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What Will Happen After MLB’s Sticky Stuff Crackdown?

Major League Baseball has finally decided to take a stand against pitchers using foreign substances on the mound. But what will the new rules mean for players and teams? And how could this affect the state of the game?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After nearly three years of subtweeting and finger-pointing, and a solid year’s worth of hand-wringing, MLB is finally cracking down on pitchers using foreign substances. The league’s directive for a revamped enforcement plan, released Tuesday and set to begin June 21, actually looks pretty good. That is, as good as it can look considering pitchers have been escalating their use of sticky substances to improve spin and grip for years now, and the league’s done nothing to stop it or change the incentives that fuel it. I’ve never seen I Think You Should Leave, but even I’m imagining Rob Manfred in a hot dog costume.

Instead, the league has skated by in a delicate state of détente, tacitly allowing limited grip enhancement with the understanding that if Michael Pineda showed up to pitch with a 5-inch pine tar booger on his neck, he’d get dinged. But in recent years, baseball has come to reflect a society that’s embraced Yunick’s Law: “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” Just as a bombshell report on billionaires’ tax avoidance was received with mostly cynical hand-waving, baseball teams have bent and broken the rules with reckless abandon, as frequently lauded for their ingenuity as they were denounced for their perfidy.

That culture, or perhaps more accurately that cultural breakdown, continues no matter what’s on the baseball itself. Even so, there’s a lot to like in the new guidelines. Foreign substance enforcement will now be routine and at the discretion of the umpires, eliminating a major obstacle to spot-checking: the knowledge that no manager will blow the whistle on an opponent knowing his own pitchers are also halfway to Eddie Harris themselves. The league also closed loopholes that might allow a catcher or infielder to doctor the ball and hand it to the pitcher, while leaving room for umpires to use their best judgment rather than tying them to hard-and-fast standards that don’t account for the complexities of enforcing the rules in a real-world environment.

The best part of this new system, though, might be the punishment mechanism. Pitchers found to be doctoring the ball will be ejected from the game and receive a 10-day suspension, with pay, and their teams won’t be allowed to replace them on the active roster. The paid suspension is hard enough to provide a disincentive, while not so hard that it runs into the kind of hysterical moral panic that continues to pervade PED discourse. It treats doctoring the baseball like a competitive issue, to be dealt with in a stern but businesslike fashion. Meanwhile, forcing teams to play a man down provides an incentive for managers and teammates to police the would-be Burleigh Grimeses of the league internally.

That leaves pitchers armed with nothing but their wits and the traditional rosin bag. Anything else—pine tar, stickum, Firm Grip, Spider Tack, barbecue sauce, duct tape, Band-Aids, Velcro, high fructose corn syrup—is now verboten under the new guidelines. Even the home-brewed sunscreen-and-rosin mixture, long a key weapon in the discerning pitcher’s arsenal, is no longer permitted. MLB can’t very well outlaw sunscreen altogether—a point raised a week ago by fair-complected Oakland reliever Jake Diekman—after the landmark Supreme Court ruling Ex Parte Luhrmann (1999). But players have been advised not to wear sunscreen during night games or games played indoors. MLB is going after tacky things so hard I’m shocked they’re still letting teams play “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch.

What we don’t know, however, is what effect these sweeping changes will have on spin, velocity, command, and overall offense, which is at its lowest point in decades. In a perfect world, this subtle change would solve most of baseball’s current problems. Pitchers, denuded of their magical gloop, would stop throwing curveballs with RPM readings that would redline a Toyota Camry and make a few more mistakes that would turn into doubles and home runs. Perhaps they’ll dial back their effort a couple of percentage points—suddenly unsure of whether they’ll be able to hit their spots—and that will serve as the kind of de facto restrictor plate that Craig Goldstein and Patrick Dubuque of Baseball Prospectus recently proposed to enliven offenses.

Unfortunately, baseball’s luck hasn’t been that good in about 100 years. More likely, pitchers will continue to operate as usual, and offenses will continue to suffer. Pitchers aren’t dominating solely because they’re rubbing the inside of a watermelon rind before every inning; foreign substances are just one component of a deliberate leaguewide developmental program. Technological advances and engorged modern bullpens allow teams to teach any Tom, Dick, and Harry they pull off a Big 12 mound how to throw 98 miles an hour and unleash a devastating slider with iffy command for 60 innings a year. And when such effort results in torn elbows and shoulders, that pitcher can be discarded and another plucked off the vine. In the land where every pitcher is José Alvarado, the GM with the most José Alvarados is king. Cleaning pitchers’ fingers won’t solve all those structural issues.

On the other hand, these new policies might have no noticeable effect. It’s not in any GM’s interest to risk having his players suspended, and it’s in the league’s interest to single out a few bad apples and forget what happens to the rest of the barrel in the second half of that aphorism. To wash its hands, so to speak, of the whole scandal. A few umpires’ insatiable desire for screen time would suggest that these foreign substance checks will be executed and a few ejections issued, but the problem was never the rules. It’s that the rules weren’t being enforced.

