Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer during an umpire inspection (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

MLB’s “Sticky Stuff” Rule Didn’t Just Lower Spin Rates. It Changed the Entire Game.

Spin rate is the most scrutinized stat in all of baseball, and it’s not just creating drama on the diamond — it’s caused a reaction that’s revived power numbers in the MLB.

A pitcher’s spin rate had long been the purview of only baseball insiders. Diehards. Nerds. But this season, it’s finally gone mainstream. And the consequences around the MLB are significant.

Managers, players, and even the media remain fixated on the stat. Why? Because spin rate may very well be a good indicator of whether a pitcher is (or has been) cheating with the help of the infamous “sticky stuff.”

In the big picture, this moment is a potential tell for Baseball’s “dirty little secret.” And it’s already causing problems for pitchers and league officials alike.

A Major Problem for the MLB

Through the middle of June, spin rate, pitch velocity, and movement were all up this season.

That’s a good thing for pitchers but not so much for hitters or fans who love home runs.

And it’s definitely becoming a problem for Major League Baseball, whose biggest, most marketable stars are almost all position players who hit for power.

So, when the league announced June 15 that it would be cracking down on the use of foreign substances that aid a pitcher’s grip, it sent a stark message to teams and their staffs that juicing up the spin of a baseball with outside help was going to be a non-starter, regardless of what may have been permitted before either officially or unofficially.

But this sticky situation didn’t simply unfold overnight.

The increased enforcement comes not only after the league began fielding complaints from players, coaches and executives, but also after some hard data showed something was up.

According to Tim Stebbins of Yahoo Sports, the MLB came to the decision after looking at results from a league-wide data collection process that included analysis of spin rate and the collection of balls taken out of play. The analysis, coupled with third-party research, revealed “evidence of foreign substances” like Spider Tack was having an impact on spin rate and movement on the baseball.

As strikeouts trended up, batting averages and power numbers trended down. From a ratings and revenue perspective, it’s not such a shock that the MLB decided enough was enough.

Since the crackdown began, all eyes have been on the pitchers, and that’s quickly led to some testy interactions with umpires and managers that risk boiling over as the 2021 season enters the dog days.

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Pitchers, Umps, & Managers Clash Over Inspections

June 22 was the first night of the MLB’s new focus on illegal substance enforcement. It didn’t got so well.

Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer made headlines during his start against the Philadelphia Phillies after tossing his hat and glove and unbuckling his pants after being checked by umpires three times in four innings. The incensed look on his face said it all.

The rules state that starting pitchers will be checked for foreign substances at least once per game, while relievers will be checked at the end of an inning or when they exit the game.

There will also be random checks throughout, and managers can even request checks of opposing hurlers.

Phillies skipper Joe Girardi wasted no time testing it out with Scherzer on the mound. This led to not only some in-game theatrics, but also some back-and-forth banter that ended up getting Girardi ejected.

But Scherzer is far from the only pitcher who’s had problems with these illegal substance checks.

When umpires attempted to check Oaklands A’s pitcher Sergio Romo, the veteran reliever tossed his glove and hat on the grass, took off his belt… and pulled down his pants. Angels star Shohei Ohtani was also checked for substances. So was Mets ace Jacob deGrom.

The added layer of scrutiny continued beyond the opening night of enforcement, however.

On June 27, Seattle Mariners pitcher Hector Santiago became the first player of the post-Sticky Stuff Era be ejected after umpires inspected his glove. Santiago has insisted the substance in question was just rosin, but his glove was wrapped as evidence and sent off for further analysis.

Ultimately, he also became the first player to be suspended following such an investigation.

From one perspective, these spectacles in the first days of baseball’s foreign substance regulations are proof that enforcement is working.

From another perspective, it’s working a little too well.

Enforcement is Up, Spin Rate is Down

In barely a week since the crackdowns began, pitchers’ spin rates were already dropping.

CodifyBaseball discovered that leading up to June 20, one out of every 75 MLB pitches this season had spun at 3,000 RPMs or faster.

In the first week of enforcement, the count fell to one out of every 176 pitches.

And as the scrutiny of the stat has continued to grow in intensity, pitchers have started responding.

Boston Red Sox pitcher Garrett Richards, whose spin rate dropped rapidly after enforcement began, wasn’t shy about sounding off on how the crackdown has forced pitchers like himself to rethink their entire approach to the game.

“It’s frustrating,” he added. “This isn’t cool to be a part of. But I’m trying to deal this stuff with myself and not make it a problem for everyone else.”

The league, however, has got to be pleased. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred went out and said as much — he saw that power numbers were down, so he acted to help them tick back up.

“I’d like to make our fans comfortable that players are following the rules,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told The New York Times. “I think that’s really important in terms of the integrity of the game. In terms of the outcome piece of it, it is my expectation, and my hope, that what we are seeing in the early numbers turns out to be the overall result — that is, higher batting average, higher on-base percentage, higher slugging, lower strikeout rate, lower walk rate, and less hit-by-pitches. That’s what we’re seeing right now, and we hope that holds.”

The league is attempting to get a grip on cheating by having umpires police pitchers, but Axios’ Jeff Tracy suggests there may be a more logical solution, such as engineering a new baseball that everybody likes.

For now, managers are allowed to shout their suspicions, which is making for some must-see TV. Pitchers are forced to rethink their approaches amidst increased enforcement and added scrutiny on spin rates from start to start.

There will be more shoes to drop. But as it stands, even if the MLB claims it’s getting what it wants, we’re in for a very a long second half of the season.

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