Baseball’s Latest Sticky Situation

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Baseball’s Latest Sticky Situation

Last week, MLB announced that it would begin enforcing one of its rules. Following last week’s owner’s meetings, ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that the league instructed umpires to begin checking pitchers and their equipment for foreign substances. While pitchers have long lathered up the ball with pine tar or sunscreen, the concoctions applied to baseballs have become more sophisticated recently, and they appear to have had a role in dampening offense league wide.

Cracking down on foreign substances is a defensible choice on the league’s part. In 2021, we’ve seen record-breaking strikeout totals and record-low batting averages, a continuation of trends that had already spawned discussions on how to get the ball in play more often. There’s no shortage of ideas on how to best do that and controlling the substances pitchers can use to doctor the baseball has a couple of advantages.

The first is that it’s likely to yield at least a modest result. In recent years, we’ve learned how different substances can affect a ball’s spin rate, and thus it’s trajectory. We’ve also seen how increased spin rates lead to nastier pitches and thus more strikeouts. With the right recipe, a pitcher can enhance his spin rate significantly, and certain spin-gainers have been rewarded handsomely for doing so. While nobody is arguing that a few hundred extra revolutions per minute is the difference between the All-Star game and the scrap heap, the consensus within the league is that the extra spin has given pitchers a leg up against the hitters. Removing that advantage could help restore balance to the sport.

The second benefit is that there’s historical precedent for something like this, and that’s a boon for a tradition-minded sport like baseball. In 1920, MLB banned the spitball for similar reasons. Nobody was talking about spin rates back then, but pitchers had figured out that a good hock of phlegm could make a ball dip unpredictably, and the corresponding decrease in spin was giving batters fits. As was the case 100 years ago, a mandate to keep the ball clean is an easy enough policy for all parties to understand: everyone should be on the same page about the league’s directive here.

The third benefit is that it’s largely an invisible adjustment for fans watching at home. When you’re looking to modify or alter outcomes, a nudge is often best: You want to achieve the desired result by encouraging people to subtly change their behavior without creating a vastly different environment. Some of the more dramatic suggestions for increasing the amount of balls in play, like banning the shift or moving the mound back, would be clearly disruptive and spark endless hemming and hawing about breaking with tradition and stifling innovation. The more that can be avoided, the better.

Still, logistical challenges await. The obvious one is to beware of unintended consequences. While sound in theory, it’s possible that removing foreign substances from the ball could create as many problems as it solves. Deprived of their tack and terrified of their opposition, pitchers may just start nibbling more, leading to more walks without a meaningful dip in strikeouts alongside. We may get more walks anyway, as pitchers have long said that the sticky stuff is useful for gripping the ball: Without it, we may get more balls, instead of more balls in play.

Even if the rule works perfectly, there will be other challenges to combat. For all the talk about a deader baseball in 2021, the pill in use still flies like crazy relative to the model the league supplied a decade ago. If the goal is to get the ball in play more often, any rule change that leads to more contact must be balanced by one that limits how far the baseball can fly, lest we again get an avalanche of homers like we saw in 2019 or last year’s postseason. Bringing more action to the game is a nuanced challenge, one that requires a certain amount of mutual de-escalation in the conflict between pitcher and hitter. Removing foreign substances seems like a good start, but there’s more work to be done.

The other obvious challenge is enforcement. Kevin Goldstein has been banging this particular drum on his podcast (go listen to Chin Music, it’s a good show!) all spring, and he has a point: Pitchers won’t suddenly cease bending the rules. Goldstein estimates that approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of pitchers are using something, and you’d have to think that a whole bunch of them will continue trying to load up surreptitiously. Consequently, if the league means business here, umpires will need to check a lot of gloves, hats, and belts in the coming weeks.

That sounds fine in theory, but the execution could prove tricky. Nobody wants to watch Joe West conduct a cavity search on the mound every other inning, but MLB has called for 8-10 inspections per game. There are tools and tactics available to make this work without slowing the game down (checking balls or equipment between innings or after games, for instance) but enforcing the rules without slackening the pace of play will require a level of finesse that MLB hasn’t often shown. Indeed, MLB’s reputation for firing first, aiming second, and letting John Smoltz complain about the mess after suggests that this could quickly turn into a circus.

MLB must also apply this rule fairly and, just as importantly, go out of its way to avoid even the perception of scattershot enforcement. Ace John can’t be given special treatment not afforded to Middle Reliever Jim, and the howls of outrage from every quarter will grow very loud at any sign the league isn’t cracking down on, say, Yankees pitchers as hard as they are on the Brewers.

At the same time, the league shouldn’t seek to scapegoat any particular pitcher for what is essentially a league-wide problem. This part concerns me, and not just because we saw that strategy get a dry-run with Giovanny Gallegos two weeks ago. Everything about MLB’s historical approach to crisis management indicates that scapegoating will be an appealing tactic: In recent years, the league’s standard playbook for confronting a PR crisis is to toss a few people under the bus and pretend the problem has been solved. It didn’t work with sign stealing and won’t fly here, either.

While we’re discussing scapegoating, I also want to reflect on how the issue of foreign substances has been framed by the media. Sports Illustrated called it “the new steroids” in an article headlined “This Should Be the Biggest Scandal in Sports.” Over at CNBC, Jabari Young wrote a piece headlined “MLB working to combat cheating…” Hitters, for their part, have amplified the message. Josh Donaldson called out Gerrit Cole publicly, and Pete Alonso used the moment to raise the ante and fire one of the season’s hottest takes, claiming that it isn’t the pitchers manipulating baseballs but the league, in his view, changing the ball to harm the next season’s prime free agents that demands our attention.

This is getting out of hand, and smacks of baseball’s unfailing knack for turning every small potato into a bushel of bad PR. Hitters are understandably annoyed about the edge sticky substances give to pitchers, but doctored balls are hardly the only cause of the strikeout era, and it’s not like we just learned about this stuff yesterday. In any case, sticky substance use involves none of the criminal activity and only the mildest of the moral quandaries that surfaced during the period of widespread steroid use.

What we have here is a classic collective action threshold situation: The first players to lather up the ball were breaking a clearly articulated rule, but once it became apparent that MLB wouldn’t enforce its law, the league all but invited everyone else to use sticky substances as well. In this environment, the big spin-gainers deserve at least some amount of flack, less for using a foreign substance in the first place than for ratcheting the rule-breaking to its logical conclusion by going 40 mph over the limit in a zone most fellow travelers were content to exceed by 10.

In any case, the increase in enforcement should provide a chance to reset the rules of the road, and it’s what comes next that’s most interesting. The league has taken a big stand here, correctly in my view, but their credibility is on the line as they begin adhering to the rulebook. Pitchers, for their part, should be on notice: MLB’s action is not about preventing a team from securing an unfair advantage but rather an effort to enhance the aesthetic value of the game itself. I’m in favor of brushing aside previous foreign substance use (the last thing this sport needs is the Mitchell Report 2.0) from the decriminalized (or at least, enforcement-free) environment of recent years, but I’ll have less patience for such behavior going forward.

It’s far too difficult to make any concrete predictions about what happens next. For now, it’s encouraging to see the league take its first step towards a better gameplay experience. We don’t know what effect enforcing this rule will have, or even if the league’s new policy will have teeth in the real world. For now, it’s a step in the right direction.

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