It’s probably the right decision to give umpires discretion on when to perform spot checks on starters, or to determine whether a player intentionally mixed sunscreen and rosin. Or at least it’s the best of bad options. But there will be controversies, as it’s apparently difficult to tell rosin from Spider Tack from the remnants of a pregame glazed doughnut on the player’s skin. And a sudden increase in enforcement could hardly have come at a less convenient time than the middle of a season.

One of the most widely circulated commentaries on the ball-doctoring ban comes courtesy of Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow, who is currently on the injured list with a partially torn UCL and strained flexor tendon. Glasnow says he’d been using the rosin-and-sunscreen combo to get a better grip on the ball, but stopped after the June 3 owners’ meeting that heralded a forthcoming crackdown. It was only in his last start that a lack of purchase on the baseball forced him to alter his grip and, according to Glasnow, resulted in his elbow injury.

“I just threw 80 something innings and you just told me I can’t use anything. I have to change everything,” a frustrated Glasnow said afterward. “I truly believe 100 percent that’s why I got hurt.” Glasnow went on to say that in a meeting with MLBPA leadership, nobody—not even position players—considered the foreign substance problem to be a major issue. Everyone, Glasnow said, was OK with pitchers using sunscreen and rosin to get a better grip on the ball.

Unlike certain other pitchers who have used this controversy as a way to get attention, Glasnow tends to be a pretty level-headed guy. He has to psych himself up to get into a competitive mindset for a game, and is not given to rash, inflammatory rhetoric. There’s no way of knowing whether his injury has more to do with the thousands of pitches he’s thrown with a grip aid or the hundred-plus he threw without it, but what he’s saying makes intuitive sense. Pitching is so beyond the design parameters of human connective tissue that anything that upsets established routines and equilibrium could have catastrophic secondary effects.

It almost doesn’t matter whether Glasnow was actually having trouble handling the ball or not. If he believed he couldn’t get a good grip, he would’ve tried to compensate by altering some physical action, which could lead to injury.

Ditto the hit-by-pitch concern. The reason position players seem to support some kind of grip aid is their quite reasonable fear that the ball could slip out of the pitcher’s hand and, instead of hitting the strike zone, hit the batter. Whether this fear is borne out in the data doesn’t make it more or less real.

Even with all those legitimate reasons to listen to Glasnow’s comments, though, it’s appropriate to view them with at least a small measure of skepticism. First, while there’s intuitive sense in the idea that small changes to the ball can lead to injury, what doesn’t track is the idea that pitchers—professional ball-throwing dudes—will start accidentally braining hitters twice a night unless they can load up their paws with Skippy’s extra chunky. It’s also likely that the injury risk to pitchers, while non-zero and perhaps even nontrivial, is overstated.

The argument that ball doctoring is the only thing standing between MLB and a pile of torn elbow ligaments and shattered orbital bones—the Thin Goo Line, if you will—is an inherently self-serving argument for pitchers. And in rhetorical form, it mirrors the kind of argument people make when they know they’re getting away with something unethical: overstate the impact of leveling the playing field. If we make it easier to vote, there will be systemic voter fraud. If we institute a modest income tax, businesses will flee and the economy will collapse.

I doubt Glasnow, or any pitcher, is purposely being so cynical. And the players do have legitimate gripes about the timing and implementation of these new directives, as well as the fact that the very equipment they’re using puts them at a disadvantage: While the top pro leagues in Asia have introduced a ball made of grippier material, MLB’s baseballs are manufactured with glossy leather that must be rubbed by hand with Delaware River mud before use. But let’s not act like pitchers are disinterested observers here either.

Besides, there’s only one way to find out whether they’re right.

Since the June 3 owners’ meeting, there’s been a perceptible downtick in spin rate correlated with pitch velocity which can’t be explained by any other hypothesis. The leaguewide walk rate—which was 8.9 percent before that date—has actually dropped to 8.3 percent since that meeting. While the HBP rate has risen, but only from 1.16 percent to 1.18 percent. Across an entire MLB season, some 18,500 plate appearances give or take, that’s an extra four hit batters a year. A week and a half’s worth of data littered with confounding variables is what it is, but so far there hasn’t been a rash of beanings due to slick-handed pitchers.

Not that you’d notice if there were. Baseball is the ultimate boiling frog sport, with trends played out almost imperceptibly over a huge sample. We might see the occasional 55-foot curveball or wayward heater, or watch Joe West eject a pitcher or two over a suspicious-looking patch of viscous fluid somewhere on his person. But it’ll take longer for the participants—pitchers, hitters, coaches, and umpires—to find a new equilibrium. MLB has put forth a reasonable plan of reform. Now all it has to do is, well, stick to it.