“It ain’t cheating if you don’t get caught.” as the famous saying goes. Anyone who has played baseball long enough knows this aphorism to be true when it comes to what goes on between the lines. Part of the unwritten rules of life and baseball is one doesn’t rat on their teammates. We can argue about the deleterious effects this has on society, for my purpose I want to focus on baseball. Let’s get this out there front and center, all major league baseball teams cheat. Yes, I said all. Cheating in baseball is as old as the game itself. I can recount instances where the infield dirt next to first base has been turned into a muddy bog to slow down fleet-footed runners, or in the reverse teams that keep the infield grass long because they employ those same fleet-footed runners. I am bringing up cheating because I can see it becoming the controversy du jour in the came of baseball. We have not completely moved past the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal before we moved on to looking at the foreign substances pitchers use on baseballs.
According to rule 6.02(c)(4), it is illegal to place apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball. The penalty for violating the rule is the ball will be immediately taken out of play, and the pitcher will be warned. All subsequent violations will lead to the pitch being called a ball. If the batter reaches base, then the play will proceed without reference to the violation. Repeat offenders will be subject to a fine by Major League Baseball. The league is set to announce it is stepping up the enforcement of the rule throughout the game. There will be multiple random checks of pitchers during games. It is rumored there will be a minimum of 8-10 checks. The league has used video and anecdotal evidence as a guide for places to check on pitcher’s bodies and uniforms. For example, it is common practice for pitchers to use sunblock and mix it with rosin before applying it to a baseball for extra grip. Some guys have pine tar on their caps, belts, or gloves. I was at a game last night where the starting pitcher had a routine where he would straighten his cap with two hands upon receiving the ball from the catcher, and then would go to the bill of his cap with his index finger and thumb from his throwing hand to get his sticky mix. He did this for every pitch of his start. Good thing his club was wearing dark brown caps (hint, hint).
The foreign substances on baseballs are as widespread of a problem as can be throughout the sport. It is more pervasive than the steroids players were taking back two decades ago. It is rare to see a pitcher not loading up baseballs. Unlike with steroids, there isn’t secrecy involved. Players know who has the good stuff. Bubba Harkins was the clubhouse manager for the Los Angeles Angels who outed Gerrit Cole of the New York Yankees as part of his defamation complaint he filed in Orange County Superior Court. He provided text messages from Gerrit Cole requesting more of his concoction upon the Yankees’ subsequent visit to Anaheim. Harkins said he supplied the stuff to lots of players through the years. His lawyer contends Harkins is being scapegoated for a leaguewide problem.
One simple takeaway from this is the sticky stuff works. According to league reports, the average spin rate on a major league fastball in 2018 was 2,232 rpm, but last season the average spin rate for fastballs had increased to 2,824 rpm. The additional spin means additional movement on the baseball. Pitches like the slider Miguel Castro of the New York Mets used to embarrass Ketel Martel of the Arizona Diamondbacks shouldn’t be common. Now I love the stuff Rob Friedman does at Pitching Ninja, but it does highlight something larger going on. Soul stealing two-seam fastballs were once only the domain of guys like Greg Maddux, or Mr. Snappy was the slider thrown by Randy Johnson. These guys are legends of the sport, not just a decent middle relief arm.
I was once a believer in the idea the sticky substances were okay because the extra grip would give pitchers the extra bit of control. This is a fallacy. The only thing the foreign substances do for pitchers is to make it more difficult for batters to hit. The hit by pitch numbers have been increasing for years, so the data simply does not support this theory.
This crackdown on foreign substances is to be tied to a 10 game suspension without pay. This might act as a real deterrent, but I wonder how many pitchers will push the envelope. The way I see it as this will be similar to driving a car in California where everyone pushes the speed limit and getting a speeding ticket is just part of the experience. The steroid guys figured out the financial reward was worth the reputational risk. If a guy can take steroids to earn generational wealth, then the calculus works out. So for a pitcher to use pine tar to throw a better breaking ball and stay in the big leagues, especially without steroid stigma, it only makes sense they will try it.
I can see the message was received by the players as a future Hall of Famer on the Dodgers had a brand new cap in his start in Atlanta, after replacing the pine tar covered once he had previously been using. It might be a coincidence Gerrit Cole had his lowest spin rate on his fastball the same day the new enforcement was announced, but you might have to call me incredulous with that one.