Since the season began in April, Major League Baseball referees and league officials have rallied by the thousands. Match balls are inspected, with the most suspicious specimens being sent to an independent laboratory for analysis.
A forensic examination at that lab found that the majority of the balls contained some sort of illegal foreign object – presumably sleight of hand from a pitcher on the mound – and tests are still being done to determine exactly what exactly was placed on them. The purpose of the substance is pretty clear: to help pitchers make the baseball curve, dive and bounce more than they normally would.
The examination of the balls is just part of a broader investigation that included video, high-tech analysis of pitch spin rate, and witness reports. It’s the newest – and currently the loudest – scam scam in a sport that seems to have a new one every few years.
After the sport dabbled in illegal steroids and illegal sign theft, strangers are now coming to baseballs, a fast-paced trend that may have played a key role in turning the sport into a monotonous procession of strikeouts and low-scoring games.
That monotony poses an existential threat. With an aging core audience and lots of young children turning to the sport they think is more exciting, it is not an easy product to watch a new generation swing and miss in three hour wars of attrition major leagues.
“The data shows that foreign substances have an impact on the game,” wrote Theo Epstein, a Major League Baseball advisor who was involved in efforts to contain such illegal substances, in a text. “As the substances become more prevalent and more sophisticated, we see more strikeouts, less contact, fewer balls in play and an imbalance between pitcher and hitter.
“Along with other factors, including the skill level of many pitchers today, the result is a style of play that is atypical of the way baseball has traditionally been played.”
Epstein, the former team principal who led the Red Sox and Cubs to the long-awaited championships, is not an exaggeration. It’s harder to hit a baseball in 2021 than it is at almost any other point in the sport’s history. The league-wide batting average that entered the games on Friday was .237, the lowest since 1968, which was itself the lowest in the 146-year history of the major leagues. Batters hit 8.98 times per team per game, the highest in history, and six no-hitters have already been thrown – just one less than the modern season record.
Far from being attractive to fans, pitching dominance has brought the sport into some sort of crisis, with some managers and players wondering aloud if the no-hitters are bad for the game.
As with most sports, the course of baseball history is an up and down between offense and defensive. During the so-called steroid era, when players took performance-enhancing drugs and hurled balls near orbit, the offensive dominated. In 2000, the league-wide batting average was 0.270.
But in recent years the pendulum has swung back decisively in the direction of the nod. There are a number of reasons for this: pitchers have been trained to throw harder, large data sets have taught teams to position their defenders more effectively, and hitters have been encouraged to swing with maximum effort on each pitch to seek home runs while still batting average sacrifice.
But many believe that a new line of charged foreign matter has given the jugs far too much of a benefit.
“These are going to be the next steroids in the baseball ordeal,” Josh Donaldson, the Minnesota Twins’ third baseman, told reporters, “because it’s cheating and it’s performance-enhancing.”
Various products and brews were traditionally hidden in small reserves under the beak of a jug cap or in gloves. The substances that must be secretly applied to the mound allow the pitchers to better grip the ball and thereby spin it much faster. This can dramatically increase the movement of the ball and has been proven to make it harder to hit.
Last month, four minor league pitchers were banned from playing 10 games for evidence of foreign substances. Three had it in their gloves and one on his belt.
In an informal poll conducted by MLB during the off-season, a majority of field managers named foreign substances on the ball as the most pressing problem of the game.
“I read the rulebook once or twice a year,” said Luis Rojas, the Mets’ manager, “and the rulebook says not to use any substance on the ball.”
But the practice remains widespread regardless of legality. The Yankees’ bully Aaron Judge said Wednesday, “Ninety-five percent of the guys I face in the league, there’s something going on.”
But that should change. The MLB is expected to issue new guidelines and protocols in the coming days to improve enforcement of the existing rule on foreign objects on balls. Offensive pitchers are most likely faced with an increasing range of penalties, from expulsion to fines and possibly suspensions.
