There has been a full week of MLB games since the league officially began its crackdown on pitchers using foreign substances.
Among the … highlights? Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer — a future Hall of Famer — was less than pleased about being inspected for the sticky stuff by umpires last Tuesday, specifically on the third occasion, which was prompted by a request from Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi.
A few hours later, Oakland A’s reliever Sergio Romo displayed his feelings about the umpire inspections by removing his belt and pulling down his pants on the field.
Most recently, Seattle Mariners left-hander Hector Santiago became the first pitcher ejected from a game after umpires inspected the inside of his glove on Sunday. “It’s just sweat and rosin,” Santiago said after the game.
Those incidents made headlines. But to dig deeper — from how well Major League Baseball has handled the process overall to how it has affected players’ numbers to what’s coming next — we’ve asked ESPN baseball writers Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield to answer five questions about an eventful and historic week in the sport’s history.
What has stood out most to you over the first week of MLB’s foreign-substance crackdown?
Doolittle: The number of pitchers who have seen a significant drop in spin rate has been eye-opening. While tracing this back to results and separating it from weather-influenced trends and other things is far from straightforward, we at least know this: Eliminating the sticky stuff is an effective tool for lowering the aggregate spin rate, and not by a little.
Gonzalez: Somebody like Garrett Richards, who has seemingly lost himself ever since MLB began to crack down on foreign substances. Two starts ago, on Wednesday, he said he basically has to figure out a completely different way to pitch because he can’t get the proper grip on a baseball to spin it like he used to. Whether or not you feel pity for Richards, he embodies the effect of making such a drastic change — or, more accurately, getting so much more aggressive in implementing a rule that had basically been ignored — in the middle of a season.
Rogers: Obviously, only one player getting ejected — most likely for rosin — stands out, but Girardi’s challenge of Scherzer also was interesting. It didn’t lead to a bunch of other challenges, but you can see a scenario in which each manager tries to one-up his opponent. Talk about slowing the game down. They need to tweak this rule, now that umpires are randomly checking pitchers.
Schoenfield: That it was absolutely the right thing to do, even if it was a disruption to pitchers in the middle of the season. Baseball — and by “baseball” I mean everyone, from the commissioner to the owners to the front offices to the players — acted too slowly in the steroids era. Baseball acted too slowly and not tough enough in the sign-stealing era. Baseball was in danger of once again acting too slowly. It needed to act. Pitchers were cheating. The leaguewide batting average was .232 in April. It’s up to .244 in June.
What will be your lasting memory of the first week of MLB’s enforcement?
Doolittle: It has to be the Scherzer game. Scherzer is always entertaining, whether he’s dominating on the mound or exercising his wry sense of humor after a game. He wasn’t trying to be entertaining, of course, when Girardi’s antics caused him to flip his lid, but it was still another instance when you just can’t take your eyes off of him. I’m still not sure why Girardi would have wanted to poke that bear.
Gonzalez: Santiago, a spot starter for the Mariners in his 10th major league season, walking back to the dugout without his glove, which was wrapped up and shipped to MLB’s laboratory for inspection, then stating afterward that it contained nothing illegal in the first place. Now, to be clear: Even if it was just sweat and rosin, rosin is not allowed on the glove, as outlined in Rule 6.02(d). But Santiago wasn’t ejected because he brought the rosin bag to his glove; he was ejected because umpires determined he was using foreign substances to create additional stick. His truth will not absolve him, but it will nonetheless touch on the gray area that Trevor Bauer pointed out from the onset — that rosin and sweat, both legal, can create a stick that could trick the umpires into believing it is the product of foreign substances.
Rogers: It has to be Romo nearly getting undressed on the field. I mean, what could top that?
Schoenfield: Scherzer standing on the top stop of the dugout with his arms raised, his hat in one hand and his glove in the other. It reminded me of the infamous Bud Selig image from the All-Star Game that ended in a tie. Basically: What kind of mess has the sport — once again — gotten itself into?
What is one stat that jumps out to you since MLB has announced its increased enforcement?
Doolittle: The other day, I looked at spin rates before and after May 31 for the 134 pitchers who had thrown at least 200 pitches on either side of the date. I went back that far under the assumption that pitchers would have started to dial back on goop usage when the news started to spread that MLB was about to lower the hammer. Of those 134 pitchers, 70% saw a decline in average spin rate, many of them with decreases of 100 RPM or more. A percentage like that tells you MLB was attacking a real thing and not just tilting at windmills.
Gonzalez: I’ll go straight to the intended purpose of this. From June 6, which was when momentum really began to build on this, to Monday morning, the leaguewide slash line has gone from .237/.312/.396 to .243/.318/.408. Offense does typically pick up as the weather warms — and, in fact, we experienced a similar bump in 2019 — but that’s what this is all about and that’s what will ultimately decide whether this was all successful. You can criticize the league’s timing on this, but you can also be fairly confident that sticky substances are not being used (at least not at the moment). Isolating a problem is an important step, and we will soon see just how much of an impact this has on offense.
