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Baseball’s Plot: What to Know About MLB’s ‘Crisis’ With Pitchers and Foreign Substances

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Baseball’s Plot: What to Know About MLB’s ‘Crisis’ With Pitchers and Foreign Substances

Chances are, you’ve heard a lot about the baseball problem lately. Rumors of “repression” and mentions of “foreign substances” and “cheating” have been common on social media.

But what is it really about? We’ll see.

What about pitchers and foreign substances?

It has always been illegal for a pitcher to apply almost anything to a baseball in an effort to get more movement on the ball, but for the most part it has been a rule without many teeth, just an occasional suspension here or there when a pitcher he blatantly breaks the rules and an opposing coach asks the referee to check.

That will end soon (ish).

Baseball announced last offseason that it was taking a closer look at the issue and spent the first few months of the season collecting baseballs from pitchers across the sport, not just Trevor Bauer, in an attempt to understand just how widespread the game is. problem actually is. ESPN reported on June 5 that a plan to start the actual repression process is being “rapidly advanced”, possibly to be implemented as soon as “10 days to two weeks”, starting on June 15th.

MORE: Gerrit Cole Stumbles Over Answer To Sticky Substance Question

Exactly how it will work has not been revealed. However, former MVP Josh Donaldson has an idea.

“If you want to clean up the game, because for me, this is going to be the next baseball ordeal steroid, because it’s cheating and improving performance, the only way they pull it off and get it out of the game is if they check them out. every half entry “, Donaldson told Athletic. “If a new pitcher comes out, the umpire reviews him immediately. Once they start to do that, it will disappear and you will start to see the offense come back into play. “

Going through every half inning won’t help pacing issues in the short term, but if the goal is to get rid of the sticky stuff, maybe that’s a short-term price MLB is willing to pay.

“They want whatever we do, we do it consistently, so it doesn’t seem like we’re targeting a single pitcher, which I think is very important.” Senior referee Joe West told The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal this week. “Baseball wants everything to be correct.”

Why are sticky substances illegal for pitchers?

The principle of fair play says that all players are operating with the same team, with the same set of rules. So when it comes to pitchers, nothing more than a short list of approved items can be used or added to a baseball. All MLB baseballs are smeared with mud from a secret location on a tributary of the Delaware River, so they are not very slippery. Pitchers can use a bag of rosin, a sticky substance made from fir sap, for a little more grip. Bags are behind the mound at all times.

But here’s the thing: pitchers have always tried to cheat. Not all pitchers, of course, but it’s no exaggeration to say that in every MLB season, at least some pitchers have tried to circumvent the rules to add a little movement to baseball. In some cases, especially in the sport’s first century, the idea was to scratch the surface of the baseball or add something to the surface of the ball to add movement. A uniform seam / leather baseball will move in a manner familiar to pitchers and batters. But one that is scratched, cut, or altered will move in an unpredictable way, and that unpredictability is a huge benefit to the pitcher.

But that is not the case in this current “crisis”. It’s all about grip, especially on four-seam fastballs. More grip means more spin and that means more movement. The added grip also means that pitchers can throw harder because they have more control of the ball when it leaves their hand. That extra speed means more spin and movement, and the extra movement means stray bats and bewildered hitters, which means more strikeouts for pitchers.

Think of it this way: relying on the mud and rosin of the Delaware River for grip is like driving a go-kart. They do the job, more or less. But the new stuff pitchers are using, the reason we have this conversation today? They are like driving a damn IndyCar vehicle.

Why are foreign substances a big problem for MLB now?

This, folks, is a tricky question. Let’s start with this: MLB has a long history of ignoring an issue until it becomes too much to ignore. It is not just this current administration. The age of steroids is the most recent parallel. Steroids were part of the game for years, and MLB really did nothing to try to stop their use, despite the known health risks. It wasn’t until the records started falling – big, huge, important records – that MLB finally began taking action to address the problem. You can bet that if Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had stuck at 55 home runs in the summer of 1998 and never reached Maris / Ruth levels, things would have been different. Same thing if Barry Bonds never came close to Hank Aaron’s career total. But they did, and then baseball acted.

