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MLB’s crackdown on foreign substances begins today

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What could possibly go wrong?

Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Last week, I posted this article with details on MLB’s statement that they would ban any foreign substances on baseball, enforcing MLB rules against such things. Here’s another article from a couple of weeks ago by BCB’s Sara Sanchez on this topic.

Today, Monday, June 21, is the day that MLB umpires are going to begin strictly enforcing the following rules:

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.).”

No one is happy about any of this. From this Ken Rosenthal article in The Athletic, check out the quotes from a player and an agent:

Seth Levinson, whose clients at the ACES agency include pitchers Jon Lester and Rich Hill and outfielders Charlie Blackmon and David Peralta, calls the league’s plans “outrageously unjust.” Umpires are not qualified to distinguish between sticky substances, Levinson said, and players who appeal discipline will not receive a fair hearing because the arbitrator will be a league executive.

Dodgers right-hander Trevor Bauer, in a recent YouTube video entitled “MLB Botched it Again,” raised similar concerns about the difficulty of the umpires’ mission. The league, however, intends to push forward, and differences already are apparent in a sport that is starved for more offense and action.

Of course, players are going to have an agenda, but Levinson and Bauer aren’t wrong. Further, to do this in the middle of a season with only a couple of weeks’ notice doesn’t seem fair to players, and several players have gone on record saying MLB never really discussed the issue with them.

Umpires, too, seem uncertain about this process. You might not care for Joe West, but he’s right in this statement:

Joe West, baseball’s senior umpire, has acknowledged the possibility of mistakes, saying, “Don’t think everything is going to be perfect. It doesn’t happen that way.” When league officials held a 90-minute call with umpires on Saturday, the principal topic was how umps will differentiate between legal and illegal substances, according to sources with knowledge of the discussion. One umpire, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “I think it will be very difficult for us to tell the difference.”

Pitchers who are suspended for this sort of thing cannot be replaced on a team’s active roster, which could put clubs at a serious disadvantage. Per this informative article from ESPN.com, perhaps this fear might get pitchers to change their ways, if they’ve been cheating:

It’s doubtful we’ll see players ejected and suspended immediately. There’s too much attention on the subject right now. But we might see some elite pitchers look a little different than they have previously. That could mean reduced spin rates and hard contact going up — or just more contact, in general. A further reduction in strikeouts would make league executives very happy.

Batting averages, slugging percentages and OPS have gone up in June from their April/May levels, and some have cited this as evidence that the crackdown has already had an effect before it began. This might or might not be true. Offense generally goes up beginning around now, when hitters catch up to pitchers and warmer weather favors batters. So whether this is an actual effect of the crackdown or just normal baseball is uncertain. From the ESPN article:

On June 5, our own Buster Olney reported that major league umpires would begin strictly enforcing the use of foreign substances within weeks. At that point, the leaguewide slash line was .237/.312/.396 and the strikeout rate was 24.2%. Over the next 14 days, the leaguewide slash line rose to .248/.320/.416, while the strikeout rate dropped to 23%. It’s important to note, though, that offense typically picks up when the weather gets warmer. But the average RPMs on four-seam fastballs was 2,316 from April 1 to June 5 and 2,260 from June 6 to 14. Usually you need RPM drops of 150 to 200 to really notice a difference in the way a baseball behaves. But that was by far the lowest two-week spin rate this year, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Will this affect the Cubs? In the broad picture, it will affect every team in some way. I don’t want to go down a rabbit hole of trying to figure out if any pitchers have used foreign substances and I would certainly not want to post any accusations without evidence, and I have none. I will say that Cubs starters such as Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies, who rely on movement and location and don’t have 95-plus velocity or very high spin rates, might benefit from this sort of thing. But honestly, I have no idea what sort of effects the crackdown is going to have.

And neither does anyone else. From Rosenthal’s article:

The players almost certainly prefer umpires rather than league officials to conduct the inspections; the umpires, like players, are part of a union that collectively bargains with the league. As with any appeal of an on-field matter, an umpire must present evidence to support his ruling. The league also can examine video of a pitcher’s actions from various angles. And while a learning curve for umpires is expected, the league ultimately is trusting their judgment, as it does in other on-field matters.

Short-term, some type of friction might be inevitable. Long-term, any tension likely will subside if the game lands in a better place. The league already is encouraged by trends that might stem in part from some pitchers transitioning away from foreign substances.

We will find out more about all this beginning with Monday’s MLB action. There are seven matchups on today’s schedule:

Braves at Mets (doubleheader), 4:10 p.m. CT
Astros at Orioles, 6:05 p.m. CT
Cleveland at Cubs, 7:05 p.m. CT
Athletics at Rangers, 7:05 p.m. CT
Reds at Twins, 7:10 p.m. CT
Brewers at Diamondbacks, 8:40 p.m. CT
Dodgers at Padres, 9:10 p.m. CT

As always, we await developments.