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Baseball’s disease is unchecked power, and sticky stuff is just another symptom

A Colorado Rockies pitcher shows his grip to a teammate during spring training. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Major League Baseball’s memo to pitchers Tuesday said this: Stop using sticky substances to better grip the baseball, because it’s leading to pitches that spin like jet engines, and not even Bugs Bunny could create pitches with such break and bite.

What it could have said: If you need goop on the ball to hurl it 98 mph or faster and be able to control it, try using a clean baseball and dialing back your delivery. What’s wrong with 93?

Baseball’s controversy du jour is ostensibly about whether pitchers who doctor the baseball are cheating, and if so, to what extent. The sweeping memo from Commissioner Rob Manfred was pointed in outlining how pitchers would be examined and determining the penalties for using whatever’s at hand — sunscreen, pine tar, Pelican Bat Wax preferred by hitters, any and all combinations therein — which include a 10-game suspension to start.

“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,” Manfred said.

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

There’s the, um, rub. This isn’t about player safety, though some pitchers and even hitters have argued a better grip on the ball means less of a chance a pitch will get away, potentially causing injury. This isn’t even about whether such widespread goop use should be considered cheating akin to the widespread use of PEDs; given that anabolic steroids are illegal and sunscreen isn’t, that’s an easy distinction to make.

No, at a time when baseball is struggling to rekindle and resemble the game so many of us love, all roads lead to power. The sport needs to stop kneeling at the altar of power — both pure velocity from pitchers and homer-seeking launch angle from hitters — to find itself again. According to FanGraphs, the average fastball in 2021 is up to 93.8 mph — fastest of the 15 seasons for which such data is available, a full 2.7 mph harder than in 2007. As one executive pointed out this week, “Greg Maddux, Jamie Moyer — they wouldn’t even be drafted right now.” That’s a problem.

Another general manager said, after watching his team flail against the spinning cutters of an elite starting pitcher earlier this season: “You might as well not take a bat up there. Just save the wood.” Such is the plight of the hitter: The pitches are coming faster, and with extra grip, they’re spinning more. That’s a problem, too.

“Look, this has gone on for decades of guys using substances for tack,” Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer told reporters Monday — before MLB’s announcement. “… 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 instead of trying to use a substance to keep the ball from slipping out of the pitcher’s hands.”

Scherzer was among a slew of prominent pitchers who, according to a detailed Sports Illustrated report, actively pursued a sticky substance produced by a former clubhouse attendant with the Los Angeles Angels. Because of pending litigation — the clubby, who was fired, is suing the Angels and MLB — Scherzer said he would address that aspect of his case in the future. Presumably, he considers himself not a bad actor, but rather someone seeking to protect hitters.

“Our hitters, the Nationals’ hitters, want pitchers to use substances for tack,” Scherzer said. “We don’t want to see balls flying at our heads.”

As baseball confronts ‘sticky stuff,’ Max Scherzer lobbies for players to have a say

Yet this isn’t anecdotal; it’s quantifiable. And that’s one of the most interesting aspects of MLB’s edict. MLB essentially debunked the idea that using sticky substances creates a safer game. Indeed, it says that through the end of May, batters were being hit by pitches at the highest rate in a century.

This is a lot to take in. But it’s also not some nefarious, widespread cheating scandal. Rather, the enforcement of a rule that had gone, for decades, unenforced is one of many corrections the game needs, and badly. Gaylord Perry spitballed his way into the Hall of Fame, and an entire sport essentially said, “Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.” It was part of the color of the game.

Now, similar actions are strangling it. Jerry Blevins, a retired lefty reliever, outlined the issue Monday on Twitter.

“If you can’t control the baseball throwing at max effort, you’re OVERTHROWING,” Blevins wrote. “Take it back a notch and throw it where you know where the baseball is going.”

Which is exactly right. Blevins also cites what he considers inconsistency in the slickness of baseballs as a factor that drove pitchers to pursue all manner of sticky substances. But there’s an undeniable corner cut: Being able to rear back and fire doesn’t have to be as refined an art if the grip is enhanced.

“That’s what often gets overlooked,” Blevins told me by phone Tuesday. “If you can’t control your pitches at max velocity, at max effort, you can’t throw at the highest level. That’s what the minor leagues are for. Learn your craft.”

For too long, the pursuit of power pitching has trumped all else as the most valued asset in the sport. Balance must be returned.

Look at how badly hitters are overmatched. It’s not just the 24 percent strikeout rate — an all-time high. Batting average is no longer viewed as a meaningful evaluation of an individual player or an entire team, because a walk is as good as a single — or even better, if it makes the pitcher labor more.

Rays ace Tyler Glasnow says he tried to adjust for ‘sticky stuff’ rules. Now he’s injured.

But batting average can be an indication as to whether the game contains action, because a single through the hole with a runner on second is more interesting than an eight-pitch walk. Right now, the game just doesn’t contain enough action. Entering Tuesday, major league hitters had a collective average of .238 — .238! — which is eight points lower than last year’s pandemic-shortened season and 15 points lower than 2019. Indeed, the last time major leaguers posted an average so feeble was their .237 in 1968 — after which MLB lowered the mound, so desperate was the need for more offense.

Is spin rate, aided by any sort of sticky goop, the lone culprit? Of course not. And we won’t know the impact of these changes, if any, until later in the season.

“I don’t necessarily think that taking away a sticky substance is suddenly going to make guys throwing 100 hittable,” Blevins said.

That’s true. But listen, too, to one club executive who has thought this through.

“If a pitcher has to have that stuff on the ball so that he can grip it and rip it at 100 percent, then maybe he needs to be pitching at 98 percent without it,” the executive said. “And maybe in that 2 percent, the negative offensive trends that we have — less contact, more strikeouts, less action — start to fade away.

“The game has become so one-dimensional, offensively and defensively. It revolves around power to the extent that we’re losing the skill, the art of the game.”

In the micro view, Tuesday’s action from MLB is about slop on the ball and an old practice run amok. In the macro, though, it’s about trying to regain baseball’s balance. The question isn’t so much whether spin rates come down and contact goes up. The question is: What’s the next step toward making the sport as action-packed as it once was?