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MLB is banning foreign substances on baseballs and it’s going to be a mess

What could possibly go wrong?

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Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

From time immemorial in baseball, at times pitchers have always tried to get an advantage by putting some sort of “foreign substance” on baseball. “Spitballs” were the rule in the early 20th Century, until they were banned. Then it was done surreptitiously, notably by Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, who never denied doing it — he even called his autobiography “Me and the Spitter.”

In recent times, various sticky substances have been developed both inside and outside baseball and have recently been perceived to give pitchers an advantage. Last week, Stephen J. Nesbitt of The Athletic did this long exposé on “Spider Tack,” a substance originally created for pro wrestlers, that was allegedly increasing spin rates for pitchers and thus decreasing offense.

Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole was specifically asked whether he used Spider Tack, yes or no, and gave this cringe-inducing response:

Sara Sanchez wrote an article here last week noting that MLB was about to crack down on so-called “illegal” substances placed on baseballs.

And indeed, that’s exactly what MLB did Tuesday, sending out a long press release laying out what is and isn’t allowed and what the penalties will be for using, essentially, anything except the rosin bag that’s put on the mound for every game.

MLB’s release states:

Based on the information collected over the first two months of the season – including numerous complaints from position players, pitchers, umpires, coaches and executives – there is a prevalence of foreign substance use by pitchers in Major League Baseball and throughout the Minor Leagues. Many baseballs collected have had dark, amber-colored markings that are sticky to the touch.

MLB recently completed extensive testing, including testing by third-party researchers, to determine whether the use of foreign substances has a material impact on performance. That research concluded that foreign substances significantly increase the spin rate and movement of the baseball, providing pitchers who use these substances with an unfair competitive advantage over hitters and pitchers who do not use foreign substances, and results in less action on the field.

In addition, the foreign substance use appears to contribute to a style of pitching in which pitchers sacrifice location in favor of spin and velocity, particularly with respect to elevated fastballs. The evidence does not suggest a correlation between improved hitter safety and the use of foreign substances. In fact, the hit-by-pitch ratio has increased along with the prevalence of foreign substance use – through May 31st, the 2021 season has the highest rate of hit-by-pitches of any season in the past 100 years.

The release continues by citing two MLB rules that address this sort of thing:

Official Baseball Rule 3.01 states that “no player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sand-paper, emery-paper or other foreign substance.” Rule 6.02(c) (“Pitching Prohibitions”) expands on Rule 3.01 by providing, among other things, that a pitcher may not “apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball;” “deface the ball in any manner;” throw a shine ball, spit ball, mud ball, or emery ball; “have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance;” or “attach anything to his hand, any finger or either wrist (e.g., Band-Aid, tape, Super Glue, bracelet, etc.).”

Beginning next Monday, June 21, umpires have been instructed to strictly enforce these rules. Among the things umpires will be empowered to do, per MLB’s release:

  • Umpires have been instructed to perform checks periodically throughout the game of all starting and relief pitchers on both teams, regardless of whether they suspect a violation of the rules.
  • Starting pitchers will have more than one mandatory check per game, and each relief pitcher must be checked either at the conclusion of the inning in which he entered the game or when he is removed from the game, whichever occurs first.
  • In addition, umpires may perform a check at any time during the game when the umpire notices the baseball has an unusually sticky feel to it, or when the umpire observes a pitcher going to his glove, hat, belt, or any other part of his uniform or body to retrieve or apply what may be a foreign substance.
  • A player who possesses or applies foreign substances in violation of the Playing Rules will be immediately ejected from the game and suspended. The umpiring crew shall be the sole judge as to whether the rules have been violated. The use of foreign substances is not subject to challenge using the replay review system.
  • Although the foreign substance prohibitions do not apply exclusively to pitchers, the pitcher ultimately will be responsible for any ball that is delivered with a foreign substance on it. If a player other than the pitcher is found to have applied a foreign substance to the baseball (e.g., the catcher applies a foreign substance to the baseball before throwing it back to the pitcher), both the position player and pitcher will be ejected and automatically suspended.
  • Catchers will also be subject to routine inspections. Umpires will also inspect a position player if they observe conduct consistent with the use of a foreign substance by the pitcher. Position players will not be ejected for having a foreign substance on their glove or uniform unless the umpire determines that the player was applying the substance to the ball in order to aid the pitcher.
  • A player who refuses to cooperate with an inspection conducted by the umpire will be presumed to have violated the rules, resulting in an ejection from the game and a suspension.
  • Rosin bags on the mound may be used in accordance with the rules. All substances except for rosin are prohibited per the Playing Rules that clearly state players cannot “apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball” and may not “have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance.” Players may not intentionally combine rosin with other substances (e.g., sunscreen) to create additional tackiness or they risk ejection and suspension. Pitchers have been advised not to apply sunscreen during night games after the sun has gone down or when playing in stadiums with closed roofs.

The note about sunscreen is particularly important. Obviously players wear sunscreen because they’re out in the sun all day and want to avoid possible skin cancer. But, as was th case at Wrigley Field last weekend, some night games start early enough (6 p.m. local time for those night games) that players can be in the sun for part of it. Pitchers, in general, don’t like wearing long sleeves — they say those restrict movement. It’s why you see most pitchers wearing short sleeves even on the coldest games.

But, check out the photo of Nationals reliever Brad Hand at the top of this post. He’s bouncing the rosin bag off his forearm. Apparently even that’s not going to be allowed anymore. This happened to Rockies pitcher Austin Gomber on Monday:

This is all going to be one big mess. Hitters actually like the baseballs to have some tackiness on them because if pitchers can’t get good grips on the ball, they are likely to have less control and thus there’s a bigger chance the batter could be hit. On the other hand, as noted above, HBP are at historically high levels even with pitchers using all these “substances,” so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein and Alex Prewitt posted this article Monday reporting on the firing of Bubba Harkins, who had been the visiting clubhouse manager for the Angels for 31 years. Harkins had apparently been caught making some of these concoctions for MLB players, and was summarily dismissed. In the article, Harkins told Apstein and Prewitt about a number of players who had specifically asked him to create stuff for them, including Cole and Max Scherzer, neither of whom would comment for the article.

So MLB found a convenient scapegoat, and now all the pitchers are going to have to adjust — here are a couple of cogent comments on what’s likely to happen:

Grab the popcorn.

Beyond all this, there’s a one-line note at the end of MLB’s release:

Clubs may not replace on the roster a player who is suspended for any on-field violation.

This is common practice, as you likely know. But what this is going to encourage in this instance is for clubs to try to crack down on their players having any sort of foreign substances to use, because any suspension — and I don’t believe suspensions under these rules are appealable — would hurt the team by leaving them a player, or players, short.

“Creating a consistent enforcement system that applies equally to all Clubs and players requires a clear policy without exceptions,” Michael Hill, MLB’s Senior Vice President, On-Field Operations, said in a statement. “We have learned through our research that the more traditional substances can be used for competitive advantage just like the more modern substances, and it is not practical for umpires to differentiate on the field. The new guidance issued today will put everyone on a level playing field.”

To Hill’s statement, as always, we await developments.