A Sticky Situation? Or should the MLB get a grip?
By Tyler Smith
This June is shaping up to be a pretty eventful month for the sport of baseball. Some people are saying it’s going to be the biggest shake-up since the crackdown on steroids in the 90s. Sports Illustrated even called it “the new steroids”. On June 21, 2021, Major League Baseball banned pitchers from using foreign substances to give them an edge in games. According to the official MLB website, “Any pitchers who possess or applies foreign substances in violation of the rules will be ejected from the game… Starting pitchers will have more than one mandatory check per game, and relievers must be checked at the end of the inning that they entered the game or the inning that they are taken out of, whichever comes first”. This change comes on the heels of a problem that got too big for the MLB to ignore- pitchers gaining a tremendous advantage over batters and a skyrocketing strike-out rate.
It might seem strange to put the focus on the pitchers of the game. After all, the goal of baseball is to hit the ball really far. If anything in the game would be the most affected by players cheating, it would probably be that, right? Well, not exactly. You see, the game between a batter and a pitcher is more like a game of cards or chess. It is a constant guessing game of who’s going to do what. Will the pitcher throw a slider, a curve ball or a fastball? Will the batter sit on the pitch, swing at it hoping for the best, or just miss entirely. In chess, at the minimum you have thirty seconds to contemplate a move. In the batters box, you have less than a second.
If you didn’t know any better, it may just seem like the pitcher is throwing balls randomly and hoping none of them are hit. But a great pitcher can look at a batter and guess exactly how they are going to react. Pitchers who are good at their job can bait batters into trying to hit a ball that would be impossible to do anything with, throw balls that just seem to slide out of the way, or balls that are plain too fast for the human eye to process.
As you can imagine, these mind games get pretty complex pretty quickly. Pitchers and catchers go to great lengths to keep their pitchers a secret until they fly over home plate. They usually hide their mouths with their gloves when they speak to the catchers, and the catchers have numbered sequences to signal what pitch they want. These sequences are usually switched up multiple times in a game to keep the other team from “stealing” them( a runner on second base might try to see the catcher's hand signals and relay them to the batter at home). Players have gone through quite the trouble to gain an edge over pitchers. The Houston Astros infamously cheated in the 2017 World Series against the Dodgers by using a camera to see the signs and then banging on trash cans to signal it to their batters. Pitchers in a way are the first line of defense against the opposing team. They, in a lot of ways, are directly responsible for the outcome of games. So, what happens when the pitcher is too good at their job?
A nearly impossible to counter advantage is what happens. The league batting average is at an all time low, .236 according to Sports Illustrated. For context, a batting average can be read something like “for every 10 pitches a batter is thrown, a batter will hit x amount of balls”. So, a batting average of .236 means that batters are only hitting around 2 out of 10 pitches. That’s not great, but as a point of reference, a batting average in the .300 range is excellent. Ted Williams was the last to have an average of .400 in 1941. Anyway, with the batting average being terribly low for the last few years and the strikeout rate being at an all time high, the MLB’s attention has turned to how pitchers “doctor” the ball. This is by no means a new problem, and there’s even rules against it, but the increase in sticky stuff has become way too big to ignore. Sports Illustrated reported that some managers say the sound of a ball leaving pitchers’ hands sounds like ripping off a band-aid.
The reason pitchers are partial to sticky stuff is that, among other things, it contributes to spin. Basically, a faster spin makes for a wonkier path over home plate. From the batter’s box, it can appear to be traveling in a straight line and then suddenly turn downwards, the batter misses it for a strike. Some pitchers use sticky stuff as a surefire means to get this spin, and for mediocre pitchers it could be an easy way to boost your abilities without much work.
As can be expected, some pitchers aren’t too happy about the sudden change mid-season. The feelings on the topic range from angry to a more “it is what it is” attitude. The general consensus is something had to be done, but there were better ways of going about it. For starters, some players think that they shouldn't have started mid- season. Speaking to the Seattle Times, Mariners (and former Cardinal) pitcher Marco Gonzales said, “From a player standpoint I would hope something that is this drastic of a change would have come in the offseason, giving players time to adjust.” He also went on to say how he felt that the pitchers in the MLB should have been included in the decision making process, given how they’re the ones most affected by it. Tyler Glasnow blamed a torn ulnar-collateral (the ligament in the elbow that is used in throwing) on the new rules. Glasnow does bring a point worth consideration to the whole argument- the potential risks of injuries. And not just to the arms of pitchers. Wayward baseballs going upwards of 90 mph pose very serious threats to batters. Kevin Pillar of the New York Mets is still recovering from being hit by a 94 mph pitch on May 17th. Pillar managed to stand up with blood pouring out of his nose, but other players aren’t so lucky. Pillar is currently playing his center field position with a custom made cast for his nose, but other players have had their careers permanently altered from being hit by pitches. Another player told the Seattle Times that “They’re throwing harder than ever. I don’t want to get hit in the face.” Sticky substances allow pitchers to have greater control even when throwing at 100mph, so suddenly taking that control away with little time for the players to adjust could spell disaster if they can’t adjust fast enough. Hitting a batter with a pitch can take a serious emotional toll on the pitchers as well. Jacob Webb, the pitcher who accidentally hit Kevin Pillar, was having a rough time mentally getting back in the game. He said to USA Today that “...It's tough….you never want to hit a fellow competitor.”
There are a lot of feelings about the new rule but one of the more prominent ones is that it could have been better. As far as ideas for improvement goes, mine comes from an observation made by none other than: my Dad! He has been a Met’s fan since 1969, which means he’s been through a lot, but has seen his fair share of pitches! One night as we were watching a game he noted that almost every time a baseball touches the dirt, they get a new one. He told me that back in the 70s-80s they used to keep a ball in play for several innings. By the time they were done with it, it was dirty and naturally roughed up from hitting several gloves, the ground and bats; as opposed to the shiny slickness of a brand new baseball. I then suggested offhandedly that there really wasn’t a reason to keep swapping the ball out. Later on when the official announcement from MLB came, my Dad mentioned the conversation again and said that my solution could be a viable one. Make no mistake, I am by no means the first to suggest they should keep balls in play longer, and I’m probably….definitely not the first to propose it as a solution to this crackdown on sticky substances, but if a 22 year old spectator and her dad can come up with viable solution in an afternoon over snacks, surely the MLB ,with all their stats and access to technology, can do better.
(Official MLB statement)
Photo from Pexel.com