Recently, there has been plenty of talk of pitchers and their use of sticky substances that add grip on the ball and allow them to increase their control and spin rate. This, however, is nothing new to baseball. Since the game’s inception, pitchers have been looking for any and every opportunity to overpower the hitters. But the reason this is receiving more traction only as of late is because of the historically poor offensive numbers that all hitters in Major League Baseball (MLB) are having this year.
A common practice
When MLB was founded back in the early 20th century, there was no rule against doctoring a baseball. On the contrary, it was a part of the game. Pitchers regularly unloaded licorice on the ball and loaded them up with mud and grease. Not only were these practices allowed, but they were also celebrated: Hall of Famers Gaylord Perry and Jack Chesbro were notorious spitballers who won hundreds of games thanks to that specific kind of pitch.
The question, then, is this: if pitchers have been doctoring the ball since the game was created, what makes today’s strategy any different? The answer, as with many things today, has to do with technology. Whereas before, pitchers relied on “feel alone” when applying substances to the ball, now they can use pitch-tracking technology to measure factors like spin rate down to a single rotation per minute.
Reports have been published detailing how clubs have hired actual chemists to generate the most optimal concoction of “sticky stuff” for their pitchers. On top of that, MLB decided before this season to simultaneously deaden the ball while raising the seams to make home runs harder to hit and encourage hitting for contact. What is happening instead is a decrease in offensive production never seen in the history of the game with the current league-wide batting average of 0.241 being the lowest since 1968.
An untimely decision
Now, facing mounting pressure from fans and players alike, MLB is finally starting to crack down on the sticky stuff epidemic. Over the past few weeks, four Minor League pitchers have been suspended after being caught using foreign substances. On June 5, it was reported that MLB would soon be instructing umpires to check starting pitchers at least two times a start, with those found to be using illegal substances subject to a 10-day suspension.
I agree with MLB’s idea of policing baseballs to ensure that the pitchers are not applying any form of adhesive that would allow for an unfair advantage. But I do not agree with their timing in enforcing this matter. If this were something they wanted to crack down on, they could have started implementing these protocols before the season began or even solely in the Minor League level just to see how effective it is. Instead, they applied it with nearly half of the season already completed.
If this was something that had been an issue for decades now—and it has—then they should have created a plan long before the season started instead of waiting for a significant problem to occur then suddenly attempt to step in and regain control.
So, what comes next? I see it going one of two ways. Either pitchers respond by quietly decreasing their use of foreign substances, or we see pitchers continue to use it despite the league’s wishes, risking suspensions and their legacies in the process. If it is the latter, there exists a possibility that we could start seeing some of the biggest names in the sport suspended for pitch doctoring in what might be the biggest league-wide scandal since the “steroids era”.