BY DENNIS RICHARDSON
04 May 2021
ORLANDO, FL – Tampa Bay left-hander Blake Snell was on the mound in the sixth inning of Game Six of the 2020 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and as the players say, he was “dealing.”
Through five and one-third innings, the Rays were leading 1-0, and Snell had been dominant, allowing only two hits, and striking out nine batters. Few balls had been hit hard – in fact, only three had left the infield – and he showed no signs of fatigue. “Snell had his stuff today,” Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger said after the game. “He was gross.”
But, with one out and a runner on base, Tampa manager Kevin Cash popped out of the dugout and signaled to the bullpen for a pitcher to replace Snell. “I was like, ‘Whew, thank you.’ He was pitching a fantastic game,” Dodgers’ Mookie Betts said in his post-game comments.
Even the best, most surefire strategy is a roll of the dice. Sometimes it works; in this case, it didn’t. Tampa’s reliever promptly gave up two runs in the inning, and the Dodgers went on to win the game and the World Series. Cash came under heavy criticism afterward for his controversial decision.
The Dodgers were having almost no success against Snell, and he wasn’t tiring, so why did Cash pull the left-hander? Blame it on analytics and a stat called “Third Time Through the Order.” Statistics show that batters tend to have a much higher success rate against a starting pitcher the third time hitters face that pitcher in a game. Snell, who now pitches for the San Diego Padres, was beginning his third run through the Dodgers’ lineup – and analytics showed that during the regular season batters hit .140 the first time against Snell, and .304 the third time.
That, Cash explained after the game, was why he pulled Snell. “Didn’t want Mookie and (Corey) Seager seeing Blake a third time,” the manager said.
Analytics and saber metrics are everywhere in Major League Baseball these days, and they show no signs of abating. More and more front offices are being run not by career baseball people who’ve worked their way up the organizational ladder, but by Ivy Leaguers with advanced degrees in areas such as economics, finance, math, physics, and computer science; who worship at the Altar of Analytics; and who tend to hire managers who share in those beliefs.
On the field, analytics tells teams where to position fielders, when to replace a pitcher, which pitches to throw a batter in particular situations and ball-strike counts, and which pitches a batter has trouble handling; that slugging is a more efficient offense than “manufacturing” runs, and that bunting and stealing bases rank low on the risk-reward scale, so swing away and damn the strikeouts. Analytics also gives us acronyms like WAR, OBPS, OPS, SLG, WHIP, ERA+, UZR, DRS, and OOA, which gauge a player’s effectiveness, and help establish his value as a trade chip or candidate for a new contract.
Everywhere you go in baseball these days, it seems, there’s the shadow of Big Data.
It is only fitting then that baseball is turning to a high-tech solution and a stat to help fix an age-old problem: pitchers doctoring baseballs with illegal foreign substances. It appears there’s more bend in the rules by pitchers these days than in a Sandy Koufax 12-to-6 curveball.
Peter Gammons, the Hall of Fame baseball writer, says baseball now is in “The Substance Era,” referring to pitchers “loading up” on baseballs with foreign substances rather than players loading up on PEDs. One veteran coach recently told Eno Sarris of The Athletic that “almost everyone is using something,” while Trevor Bauer, the outspoken right-hander with the Dodgers, says about 70 percent of pitchers are doctoring baseballs. If so, that’s a high number of hurlers who are breaking MLB’s Rule 6.02, which says that a pitcher may not “apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball… have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance… (or) attach anything to his hand, any finger, or either wrist.”
On an episode of Real Sports on HBO, Bauer said the application of illegal foreign substances on baseballs is a “bigger advantage than steroids ever were. Because if you know how to manipulate it, you can make the ball do drastically different things from pitch to pitch at the same velocity.”
Something So Little, Yet So Much Attention
An official Major League baseball weighs between 5 and 5.25 ounces, and measures between 9 and 9.25 inches in circumference. It consists of a cushioned cork center inside a tightly wound wool and polyester/cotton yarn, and a cowhide cover that has 108 stitches (216 double stitches). Each of the estimated 600,000 balls used during a season is handmade in a factory in Costa Rica by Rawlings, which is owned by Major League Baseball.
This little white orb is the smallest piece of equipment in the game. Yet, this season it will become the most scrutinized in MLB history.
