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MLB’s sticky stuff crackdown is an ill-timed overcorrection

Getting rid of Spider Tack will make the game better but there are going to casualties.

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Baltimore Orioles v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

On Tuesday morning, MLB issued a memo outlining its strict policing of foreign substances on the baseball field. The memo can be found in full here. The TL;DR version is that beginning June 21, umpires have been instructed to routinely check all pitchers and pitchers caught with anything from sunscreen-and-rosin to Spider Tack will be suspended for 10 games. Teams also won’t be able to replace suspended players on the major league roster.

There’s quite a bit more to unpack, so let’s go through point-by-point to see if any of this is a good idea. First up, the punishment.

Any pitcher who possesses or applies foreign substances in violation of the Playing Rules will be ejected from the game and will be automatically suspended in accordance with the rules and past precedent. Suspensions under Rule 3.01 are 10 games... Clubs may not replace on the roster a player who is suspended for any on-field violation.

The last three players to be suspended for foreign substance use were Michael Pineda in 2014 and Will Smith and Brian Matsuz in 2015. Pineda received a 10-game suspension while Smith and Matsuz were out of action for eight games. Consistent suspensions are a point in MLB’s favor. MLB apparently rolls dice to see how long to ban headhunting pitchers which is rather frustrating, but no one can bemoan unequal treatment for doctoring the ball. Sure, using Spider Tack is more egregious than sunscreen-and-rosin, but the punishment is clear. Whether it’s a just punishment is debatable.

A 10-game suspension is enough for a starter to miss at least one start, and depending on how many off days the team has, could force bullpen games or cause a starter to pitch on short rest. Because the roster spot can’t be replaced, the punishment is less on the offending player and more on the remainder of the pitching staff. Covering innings for a suspended pitcher means pitchers will be overworked which could lead to a decrease in performance (a consideration for arbitration eligible players, impending to free agents, and players trying to stick in bigs) or worse, injuries.

I suppose this is supposed to lead to greater accountability in the clubhouse in the same way that tables of elementary school kids will shush the kid sitting next to them so they can be excused for recess. When there is an infraction, however, a player’s career could be derailed because his teammate bounced a rosin bag off his arm.

[R]esearch concluded that foreign substances significantly increase the spin rate and movement of the baseball, providing pitchers who use these substances with an unfair competitive advantage over hitters and pitchers who do not use foreign substances, and results in less action on the field... 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.

Most players have been using something to help them get a better grip on the ball for most of baseball’s history, but MLB is arguing that things have gotten out of hand. Now that every pitcher has access to Rapsodo or an Edgertronic camera, they’re able to weaponize foreign substances in a way they couldn’t before. Combine that with the increased intensity of substances like Spider Tack, and you’re left with an environment where a batter was more likely to strike out than get a hit.

Eno Sarris found that Spider Tack can add over 500 rpm of spin to a fastball over relatively benign concoctions like sunscreen-and-rosin. Adding that amount of hum to a four-seamer can take a pitcher from a solid number two to a Cy Young winner. People like Pete Alonso can say they don’t care about sticky stuff, but it’s undeniable that a substance that keep a cinder block stuck to one’s hand creates an unfair advantage.

MLB’s crackdown isn’t going to get us back to normal, though. By getting rid of everything including sunscreen-and-rosin, we’re going to witness baseball we haven’t seen before: an environment where very few, if any, pitchers are using something beyond rosin. What that’s going to look like is difficult to predict.

[F]oreign substance use appears to contribute to a style of pitching in which pitchers sacrifice location in favor of spin and velocity, particularly with respect to elevated fastballs.

Earlier in the season, Craig Goldstein and Patrick Dubuque of Baseball Prospectus argued that pitchers need to be disincentivized from throwing at maximum effort on every single pitch and decreasing the quality of grip seems like one way to do that. Without grip enhancers, pitchers might have to sacrifice velocity for location but there are some problems with that.

Pitchers who use foreign substances (i.e. most of them) have learned to pitch in a particular style and they might not be able or willing to change. They’ll look for other ways to correct and having to do that midseason is going to lead to problems.

In Monday night’s game, Tyler Glasnow was pulled after four innings after experiencing tightness in his throwing elbow. An MRI revealed that Glasnow has a partial UCL tear and a flexor strain.

After the game, Glasnow commented that inconsistencies in the slickness of the ball made him use a tighter grip. “I think having to grip a ball extremely hard when you throw hard and when your muscle is already extremely tense, and then you have to somehow try to not hit someone in the face, I don’t know. I think whenever I’m trying to hold the ball a lot tighter, it’s probably not going to add to like a comfortable elbow feeling.”

The next day, he followed that up with more comments explicitly saying that he believes that not being able to use sunscreen and rosin contributed to his injury.

Glasnow’s experience is anecdotal and his tightened grip may or may not have contributed to his elbow tightness, but he’s absolutely right that expecting pitchers to change their strategies in the middle of a season is irresponsible.

For what it’s worth, Glasnow’s average spin rate on his four-seamer in his start against the Nationals was 2357 rpm, 67 rpm lower than his season average but not the lowest in a game this year. Sunscreen-and-rosin didn’t appear to have a major impact on his spin.

Baseball Savant

The evidence does not suggest a correlation between improved hitter safety and the use of foreign substances. In fact, the hit-by-pitch ratio has increased along with the prevalence of foreign substance use – through May 31st, the 2021 season has the highest rate of hit-by-pitches of any season in the past 100 years.

This claim about the high rate of hit-by-pitches ignores some context. At Baseball Prospectus, Rob Arthur found that hitters are actually driving the increased hit-by-pitch rate. Young hitters in particular are positioning themselves closer to the plate, leading to an increase in HBPs on balls just outside the strike zone. Meanwhile, pitchers are throwing fewer far-inside pitches that typically result in plunkings. This appears to corroborate the claim that sticky stuff improves control rather than disprove it as MLB claims.

Rosin bags on the mound may be used in accordance with the rules. All substances except for rosin are prohibited per the Playing Rules that clearly state players cannot “apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball” and may not “have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance.” Players may not intentionally combine rosin with other substances (e.g., sunscreen) to create additional tackiness or they risk ejection and suspension. Pitchers have been advised not to apply sunscreen during night games after the sun has gone down or when playing in stadiums with closed roofs.

A common suggested solution to the problem is to have an MLB-approved substance on the mound that all pitchers can transparently use to get a better grip on the baseball. MLB has decided that rosin is going to be that substance.

This makes it easier for umpires to enforce in game. I imagine it would be challenging to differentiate between legal and illegal tacky substances. Then you would be asking umpires to become sticky stuff sommeliers. Spotting the difference between rosin and pine tar, however, is easy.

The complication arises with MLB’s ban of sunscreen-and-rosin since pitchers can’t be asked to not wear sunscreen in outdoor games during the day. How are umpires supposed to tell if a pitcher is absent-mindedly rubbing their arm or “nefariously” concocting sticky stuff on their body? Pitchers who object to inspections will be assumed to be violating the rules, so umpires can unilaterally decide to eject a pitcher for combining rosin with sunscreen when it may not be intentional or even happening.

Ultimately, I’m glad that MLB is finally putting its foot down on foreign substances. While I recognize that no rollout of rule enforcement was going to be seamless, I think there are some obvious missteps being made. Getting rid of Spider Tack will benefit the game, but banning sunscreen-and-rosin seems like an overcorrection. Moreover, making it so teams can’t replace suspended players on the roster is punishing the wrong people. I can’t predict what baseball will look like after June 21, but I can say right now that it’s going to be messy.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.