You are seeing the same things now. Strikeout numbers have risen over the past decade, but are now reaching mind-boggling levels, levels that cannot be explained by mentions of pitching angles and hitting approaches. Think about it: In his storied career, strikeout king Nolan Ryan surpassed the 11.0 K / 9 mark twice in 27 seasons. In 2020, there were 17 pitchers with at least nine starts who had a K / 9 of 11.0 or better. And there is this: The strikeout percentage of batters in the entire MLB last season was 23.4 percent; In 2021, it is up 24.1 percent. Read it again. Basically one in four plate appearances ends with a punch. That is not good for the game. And people will also point to no-hitters: six in the first two months of the season. That’s a good talking point, but the truth is that these new crackdowns came before those no-hitters happened.

Baseball wasn’t that concerned with cheating per se; baseball only really cared when cheaters got too good at cheating.

Too much blame will be placed on pitchers who are caught with substances, or when turning speeds are noticed to drop drastically. That sucks, honestly. MLB has turned a blind eye to the situation for so long that it has simply been an accepted part of the sport. We draw a parallel with PEDs, but let’s be clear: this does not have a moral element like steroids. There is no health component. For decades, something was allowed to happen, and now, suddenly, not. That’s in MLB.

And then there’s this: the Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association expires on December 2. 1, and the negotiations are not going to be pretty. You will surely hear about work stoppages, and it is not unrealistic to think that this could happen. And a tried and true tactic that leads to a contentious negotiation is to try to erode the unity of the other side. In this case, the theory says: MLB is trying to pitch pitchers against batters to each other in the hope that it will impact the solidarity of the MLBPA. The MLB powers that be will deny it to the last gasp, of course.

What exactly is “sticky” foreign substance?

The rosin bag, as you know, is legal. Lively, even. Pitchers without any grip tend to throw baseballs that accidentally hit batters. But when you mix a little rosin with a little extra sunscreen, that’s where things start to get tricky. Again though, if he had just stopped there, resided there for a long, long time, we wouldn’t be having these conversations. The same, honestly, with pine tar. It’s long been an “extra” part of a pitcher’s bag of sticky tricks. Just don’t use it blatantly (like the Yankees’ Michael Pineda did in 2014).

Many things get sticky quickly. Any parent can tell you that. And I feel safe saying that we would all be surprised – and quite amused – by some of the things that pitchers have used for decades to get a little extra movement. Did you put boogers on the ball?

However, the matter of what might have pushed him over the line? That’s things like Spider Tack, a substance developed to help powerlifters endure when lifting stupid amounts of weights, and Pelican Grip Dip. Neither of these things were specifically designed for pitchers, but they do create an incredible amount of friction, which leads to an incredible amount of spin. And again, an incredible amount of spin generates an incredible amount of movement and an incredible amount of hits and misses.

This quote, from Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon to Sports Illustrated, is revealing.

“There is something [pitchers] where, if you swing where your eyes tell you, you won’t hit the ball, even if you get there on time, ”says Blackmon. “I have to go out and if my eyes tell me that it is in a place, I have to change places. Which is difficult to do. It is difficult to swing and try to miss the ball. But there are a few guys you have to do it on, because his ball and spin speed or whatever is challenging every pitch you’ve seen over the course of your career. … Basically I have to distrust my eyes that the pitch is going to end where I think it is going to end and spin in a different place, because the ball is doing something that it doesn’t have to do. “

How will MLB’s guilty pitchers be punished?

Nothing has been announced yet, but we can look at past precedents. Last week, four minor league pitchers were suspended for 10 days each when they were caught using illegal foreign substances on baseballs. Minor league players are held to very different standards, of course, in part because they don’t have a union, that’s a completely different column, but the length of those was consistent with previous MLB suspensions. In 2014, Pineda was suspended for 10 days when he was found with pine tar smeared on his neck. In 2004, Cardinals pitcher Julián Tavarez was suspended for 10 days for applying a foreign substance to baseball.

“Trust me, whenever you do something like this, there will be a setback. There will be complaints. And mistakes will be made ” West told Athletic. “Don’t think that everything is going to be perfect. It doesn’t happen that way. “

So 10 games makes sense for a first suspension. But what about the repeated rapes? Let’s not pretend that PED violations (they are a health risk) and sticky substance problems are the same, but it is an established guideline to use as a guide. PED’s first suspension is 80 games, the second is a full season (Robinson Cano is currently serving a 162-game suspension), and the third is expulsion from baseball.

It’s hard to imagine ejecting a jug by sticky fingers, right? However, doubling the suspension each time would make sense. The first 10 days, then 20 (add a postseason ban), then 40 more postseason, then 80 more postseason, and so on. But again, that’s just an educated guess.

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