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Pitchers who violate ‘sticky stuff’ rules will face 10-game suspensions, MLB says

(Ross D. Franklin/AP)

After two months of collecting data and two weeks of finger-pointing and speculation, Major League Baseball on Tuesday announced the specifics of its plan to ramp up enforcement of rules that prohibit the use of sticky substances by pitchers, including immediate ejections and 10-game suspensions with pay for those found to be in violation and frequent in-game checks by umpires.

In a news release explaining the new policy, MLB made clear that pitchers found with any foreign substance on their person — from the extremely sticky Spider Tack to the nearly ubiquitous combination of sunscreen and rosin — will be subject to that 10-game suspension, with enforcement going into effect Monday.

The long-standing regulations prohibiting a pitcher’s use of foreign substances, Rules 3.01 and 6.02(c), had largely been ignored until recently, when it became clear that many pitchers were no longer using those substances merely to improve their grip on the ball but rather to improve performance and gain further advantages over hitters.

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“After an extensive process of repeated warnings without effect, gathering information from current and former players and others across the sport, two months of comprehensive data collection, listening to our fans and thoughtful deliberation, I have determined that new enforcement of foreign substances is needed to level the playing field,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement.

“I understand there’s a history of foreign substances being used on the ball, but what we are seeing today is objectively far different, with much tackier substances being used more frequently than ever before. It has become clear that the use of foreign substance has generally morphed from trying to get a better grip on the ball into something else — an unfair competitive advantage that is creating a lack of action and an uneven playing field.”

That MLB’s policy seems to be one of zero tolerance has already created concern among current and former players who argue that some sticky substance, such as that rosin-sunscreen combination, is necessary to ensure pitchers don’t lose control of the projectiles they are hurling at high speed toward other humans. While the new rules permit use of the rosin bag on the mound, it does not allow for combining the rosin with any other substances. A person familiar with MLB’s thinking said it has found that a well-mixed combination of rosin and sunscreen can alter spin rates enough to make a difference, though many players have said they consider the mix less egregious than some others.

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The consensus among many current players and coaches who have shared their perspective in recent weeks is that the difference between pitchers using sunscreen, pine tar or rosin and the use of more carefully crafted compounds such as Spider Tack is vast: In most cases, the former combination allows for better control. In many cases, the latter allows pitchers to manipulate their spin rates so much that they can gain velocity and movement — in oversimplified terms, the difference between maximizing a pitcher’s ability and adding to it.

“Pitchers used sunscreen & rosin everyday (myself included) for control of the baseball. Other pitchers used foreign substances to enhance the spinrate. The old, ‘give an inch, take a mile.’ It went too far. This is why we can’t have nice things,” tweeted Jerry Blevins, a recently retired former reliever who compared using rosin and sunscreen with the sticky mat basketball players use before taking the court to ensure their shoes don’t slip.

“Hitters were cool with the added control because it’s better for them too, knowing you aren’t going to lose one up & in. But when it started being about spin, it gets a way more one-sided,” Blevins added in another tweet, echoing the sentiments of many players and managers who have watched hit-by-pitch rates climb this season.

MLB, in a news release explaining its new guidance, disputed the idea that use of foreign substances increases player safety, noting that as pitchers used foreign substances at high rates this year, hit-by-pitch rates still climbed. In its memo to teams, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, MLB went further, alleging that widespread use of foreign substances “appears to be contributing to an overall decline in control because it enables a style of pitching in which pitchers sacrifice control in favor of spin and velocity.”

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow on June 15 said MLB's midseason crack down on the use of sticky substances helped contribute to his injury. (Video: Tampa Bay Rays)

In efforts to further deter the practice, MLB said repeat offenders will face increasingly severe punishment. More importantly, perhaps, to eradicating the practice quickly: Teams may not replace a player suspended for using foreign substances on the roster — meaning a pitcher suspended for 10 games will not only be unavailable to his team, but his roster spot will be unavailable to his team, too.

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The conversation around sticky substances began to change in 2018, when pitcher Trevor Bauer, who has since become the face of the issue, suggested the Houston Astros’ 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 that he estimates about 70 percent of pitchers are using foreign substances to increase their spin rates.`

Since then, Bauer’s spin rates have jumped dramatically, and his performance has followed. He transformed from a solid major league starter into an elite one, winning the 2020 National League Cy Young Award and signing a deal that will pay him the highest single-season salary in baseball history.

