even been a rash of dangerously uncontrollable fastballs or blown out elbows. Yet. So yeah, that’s the caveat. The world is still turning and so are the baseballs, just with fewer RPMs.

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But it hasn’t been totally smooth sailing. And the specific outcries that have accompanied the occasional spectacle reflect the need for a more nuanced solution. For instance, maybe you remember the Max Scherzer vs. Joe Girardi game? The Nationals ace was particularly incensed Girardi had called for an additional check because, just moments before, a fastball had slipped out of his hand and nearly drilled Alec Bohm in the head.

“I had zero feel of the baseball tonight, whatsoever,” Scherzer said. “Hopefully, the players across the league understand that this, what we're doing right now, just is not the answer.”

The next day, he found unlikely allies in the Phillies brass.

“We’ve been talking about [a more consistent baseball] for years,” Dave Dombrowski, the Phillies president of baseball operations, said. “I've been in GM meetings, years ago, where they passed around the ball with more tack, kind of like what they use in Japan, and said they were trying to develop something like that. For whatever reason, we haven't been able to find it, but I hope that they do. It would solve a lot.”

“If they could come up with it,” Dombrowski said, “that would be an ideal solution.”

It’s one the league is actively working on.

Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Bruce Zimmermann tosses a rosin bag behind the mound during the second inning of a baseball game against the New York Mets, Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
A pitcher uses a rosin bag on the mound shortly after the sticky stuff crackdown was announced. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Could MLB copy pre-tacked ball from Japan's NPB?

Ever since news of the enforcement broke, it’s been accompanied by the possibility that the protocols around sticky stuff would change in the future. In season, the only option was to police the letter of law: banning all substances indiscriminately. Rays ace Tyler Glasnow blamed the cold turkey approach when he suffered an elbow injury after giving up sunscreen and rosin, and the larger injury implications of the move remain to be seen. But complaints about the inconsistent slickness of baseballs predate the public scrutiny of ball doctoring this year. As does the search for a universal substance to replace the widely recognized creep of illegal grip enhancers.

MLB tested a pre-tacked ball as far back as 2016 in the Arizona Fall League. In spring training 2019, Rawlings-made prototypes were given to pitchers to test in bullpen settings, where the feedback wasn’t encouraging. It’s possible that pitchers used to their own proprietary concoctions and extra sticky stuff weren’t interested in mitigating options at the time, but there’s precedent for popular solutions to concerns about grip.

Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and the Korea Baseball Organization both use pre-tacked balls. (The Olympics in Tokyo this summer will use Japanese-made baseballs, but ones that are not pre-tacked and instead will be rubbed up with mud sourced from America.) The pitchers who have experience with them generally approve. 

“I really liked the ball,” said Matt Moore, a Phillies pitcher who spent 2020 in Japan. “When they first come out of the package, they're in a tin foil package, and then they're inside of a plastic package around that. So when you first take it out, it pretty much feels like a new ball — like the leather is not sticky — but the more you play catch with it, the easier it is to get a grip on it.”

Unlike the demonstrable adhesion achieved by various products stateside, the NPB ball won’t stick to the bottom of your outstretched hand, and Moore said there was no performance-enhancing effect.

“It's just what all of us would consider a grip,” he said. “You can grip that baseball.”

And he’s convinced that if MLB cared to, they could commission something similar from Rawlings.

“Why not? I mean, the Nippon Baseball league is amazing,” Moore said. “They have a lot of stuff figured out. It’s not like they have to start from zero.”

New MLB ball prototypes in the works 

They’re not starting from zero. MLB has been in contact with NPB and the KBO as they continue to work to develop either a suitable universal substance that could be applied to the ball for grip, or a pre-tacked baseball. They expect to provide players with prototypes for testing as early as this year. But even then, the league will solicit player feedback and work with the union before implementing anything — think more of a spring training 2019 route than what they did before cracking down this summer.

Sources familiar with the process say the difficulty thus far has been two-fold. In developing a legal substance that could be applied to the ball (other than just rosin), how do you aid grip without increasing spin? And for a pre-tacked baseball, how do you change the feel without affecting other performance properties (like softness) in unintentional ways?

A tackier baseball or a universal substance won’t preclude motivated, unscrupulous pitchers from applying their own stickiness if they think they can get away with it. Which is to say that developing something sooner wouldn’t have necessarily prevented anyone from cheating in the longstanding lax environment. But if the league wants pitchers to buy into a paradigm shift that stands to benefit the opposition at their expense, it’s worth engaging with their loudest concerns. It’s too late for MLB to do so proactively, but maybe that kind of compromise is coming.

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