It is harder than ever to hit a baseball thrown by a MLB pitcher. The league wide batting average sits at .236 — one point lower than in 1968, the so-called “Year of the Pitcher.” While hitting strategies that focus on the three true outcomes may bear some of the blame for falling batting averages, innovations by pitchers have surely contributed as well. Pitchers are throwing harder, tunneling their pitches better and game planning more deliberately than at any time in the history of the game thanks to data and training innovations. Oh, and they may be cheating a bit, too.
At the start of the 2021 season MLB sent a memo to all 30 clubs indicating they would be checking game baseballs for substances, as well as evaluating Statcast data for individual pitchers in an attempt to identify the extent to which foreign substances are being used by pitchers. While we do not have the results of those studies, Ken Rosenthal tweeted this on June 3:
MLB informed owners this week of severity of issue with pitchers applying foreign substances to baseballs, sources tell @TheAthletic. Enforcement is coming, but league will follow a process, involving communicating with players’ and umpires’ unions as well as all 30 clubs.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) June 3, 2021
Notably, that tweet was sent mere hours before a groundbreaking story by Stephanie Apstein and Alex Prewitt on the rampant use of substances on the baseball appeared in Sports Illustrated, and just weeks after a similar article by Rosenthal and Brittany Ghiroli ran in The Athletic.
I highly recommend you read both pieces in their entirety. I’ve rarely seen such damning quotes from people in and around the game. I was even more stunned by the quotes from players who were willing to be quoted on the record, like this from Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon in Sports Illustrated:
“There’s some [pitchers] where, if you swing where your eyes tell you, you won’t hit the ball, even if you’re on time,” Blackmon says. “I have to go out there and if my eyes tell me it’s in one place, I have to swing to a different place. Which is hard to do. It’s hard to swing and try and miss the ball. But there’s some guys where you have to do it, because their ball and the spin rate or whatever is defying every pitch that you’ve seen come in over the course of your career. … I basically have to not trust my eyes that the pitch is going to finish where I think it’s going to finish and swing in a different place, because the ball is doing something it has no business doing.”
Or this (noted as facetious in the article) comment by Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto:
“Everyone has swing-and-miss stuff from top to bottom, and it’s not because everyone got so much better in the last three years,” Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto told reporters on Wednesday. “To be honest, that stuff helps a lot.
“Let the hitters take steroids and (pitchers) can do that (to keep pace).”
The three-year timeline in Realmuto’s quote stood out to me, because that’s almost exactly when now Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer began to publicly call out some Houston Astros pitchers on Twitter. Bauer later contended in an article in The Players Tribune that after years of experimenting he’d only found one way to increase spin rate:
I’ve been chasing spin rate since 2012. For eight years I’ve been trying to figure out how to increase the spin on my fastball because I’d identified it way back then as such a massive advantage. I knew that if I could learn to increase it through training and technique, it would be huge. But eight years later, I haven’t found any other way except using foreign substances.
Baseball will never address that problem unless it has to, though, because I would guess 70% of the pitchers in the league use some sort of technically illegal substance on the ball. It’s just that some organizations really know how to weaponize that and some don’t. So the Astros are super advanced analytically and they know how to weaponize it.
A few months after that article was published, Bauer’s own spin rates would soar on the way to a Cy Young Award. So when MLB finally got around to investigating spin rates and foreign substances for the 2021 season, a lot of people were skeptical that anything would come of that investigation. Until this week the league had been fairly quiet about what, if anything, their investigation had uncovered. We heard a lot about “sticky” baseballs with “visible markings” that were taken from Bauer’s April 7 start against Oakland, and Joe West seems to be out there doing his best to enforce MLB Rule 6.02(c). West asked Cardinals pitcher Giovanny Gallegos to change his cap prior to throwing a pitch (which angered manager Mike Shildt so much he was ejected from the game).
Lest you think the Cardinals are alone, I saw West have a quick conversation with Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel as he made his way to the bullpen in the middle of the Cubs May 28 game against the Reds:
Joe West giving Craig Kimbrel a preemptive "talking to" on his way to the bullpen is a thing. pic.twitter.com/ItGKmdtDgm— Sara Sanchez (@BCB_Sara) May 28, 2021
While it may be coincidental, it is worth noting that the white smudge on Kimbrel’s hat has not been visible since that outing.