The judge’s teammate, star pitcher Gerrit Cole, was asked last week if he had ever used Spider Tack, an ultra-sticky, glue-like substance designed to aid contestants in strength competitions, big weights known as atlas stones Are known to be kept under control. Cole’s awkward answer to the simple yes-or-no question made many believe he was using it.
After a pause of about 15 seconds, he replied, “I honestly don’t really know how to answer that.” He went on to outline how previous generations of jugs had passed information on to the next generation, suggesting that the Practice is ubiquitous.
In fact, pitchers have applied foreign substances to balls throughout the game’s history. For decades, the gauntlet was ubiquitous. Pitcher applied smooth substances – sometimes real saliva – to the balls to make them bounce and spin unpredictably, which contributed to an offensive downturn known as the dead ball era.
With the growing belief that spitballs made the game dangerous for thugs, the sport officially banned them before the 1920 season. But the uneven enforcement of the rule in baseball was evident from the start. Shortly after the ban came into effect, it was announced that throwers known to throw spit balls would still be allowed to throw them.
However, decades after these original spitballers retired, a large number of pitchers continued to treat baseball.
Gaylord Perry, a star pitcher in the 1970s, boasted of manipulating the ball in his 1974 book “Me and the Spitter,” an admission that didn’t prevent him from being elected to the 1991 Baseball Hall of Fame were caught altering the balls in various ways with minimal punishment or excitement.
Many players tightened their grip on the ball by making their own blend of rosin, legally shipped in a bag behind the mound, combined with substances like pine tar and sunscreen. These mixes should help pitchers keep a smooth ball under control. Hitters rarely complained because it wasn’t seen as a competitive advantage.
“Almost every pitcher I know has used something,” said Al Leiter, an MLB analyst who pitched for 19 seasons. Head said the substances were used for grip and safety in his day, not for any benefit. “But if the new fabrics make your things better, then maybe it will be different.”
In recent years, using materials like spider tack, monkey hands, and homemade preparations including pine tar, distilled Coca-Cola, and hair gel, pitchers have been able to grip the ball so well that they can bring much more torque to the playing fields. This allows them to increase the ball’s spin rate, which is a measure of the number of revolutions per minute as the ball moves towards the plate. In a data-obsessed game where everything is measured and documented, spin rate has proven to be the holy grail of pitching.
The rotation of the ball creates a flow of air behind the ball that creates movement, much like the rudder on an airplane.
According to Lloyd V. Smith, professor of mechanical engineering at Washington State University and director of the Sports Science Lab, the more spin it has, the longer a straight fastball defies gravity. “If the spin rate goes up 10 percent, that’s three-quarters of an inch more motion,” he said.
Older methods could increase a pitcher’s spin rate by 150 rpm, but the newer substances can add 400 to 500 rpm, which could mean a 25 percent increase to a typical pitch – enough to keep the ball a few inches further push it so it looks like hopping over bats.
With Major League Baseball about to take hold, an extreme change is expected and may already be underway. According to Statcast from MLB, which measures the spin rate of all pitches, the average RPM for four-seam fastballs, curveballs and sliders was 2,360 last week, the lowest value for the entire season.
That slump followed the suspension of minor league players and released reports that MLB should tighten control. The coming weeks could serve as a clear demarcation – before and after enforcement.
And while baseball tries to crack down on illegal substances, it is also exploring possible alternatives to curb dominant pitching, like a widely accepted sticky substance that would please pitchers, hitters and fans alike.
Baseball officials are also tinkering with other methods to help the hitters catch up. One suggestion is to move the mound back a foot or more – an extreme measure, similar to MLB’s post-1968 season in which the mound was lowered five inches to reduce a pitcher’s advantage.
Once again, after the game got into an offensive rut, MLB is ready to act.
“All parties in the game, especially the fans, have an interest in leveling the playing field between pitcher and hitter and pitcher to pitcher,” said Epstein.