In late March, Major League Baseball informed teams it would monitor the use of foreign substances more carefully by collecting game-used balls for examination and reviewing spin rates. After two months of information gathering, MLB determined that the use of foreign substances to increase spin rates was widespread enough to qualify as problematic — that the long-standing practice of using something to help grip the baseball had transformed into something that looked more like cheating.

Around June 3, reports surfaced that suggested MLB was ready to begin stepped-up enforcement in accordance with its findings, though the specifics of the policy were not made clear. But the notion of enhanced enforcement appears to have been some kind of deterrent. In the 12 days before June 3, major league hitters hit .233, walked 9.1 percent of the time, struck out 24.3 percent of the time and had a home run-to-flyball ratio of 12.7 percent. In the 12 days after, those same hitters hit .246, walked 8.4 percent of the time, struck out 23.3 percent of the time and had a home run-to-flyball ratio of 14.4 percent.

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The sudden increase in offensive performance is noteworthy in multiple ways. It does seem to suggest that the threat of punishment is limiting pitcher advantage over hitters — which, one could assume, meant those substances were giving pitchers that advantage in the first place.

Secondly, it suggests that limiting use of the sticky stuff may be a quick way to help correct a historic disparity between offense and pitching: This season, offensive production has plummeted to levels not seen since 1968, when pitchers so dominated the game that MLB decided to lower the pitcher’s mound before the 1969 season. MLB has been considering many ways to correct the imbalance, including experimenting with rule changes in the minor leagues — even experimenting with moving the mound back in the Atlantic League later this summer.

But as the conversation around use of sticky substances has bubbled up, so too has a hunt for perpetrators, one that has left Bauer, Max Scherzer, Adam Wainwright and most memorably Yankees ace Gerrit Cole answering questions about how sticky stuff affects their game.

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Cole didn’t deny using substances in a bumbling news conference that left him looking like something of a scapegoat for an issue that is far more widespread. Under scrutiny in his next start, Cole pitched well and showed few signs that anything was missing from his repertoire. Bauer, meanwhile, has struggled since scrutiny has intensified. The right-hander has never denied using substances, either.

Wainwright had no qualms about admitting he has tried various combinations of sticky stuff over the years, telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and others, “I’ve got nothing to hide.” Scherzer, who refrained from comment about his own usage because his name, like Cole’s and others, has popped up in a lawsuit involving a clubhouse attendant who was fired for supplying players with a combination of pine tar and other substances, emphasized the fact that the players’ union has had little input in the way the policy will be enforced — but was firm about the need to draw a line.

“I feel like that’s a notion across the game: Pitchers want to have that tack and hitters want pitchers to have that tack to prevent serious injury. That’s the delicate balance we’re having to play with,” Scherzer said Monday. “We understand it’s gone beyond just pine tar, that there’s been bad actors throughout the game. Teams have been bad actors in this in trying to find ways to create substances that are beyond just pine tar to try to actually influence spin rate.”

Scherzer, a member of the players’ union’s executive subcommittee, will be one of the more prominent figures in collective bargaining negotiations when the sides try to hash out a new deal to govern the game this offseason.

Those negotiations, long expected to be contentious, are likely to include conversations about the foreign substance issue — particularly because players believe that as MLB continues to show a willingness to manipulate the ball itself, it should be willing to approve some kind of universal substance to help maintain grip. White Sox closer Liam Hendriks has been among those advocating for an MLB-approved substance as a way to prevent experimentation, something a league official said Tuesday remains under consideration.

In the meantime, he and the rest of his colleagues will be subject to more frequent inspections of uniforms and equipment by umpires, who will be the de facto enforcers of MLB’s policies. While MLB says umpires will conduct those examinations as pitchers enter and exit the game, the stepped-up surveillance seems likely to slow the pace of play — a plan at odds with MLB’s years-long efforts to shorten games.

MLB’s new policy dictates that a starting pitcher be checked “more than once” during his start and that a reliever be checked at the end of the inning in which he entered the game or when he leaves the game, whichever comes first. Umpires will complete “thorough checks” that include hats, gloves and fingertips. Catchers will also be subject to checks. Any position player found to be applying foreign substances to the ball will be ejected along with the pitcher who might have used the ball.

“We have taken these steps to police the use of foreign substances by pitchers this season because such brazen violations of the rules directly impact the fairness of the competition, the safety of our players, and the quality of the product on the field,” MLB wrote in its memo, which promised close monitoring of the effect of enforcement and floated the idea of modifications to the policy.