In the absence of league action, West isn’t the only person forcing the issue. White Sox analyst Steve Stone recently drew attention to a “black spot” on Cleveland reliever James Karinchak’s glove:
In both Gallegos’ and Kimbrel’s cases neither pitcher had a massive change in their spin rate after their encounter with West. Kimbrel’s spin rate on his four-seam fastball has sat between 2260 RPM in 2020 and and 2325 in 2021. On May 28, with a new hat, it sat at 2240-2345. Since the spin rate on each pitch is slightly different, we’re talking about a possible range for each pitcher. Variations within a set range are fairly normal; gaining 200+ RPM suddenly is not. The Athletic’s Eno Sarris explains this far better than I just did in regards to Gallegos’ spin rates:
Gallegos’ four-seam spin rate was down 30 RPM in the game after he changed his hat, which is less than the impact we found from the better sticky substances, and might not be meaningful, but is still somewhat interesting. https://t.co/81FSAXRk3m— Eno Sarris (@enosarris) May 26, 2021
He threw 16, but spin rate is meaningful in small samples. That said, this could be normal or variation or consistent with sunscreen and rosin use as he and his manager claimed. There are other substances that are +200-300 RPM when you use them.— Eno Sarris (@enosarris) May 27, 2021
It’s worth noting that sunscreen and rosin is a mixture Sarris references a lot as sort of tacitly accepted to help pitchers get a grip on the baseball. Using something to enhance grip is fairly pervasive in the game, hence the 70 percent figures cited by different articles and tweets. In fact, after Bauer’s accusations in 2018 Sarris led his piece investigating those claims with this:
It’s an open secret inside the game: Pine tar, and other grip substances, can help a pitcher increase their spin rate. I’ve been asked not to write about it by more than a few pitchers, but at this point there are two pressing reasons to have this discussion.
But the difference in effect between sunscreen and rosin or other substances might as well be the Grand Canyon. Apstein and Prewitt sum this up best in the aforementioned Sports Illustrated piece:
But it has slowly, and then quickly, become clear that especially sticky baseballs are also especially hard to hit. For more than a decade, pitchers have coated their arms in Bull Frog spray-on sunscreen, then mixed that with rosin to produce adhesive. They have applied hair gel, then run their fingers through their manes. They have brewed concoctions of pine tar and Manny Mota grip stick (essentially, pine tar in solid form), which are legal for hitters trying to grasp the bat. A lawsuit brought late last year by a fired Angels clubhouse employee alleged that the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole, the Nationals’ Max Scherzer and the Astros’ Justin Verlander were among the users of one such substance. (The suit has been dismissed and is being appealed; SI reached out to each player through his agency but did not receive replies.)
More recently, pitchers have begun experimenting with drumstick resin and surfboard wax. They use Tyrus Sticky Grip, Firm Grip spray, Pelican Grip Dip stick and Spider Tack, a glue intended for use in World’s Strongest Man competitions and whose advertisements show someone using it to lift a cinder block with his palm. Some combine several of those to create their own, more sophisticated substances. They use Edgertronic high-speed cameras and TrackMan and Rapsodo pitch-tracking devices to see which one works best. Many of them spent their pandemic lockdown time perfecting their gunk.
Pitchers have gone from trying to get a better grip on a slick baseball to using analytics to inform the best possible substances for specific pitches and hitters are flailing as a result. To get an idea of what those other substances can do, take a look at this chart tweeted yesterday by Max Bay, a bioinformatician & neuroscientist who frequently applies his talents to baseball, making all of us smarter in the process:
This puts the savant screen grabs everyone has been posting today into context. Bauer's 4F spin (converted to Bauer Units RPM/MPH) took the largest drop (by an order of magnitude) since the...uh... happening. He sat somewhere between pre and post happening. pic.twitter.com/lwskZWm4rU— Max Bay (@choice_fielder) June 7, 2021
Apstein and Prewitt looked at the teams with the biggest year over year increase in spin rates. They were careful to note that personnel changes can have an impact here, but the takeaway is stunning nonetheless:
SI found that through June 2, the Dodgers had the highest increase in year-to-year four-seam spin rate, at 7.01%. The next highest was 4.21%, by the White Sox. That increase and that gap are enormous. The Red Sox came in third, at 4.01%; the Nationals fourth, at 3.07%; and the Yankees fifth, at 2.94%. The league-average increase has been 0.52% this year. (All clubs declined or did not respond to requests for comment.)
During ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcast Buster Olney noted that MLB will send a memo to all 30 clubs explaining that they will ask umpires to police violations of the foreign substances rule when they see them. Earlier this week Olney noted:
MLB's hope is that the gentlemen's agreement among managers re: foreign substances goes away once umps start checking pitchers. One manager who will not ask for P to be checked: Alex Cora, who has told his players he will recuse himself from that process given his '20 suspension.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) June 6, 2021
I suppose it’s possible that a newly empowered umpire corps will be able to adequately identify foreign substance violations, but it seems just as likely that we are at the beginning of a new scandal that could rock the sport and have far-reaching consequences. I was stunned at the number of players and executives who compared the impact of foreign substances being used on baseballs to what hitters did during the so-called Steroid Era.
It probably isn’t good enough for MLB to hope stepped-up umpire enforcement will persuade pitchers to be the first ones to voluntarily abandon the substances that may have gotten them to MLB in the first place. It seems more likely increased enforcement will just lead to pitchers finding more clever places than their gloves to hide their gunk.