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MLB, seeking to crack down on doctored balls, turns to spin rate analysis

Opening Day is approaching in Major League Baseball. (Ashley Landis/AP)

Major League Baseball sent a memo to teams this week alerting them of plans to crack down on pitchers’ use of foreign substances to manipulate pitch movement, according to a copy of the document obtained by The Washington Post.

The memo tells teams that MLB will implement additional monitoring and enforcement procedures to prevent players from applying foreign substances to baseballs, including the use of Statcast data to conduct spin rate analysis of pitchers “suspected of using foreign substances.”

It also outlines the creation of “Gameday Compliance Monitors,” who will keep tabs on the dugout, tunnel, batting cages and bullpens, looking for violations of the foreign substance rules.

As part of those duties, monitors will also collect balls suspected of being tainted and send them to the commissioner’s office for testing by a third-party lab. Players will be subject to discipline for violations identified by umpires during games and for violations discovered through these processes.

“Umpire enforcement on the field will continue in a manner consistent with recent past practice,” the memo states. “The foregoing enhanced monitoring measures, however, will provide the Commissioner’s Office with a separate evidentiary basis to support a finding that a player has violated the foreign substance rules.”

The memo also notes that team personnel “are prohibited from assisting players in the use of foreign substances and also will be subject to discipline by the Commissioner, including fines and suspensions.” In March of last year, after MLB sent a different memo alerting teams it would be taking a harder look at doctored baseballs, a longtime Los Angeles Angels employee was fired for supplying foreign substances to opposing pitchers, according to the Orange County Register.

Banning the shift might not fix baseball’s problems, but it’s worth an experiment

MLB prohibits pitchers from altering the baseball in any way, including with saliva, sweat or less organic substances. But in big league clubhouses, that rule may as well be written with a wink at the end. Finding ways around it has become a staple of pitchers’ arsenals for decades.

That pitchers find ways to use everything from rosin to pine tar, from sunscreen to sweat, is one of the worst-kept secrets in baseball, one that MLB has yet to find a way to limit, even as the incentive to do so is being backed by more data. As Statcast and other technologies have allowed the industry to quantify the value of increased spin rates, the temptation to increase that spin rate in any way possible — say, by applying pine tar to the ball — has grown, though previous generations of pitchers never needed math to tell them what small additions to the surface of the baseball could achieve.

And players didn’t have to worry too much about being disciplined for the practice, either. The theory in major league dugouts has long been that if a team calls out an opposing pitcher suspected of using a foreign substance, the opponent will probably levy the same accusation in return, a form of mutually assured destruction. If a manager wants to accuse another pitcher of using a foreign substance, he had to be certain none of his pitchers were relying on one, too.

But lately, accusations have started to fly more publicly, led by Trevor Bauer, now a starter for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2018, Bauer suggested the Houston Astros’ recent success in increasing pitchers’ spin rate was because of widespread use of foreign substances. Multiple Astros, including Lance McCullers Jr., took issue with the accusations and responded on Twitter. Two years later, Bauer told HBO’s Bryant Gumbel that he estimates about 70 percent of pitchers are using foreign substances to increase their spin rates.

Some hitters say they don’t take issue with the practice because — given the choice between a pitcher using a sticky substance to increase his control and a pitcher uncertain of where the ball is heading — they would rather step in against the pitcher who is less likely to send a fastball at their helmet.

“Pitchers have been using stuff for many, many years. At some point it’s a good thing because there are a lot of pitchers who go out there and sweat tremendously. You don’t want to see anyone get hurt,” said Washington Nationals Manager Dave Martinez, who indicated he hopes the sport can strike a balance between allowing pitchers to maintain grip without gaining too large an advantage over hitters.

“I’m more about keeping guys healthy,” he added. “When you get a guy throwing a 100-mph fastball and can’t hold on to the baseball, that kind of gets scary for a hitter and everybody.”

Technically, the rules allow pitchers to lick their fingers and dry them on their uniform before gripping the baseball to throw. But last year, amid a season staged during the coronavirus pandemic, MLB’s health and safety protocols permitted the use of a “wet rag” to provide necessary moisture. The wet rag is not mentioned in a copy of 2021 health and safety protocols obtained by The Post.

The impact of increased monitoring of baseballs and spin rates is hard to predict. For one thing, comparing pitchers’ spin rates with their career baselines may not yield much insight if that pitcher has always used foreign substances — no clear increase would be visible. Additionally, changes in spin rate could be attributable to a variety of factors, and many players now spend their offseasons working with coaches who train them to improve exactly that.

But the effort is just one part of a continued, multifaceted push by MLB to create more action in a game dominated by strikeouts and home runs. MLB recently announced it would be testing multiple rule changes in the minors, including one that would limit defensive shifting, as part of an effort to increase stolen bases and increase the batting average on balls put in play.

A true crackdown on the use of foreign substances could make things easier on hitters, many of whom believe widespread increases in pitcher velocity and movement have made their jobs particularly difficult.

But unwritten rules are often difficult to break, and longtime habits don’t go quietly. Among the most beloved tenets of baseball philosophy is the deep-rooted, decades-old belief that even written rules are made to be worked around, rather than obeyed without question. Clandestine creativity will almost certainly continue, and MLB will almost certainly continue trying to keep up.