Major League Baseball To Crack Down On Pitchers’ Use Of Foreign Substances

Major League Baseball will begin to crack down on pitchers’ use of foreign substances “in earnest,” reports Jon Heyman of MLB Network (Twitter link). Ball doctoring was among the topics discussed at today’s owners meeting, per Heyman, with the league and owners evidently deciding it was rampant enough to warrant stepping in. The league will remain in communication with the MLBPA, umpires association, and teams throughout the enforcement process, notes Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic (Twitter link).

Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported last weekend the league was planning on more stridently targeting and preventing foreign substance use in the coming weeks. It wasn’t precisely clear at the time what form that would take, but Joel Sherman of the New York Post now sheds some light on the situation. MLB’s current plan seems to involve three main areas of focus: placing a greater onus on teams to limit substance use among their own pitchers, empowering umpires to evaluate pitcher equipment (likely as they enter the game), and increasing enforcement in the minor leagues.

It’s not yet apparent how the league hopes to spur teams to self-check their substance use. MLB is leaving open the possibility of suspending players when provided proof of altered baseballs, Sherman notes. Fear of suspension could disincentivize some players from using grip enhancers, although there’s still no indication the league plans to levy suspensions and/or fines against anyone other than the offending pitcher himself.

Empowering umpires to examine players is a little more straightforward. In fact, we’ve already seen this in practice. Last week, umpire Joe West confiscated the hat of Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos as he entered the game, after making the determination that an illegal substance had been applied to the brim. Gallegos was not ejected, but Cardinals manager Mike Shildt was thrown out after voicing his displeasure.

The league has also begun to increase enforcement of foreign substance usage in the minors. Four minor league pitchers (Marcus EveySal BiasiKai-Wei Teng and Mason Englert) have been suspended this year for the practice, notes Jake Seiner of the Associated Press. Those bans were each for ten games. The latter three players were all suspended last weekend, suggesting the league has increased its enforcement at the lower levels rather dramatically in the past few days.

Of course, foreign substance usage has become prevalent because of its performance-enhancing effects. Using a tacky substance to improve one’s grip on the ball correlates with increases in spin rate and accompanying pitch movements. Travis Sawchik of The Score demonstrated the impact of grip enhancers on spin this morning in a piece that’s worth checking out in full.

That’s become increasingly of concern for MLB as whiffs have continued to climb. The league entered play today with a .240/.316/.401 slash line (excluding pitchers), with an all-time high 23.6% strikeout rate. Certainly, foreign substance use isn’t the only potential contributor to the strikeout uptick. Pitch velocities are higher than ever, and the increasing lack of action on the basepaths incentivizes hitters to adopt more of an all-or-nothing approach at the plate. Nevertheless, MLB has concluded foreign substances have a significant enough impact to warrant further scrutiny.

This isn’t the first time the league has suggested they’d more aggressively ferret out substance use. MLB sent a memo to teams in Spring Training suggesting the league office would look for dramatic shifts in pitcher spin rates to identify potential infractions. The league also informed teams of plans to pull random samples of game balls to send for laboratory testing. In spite of those warnings, MLB has played things rather slowly over the first couple months. The league commenced an investigation into Dodgers starter Trevor Bauer in early April, collecting “suspicious baseballs” from his second start of the season. It’s not clear what, if anything, arose from that investigation.

Sherman notes the league has deliberately taken a hands-off approach over the season’s first couple months, collecting playing equipment and monitoring clubhouses and player video/data to determine which players it believes to be among the more egregious offenders. It now seems the league feels sufficiently prepared to intervene, which could result in more situations like the equipment confiscations with Bauer and Gallegos (and perhaps suspensions at the major league level).

Increased enforcement to curtail such a pervasive practice will almost certainly come with growing pains. Last November, Eno Sarris of the Athletic spoke with a group of team personnel who generally estimated that greater than three quarters of MLB pitchers were using some sort of grip enhancer. In April, Sarris and colleague Ken Rosenthal examined various challenges the league would stand to face as they ramped up enforcement efforts. Both pieces are well worth full reads for those interested in this topic.