A little more than a century ago, 1920 to be exact, Major League Baseball outlawed the spitball and application of other foreign substances on the ball. Now, after decades of basically looking the other way, MLB will put some heat, so to speak, on pitchers “loading up” on baseballs. In the offseason, the commissioner’s office notified all 30 teams that the league would inspect balls taken out of play, and conduct spin rate analysis on pitchers suspected of using foreign substances.
Traditionally, it has been the umpires who’ve policed the issue, and that will continue. But, now baseball is adding technology to a multi-prong approach in an attempt to rein in the practice.
First, MLB is enlisting Statcast, which uses state-of-the-art technology to track velocity, spin and movement of pitches, and analyze that data. If there’s a significant increase in a pitcher’s average spin rate (the number of revolutions per minute a ball makes), the league may investigate if he is doctoring balls. Second, a third-party lab will inspect baseballs taken out of play – both suspect and random. Third, “compliance officers will monitor dugouts, clubhouses, tunnels, batting cages, and bullpens” for violations of foreign substance rules.
Why is spin rate important? It allows pitches to break more, which makes them harder to hit. One way to increase spin rate is improving the pitcher’s grip on the ball. One way to improve the grip is to doctor the ball with a foreign substance.
Pitchers’ Holy Grail
Spin rate is to pitchers what exit velocity is to batters – each is the respective new Holy Grail in baseball. According to an April 21 article for The Athletic by Sarris and Ken Rosenthal, grip substances that help improve spin rate “make fastballs 10 percent better, and breaking balls as much as 30 percent better.”
Stepped-up enforcement against doctoring baseballs comes at a time when the league is looking for more offense and more action in games. While home runs were hit at a record pace in 2019, there also were a record number of strikeouts, meaning fewer batted balls were put in play. Watching games is a tougher sell these days as teams slough through 1-0 contests that last more than three hours, where one-quarter of at-bats now end in a strikeout, and another nine percent result in a bases on balls.
If you ask hitters, they’ll likely say, “it’s about time.” Hitters long have complained that there’s a double standard. A batter uses PEDs or a corked bat and he’s an outcast. But pitchers? Go ahead and load up the ball.
Pitchers’ use of foreign substances on balls has long been an open secret; a kind of wink, wink, nudge, nudge tolerance, as long as the violation wasn’t blatant. While everyone knows it’s against the rules, it pretty much is accepted as part of the game’s DNA. When New York Yankees’ pitcher Michael Pineda was ejected after pine tar was found on his neck during a nationally televised game against the archrival Boston Red Sox in 2014, one would have expected Boston’s players to be outraged. Instead, when asked about it after the game, Red Sox’s slugger and team leader David Ortiz shrugged his shoulders and said, “Everybody uses pine tar.”
It’s interesting that baseball loudly cries foul, as it should, regarding use of PEDs and electronic sign stealing, yet remains silent when pitchers liberally doctor baseballs with foreign substances. In other words, one form of cheating is tolerable, but others aren’t? Use of PEDs is a scourge on the game, but doctoring baseballs is “just don’t get caught”?
Pitchers like to rationalize the practice, saying they need it for baseballs with lower seams that are difficult to grip; and on those cold, early- and late-season games when the ball is cue-ball slick, and similarly on hot and humid days when sweat makes the ball slippery. A little dab of rosin-and-sunscreen on the hand, pitchers argue, can mean the difference between throwing strikes and hitting a batter.
Nobody wants to see 95-mph fastballs heading for batters’ heads, but hitters complain that some pitchers are taking liberties with that allowance.
Substances Being Used
Tommy John, he of the elbow surgery fame, once was asked how many types of pitches he threw. “Four basic ones—fastball, curve, slider and change-up – plus eight illegal ones,” said the left-hander who won 288 games over 26 seasons in the big leagues.
The spitball and doctoring balls with other foreign substances were banned in 1920, the same year that Prohibition kicked in. But, just as bootleg booze managed to find its way into “speakeasies” across the country, the practice of doctoring baseballs continued. Even today, when spitballs are considered “old school” and out of style, pitchers still apply saliva to the ball or their gloves. And, there are plenty of other substances in vogue.
Rosin-and-sunscreen or a rosin-and-pine tar have been a concoction of choice for many years. Other favorites include mud, shaving cream, Firm Grip, Fixodent, haircare products, Vaseline, K-Y jelly, and lubricants – most of which are readily available at a local pharmacy.