Rogers: I’m going to cheat a little and go back further than a week. Since the coming crackdown was announced back in early June, Gerrit Cole‘s ERA is 4.65. Honorable mention: On Sunday, Yu Darvish averaged his second lowest spin rate in two years.
Schoenfield: Using Brad’s May 31 cutoff date, the strikeout rate has dropped from 24.2% in April and May to 23.4% in June. Not a big change, but at least a small one that suggests we might see a decline in the excessive number of strikeouts. The swing-and-miss rate on curveballs and sliders has dropped from 35.0% to 34.5% (and was actually 34.7% the past week), again a small change. The swing-and-miss rate on four-seam fastballs has dropped from 23.3% in April and May to 23.1% over the past week. So maybe pitchers need to quit griping. It seems the fallout here might actually be more minimal than they realize. Stay tuned.
What grade would you give MLB for its handling of the crackdown so far?
Doolittle: I’d give them a B but only because of the disorder that marked the first couple of days. Other than Santiago getting busted on Sunday, I haven’t even noticed much in the way of disruption. Now it’s just a matter of monitoring which pitchers are adapting and which ones are having trouble adapting.
Gonzalez: I give them a C. Yes, the umpires have handled it well; this is not their fight, and they’re just doing the best they can under difficult circumstances. And yes, the sport needed to get a handle on this one way or another. But I can’t get around how MLB could have handled this so much smoother. It could have avoided such a drastic change in the middle of a season. It could have found a way to not lump the pitchers who simply use a little sunscreen and pine tar for grip with those who take advantage of that — and other, more egregious substances — for spin-rate purposes. And it could have held up its end of the bargain by providing a better, stickier alternative before forcing everyone to quit cold turkey.
Rogers: I actually would give them an A. That grade is mostly for umpires who have done a great job. They didn’t lose their cool with any pitchers, they did inspections quickly and it didn’t slow games down. Seeing two umpires check a closer as he enters the game while the other two are checking the departing pitcher was efficiency at its best.
Schoenfield: I’m going with an A as well. The players’ intransigence in dealing or admitting they had taken things too far — as with steroids — leaves me with little sympathy. The disruption to the games has been minimal. All good, at least until the secret team chemists devise a clear, undetectable sticky substance.
Where will this all go next?
Doolittle: I think some sort of standard procedure needs to be maintained to keep pitchers on their toes. I’m sure talks about coming up with a universal gripping substance will continue, as they should. And maybe there will be more talk about moving to a tackier ball, like what’s used in Japan. Really, though, when you enter into an initiative like this, you need to give it a chance to play out. Some pitchers complain about having trouble with grip on humid days. Others will complain when we get to cold-weather days, which won’t happen for some time. Let’s gather a body of evidence and see where the numbers fall. The bottom line is baseball did this not because all of a sudden it decided there was a moral problem with applying stuff to the ball that had to be eradicated in the name of good sportsmanship, but because the balance of the game had gotten too far out of whack. If the game were balanced, Spider Tack would still be a non-entity to most baseball fans. We have to see how the numbers fall with this change before leaping into the next one.
Gonzalez: Brad hit on something that I think will be important moving forward, an issue that we saw last week when Scherzer frequently went to his hair in search of moisture: When the weather gets a little cooler, what can pitchers use in order to get enough moisture to mix with the rosin and create more tack? I’ve heard from numerous pitchers over the past few years about how difficult it is to grip a major league baseball. So difficult, in fact, that the balls they warm up with in the bullpen are noticeably better and ultimately put them at a disadvantage when they check into games. Long term, MLB wants to either create a tackier baseball or a uniform substance with which to rub up those baseballs so that they’re not as dry and chalky. But for the moment, it needs to provide a better alternative for colder days.
Rogers: I think as the headlines subside you might see guys try to get away with using again. Pitchers are starting to get an idea where umpires are checking them, so they’ll adjust where they hide the sticky stuff. Anyone who begins to struggle — and thinks it could be because of the crackdown — might try to regain his form by way of a more informed way to cheat.
Schoenfield: All of the above. Players have been cheating since the infamous Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s would trip opponents as they ran the bases or would cut in front of second base going from first to third (when there was often just one umpire unable to see all the action), so I suspect pitchers will soon seek some harder-to-detect advantage. A tackier ball, a little pine tar, all of that makes sense. Look, if batters suddenly start hitting .270 and teams score six runs per game, then we adjust back to figuring out how to help the pitchers. For now, my gut says this is the right move and the impact might be smaller than everyone envisioned.