One of Major League Baseball's worst-kept secrets may be on the verge of an unprecedented crackdown.
The use of pine tar and other illegal substances by pitchers to improve grip and spin rate has become the equivalent of sneaking your own bag of skittles into the movie theatre.
Is it against the rules? Yes.
Do a large majority of people do it? Yes.
Do the people in charge know it happens? Yes.
Are they really doing everything they can to stop it? No.
Using a foreign substance on a ball is and always has been illegal in Major League Baseball. As a matter of fact, the MLB's Official Baseball Rules specifically address it.
Section 6.02(c) states:
The pitcher shall not:
(1) While in the 18-foot circle surrounding the pitcher’s plate,
touch the ball after touching his mouth or lips, or touch
his mouth or lips while he is in contact with the pitcher’s
plate. The pitcher must clearly wipe the fingers of his
pitching hand dry before touching the ball or the pitcher’s
(2) expectorate on the ball, either hand or his glove;
(3) rub the ball on his glove, person or clothing;
(4) apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball
- Official Baseball Rules 2021 Edition
The Crack Down
This is nothing new. The illegality of it is not new, nor is the well-known fact that it's rampant throughout Major League Baseball.
However, with things seemingly the same as they always have been, Major League Baseball appears to be cracking down on the practice, starting in the Minor Leagues.
J.J. Cooper of Baseball America reported today that three minor league pitchers were ejected this past weekend and have received 10-game suspensions after being caught with foreign substances while on the mound.
Additionally, Bob Nightengale of USA Today recently wrote a column on the topic related to the majors, claiming that in addition to other changes, the MLB is "on the verge" of implementing bans on players caught using foreign substances.
Fans and players are starting to see on field implementation already. Most notably in recent news was St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Giovanny Gallegos, who was asked to change hats in the middle of a game after umpire Joe West noticed what appeared to be a foreign substance on his hat.
The situation led to Cardinals manager Mike Shildt arguing to the point of ejection. Schildt later went on an epic post-game rant on the topic. He never denied Gallegos' use of a substance, but claimed it was a combination of sunscreen and rosin.
What was more impactful from the interview was Schildt's apparent dare to Major League Baseball to investigate everyone. He implied, as is well known, that the use of substances is common-place in the sport, and potentially a pandora's box that they may not want opened.
So why now? What has pushed the MLB to crack down on this age-old open secret now? What has changed? Well several things.
Firstly, with the advancement of technology, specifically high-zoom/high-def cameras, fans and viewers of baseball have unprecedented access to what's happening on the field. At any given time, any player on the field can have multiple cameras focused and zoomed in on them, capturing every move they make.
This is especially true for pitchers, who are front and center at all times. There is no move that goes unnoticed, and that includes going to the glove or hat for foreign substances. On Tap Sports' own Tony Marchesewrote about a blatant instance of this over a month ago when Cleveland Indians reliever James Karinchak pitched against the White Sox.
Interestingly enough, White Sox TV announcer Steve Stone noticed the same behavior from the same pitcher yesterday.
It's also not just spectators bringing this to the public eye. The ever-controversial Trevor Bauer has spoke on the topic a number of times, becoming a whistle-blower of sorts.
Bottom line, in life as well as baseball, ignorance can be bliss and that includes willful ignorance. Issues like using a foreign substance may not matter to the casual fan. That is until it's thrust upon them.
Knowing about an issue is one thing, but it's still not a big deal until you understand the impact of it, which leads to my second reason this has become major news.
It's always been clear that using a foreign substance improves the pitchers grip on the ball, that's the whole point. There's also visual indication that a pitch can be nastier in certain situations, but what does that really mean?
With the development of advanced analytics, we now know. Take a look at the progression in the Average Spin Rate for qualified pitchers from 2017 through 2021.
|Year||Avg Spin Rate (RPM)|
Source: Baseball Savant
Spin rate is nice to analyze, but it's still not that tangible. To go one step further, let's take a look at team average strikeouts per nine-innings across Major League Baseball over the same period.
|Year||AVG MLB K/9 Rate|
Source: Baseball Reference
Those numbers in a silo may not look like much, but remember that's per nine-innings. That means over the course of a regular season teams are striking out almost 150 more batters than they were in 2017.
Imagine being a batter in the MLB, whose next contract is highly dependent on production at the plate. This external leg-up has the potential to impact their livelihood.
Conversely, pitchers who are are building their resume against peers who may be using foreign substances may feel like they need to use something just to stay competitive.
It's a vicious circle and something that may not be as harmless as once thought.
All About Timing
So there you have it. For the first time in the history of the game, we have the technology and statistics to not only make this level of rule breaking clear and obvious, but also quantify its impact on the game. The truth is, it's not trivial and it impacts the integrity of the game and the players who play it.
In an era where Major League Baseball is fighting to stay relevant and pure in spite of scandals and black eyes, it's clear as to why they would choose now to crack down on baseball's "dirty little secret".