The era of sticky baseballs and artificially high spin rates may be coming to an end. Major League Baseball placed pitchers on notice Tuesday when it announced new guidelines intended to enforce rules against placing prohibited foreign substances on baseballs, a practice that is believed to improve pitching performance.
Beginning Monday, a player who is found to have a foreign substance on his person or who has applied it to a ball in play will be ejected from the game and suspended for 10 additional games. Repeat offenders will face an increasing scale of punishment, and team officials and employees can also be disciplined for failing to ensure compliance with the rules.
Umpires will conduct periodic searches during games of all pitchers on both teams, as part of M.L.B.’s effort to increase action in a game that critics say has grown dull from an imbalance of pitching dominance.
“After an extensive process of repeated warnings without effect, gathering information from current and former players and others across the sport, two months of comprehensive data collection, listening to our fans and thoughtful deliberation, I have determined that new enforcement of foreign substances is needed to level the playing field,” Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, said in a statement.
M.L.B. conducted a lengthy investigation into the matter and concluded that pitchers have been secretly placing illicit foreign substances on baseballs to improve their grip and thus increase the spin on their pitches. The more spin on the ball, the more it moves and the harder it is to hit.
M.L.B. said that many of the game balls it investigated had “dark, amber-colored markings that are sticky to the touch.” Recently, pitchers have turned to effective new substances, like Spider Tack, a sticky, brown goo used in strength competitions to enhance grip, and other homemade concoctions.
Research has also shown that increased spin helps fastballs defy their natural arc downward. M.L.B. noted in its statement that those pitches had been particularly difficult to hit in recent years, which helps account for historically low batting averages and high strikeout rates. The leaguewide batting average going into Tuesday’s games was .238, the second lowest in M.L.B. history (it was .237 in 1968 before the mound was lowered to assist batters), and there have been an average of 8.95 strikeouts per team per game this year, the highest rate ever.
The sport was already favoring pitchers over batters in recent years, but their dominance has gone into overdrive, and M.L.B. believes the use of foreign substances has become ubiquitous.
“Foreign substance use appears to contribute to a style of pitching in which pitchers sacrifice location in favor of spin and velocity, particularly with respect to elevated fastballs,” the M.L.B. statement said.
Pitchers may still use the rosin bags that are placed behind all mounds, but may not combine rosin with other substances, like sunscreen, to create extra tackiness.
Many pitchers have argued that smearing balls with sticky substances is a time-honored tradition dating back a century, and is primarily used in a subtle way to give the pitcher better feel for the ball. They claim these older substances help them control the ball and avoid hitting batters inadvertently with errant pitches.
But in its statement, M.L.B. dismissed that notion and stressed that the new substances being employed are far more effective and enhance performance. It noted that the hit-by-pitch rate has actually increased along with the prevalence of foreign substance use. The first two months of this season saw the highest rate of batters being hit by pitches in the past 100 years, M.L.B. said.
“It has become clear that the use of foreign substance has generally morphed from trying to get a better grip on the ball into something else — an unfair competitive advantage that is creating a lack of action and an uneven playing field,” the statement said. “This is not about any individual player or club, or placing blame, it is about a collective shift that has changed the game and needs to be addressed.”
Although the new substances are believed to enable pitchers to increase their spin rate by 25 to 30 percent, M.L.B.’s research showed that the older substances that were in use for decades, including things like pine tar, hair gel and sunscreen, can also increase spin rate and performance, to a somewhat lesser degree.
Under the new guidelines, starting pitchers will be inspected by the umpires more than once during the game and every relief pitcher will be examined at least once. Inspections will be conducted mostly between innings or after pitching changes to avoid delays, but if umpires notice something suspicious, they may act immediately. Umpires will check hats, gloves and the fingertips of the pitcher. Catchers will also be subjected to routine inspections, and if any position player is caught putting a substance on the ball, that player and the pitcher will be ejected and face suspension.
Last month, four minor league players were suspended 10 games for evidence of foreign substances — three had it in their gloves and the fourth had it on his belt. News of those penalties, combined with recent published reports that new enforcement was on the way, may have prompted pitchers to eliminate the substances on their own. Statcast, M.L.B.’s data collection source, found that the average spin rate dropped last week to its lowest level all season.
Beginning next week, it may drop even lower.