Another trick is to “slightly heat” soda and then mix it with another substance, which one coach said, creates “some unbelievable stick.” And, in the 1960s, Yankees great Whitey Ford was said to have used a mixture of baby oil, rosin, and turpentine.
There is an old saying in baseball that the double play is a pitcher’s best friend. In today’s game, though, it may be the sales clerk at the Walgreen’s or CVS pharmacy.
Banned substances used by pitchers generally fall into one of two categories: One, tacky substances, like mud and pine tar, or a rosin-sunscreen mixture, weigh down one side of the ball, thus adding an extra degree of movement to breaking balls. Two, slick substances such as petroleum jelly, spit and saliva let the ball slide off the pitcher’s fingers instead of spinning, thus creating less rotation and a sharper late drop, similar to a knuckleball.
If caught, a pitcher can be ejected and suspended for up to 10 games. The players union, though, likely will push back, almost assuredly filing a grievance on behalf of any pitcher who faces discipline for doctoring baseballs, especially if that punishment results from findings from a third-party, like a lab.
Instances of pitchers being caught are rare. Umpires check the most obvious places were substances can be hidden: the bill of the cap, the glove, the pants belt, behind the ears, the back of the neck, the wrist, the forearm, the hair, under the arms, uniform buttons, yet few pitchers get tossed. (Gaylord Perry said he hid substances on his pants zipper, correctly surmising that no umpire would want to check there.)
Perry is a prime example of the difficulty in catching suspected pitchers. The right-hander who won 314 games and two Cy Young awards in his Hall of Fame career had a reputation as a notorious spitball pitcher, and even wrote a book about it: Me and the Spitter. In his book, Perry said he never threw a spitball, but he did talk about doctoring baseballs, such as using Vaseline and Brylcreem, to make his pitches move more. Yet, in the many times in which umpires inspected him during his 22-year career, Perry was ejected from only one game.
Perry said he often used his widespread reputation for throwing a spitter as a psychological ploy. He’d often go through an elaborate pre-pitch routine touching various parts of his uniform, his glove, and his face just to make opponents think he was doctoring baseballs.
Mutual Assured Destruction
One should not expect managers to suddenly start asking umpires to check an opposing pitcher more often, because the manager likely will be afraid that the opposition might retaliate, thus exposing the manager’s own pitcher. It’s similar to the Doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, a Cold War deterrence based on the idea that a nuclear attack by one superpower would be met with an equal or greater attack by the defender, thus annihilating both the attacker and defender.
In baseball terms, you leave my pitcher alone and I’ll do likewise with yours.
It’s better to adopt an old-school attitude. When a batter returned to the dugout complaining that a pitcher was throwing doctored baseballs, the batter’s manager, hitting coach or pitcher-teammate simply would advise him, “Hit the dry side.”
Major League Baseball faces a bit of a quandary: how does it allow pitchers to improve their grip in conditions that warrant help (such as cold days) without giving them a way to increase movements of their pitches? Plus, how can a rosin-and-sunscreen concoction be banned? Rosin is approved, and most every player on the field uses sunscreen. A suspected pitcher might easily and plausibly say the sunscreen on his arm dripped down onto his hand because of sweat.
Difficulty in enforcement is one reason why Major League Baseball is looking into creating a different ball or adopting use of a uniformed substance, which would eliminate – or at least cut down on – the doctoring of baseballs.
Alternatives to Consider
For more than eight decades, baseballs used by MLB have been rubbed pre-game with mud that comes from a place in New Jersey, along the Delaware River. Obviously that has not kept pitchers from adding other substances.
The league has worked with Rawlings to come up with a stickier ball that supposedly promotes a more consistent grip. In 2019 it even experimented with a stickier ball in the independent Atlantic League, which serves as a lab of sorts for many baseball experiments. MLB also has investigated developing a topical solution for a pre-game rub of baseballs, which would provide a better grip, and thus eliminate the need for pitchers to add other substances. But, in both cases, a satisfactory consensus on their effectiveness was not reached.
Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher once said, “Baseball is like church. Many attend, but few understand.”
And, many have sins for which they should atone.
Which leads to one big question: How much cheating is Major League Baseball willing to accept? It’s in the pitchers’ hands.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.