MLB is Fishing with Dynamite

Sticky substances and pitchers in MLB have a long and illustrious relationship. It’s not like that’s new, it’s been around almost as long as the ball has been standardized. The problem is that some players took an intentional blind spot in the league and made their willful ignoring of the situation embarrassing.

It’s the worst kept secret in sports, and not even hitters are anxious to have things changed this abruptly.

I’ve compared what MLB is doing to killing a bee with a bazooka. They wanted to get Spider Tack out of the game, a substance that has driven Spin Rates way up and taken things too far to ignore, and because they can’t just target that substance without openly making a mockery of the enforcement of their own rules they went nuclear.

Let’s break this down a bit shall we.

Why Eliminate All Tacky Substances?

Well, a couple reasons. One, expecting game officials to recognize and identify the difference between different substances is unlikely to go well. They’d also have to openly say they’re fine ignoring the rules on the books, where all of these substances are banned already.

Another thing to look at is in order to make a new rule specifically addressing Spider Tack, they’d have to collectively bargain the language. With the CBA negotiations coming up this fall already sure to be contentious, that was never going to happen.

It’s all or nothing, and while I don’t think this is a good time to do this, there’s no denying this is an issue in the game. I simply think mid season will create more problems than it fixes, but I’m used to that with MLB.

Why does this matter?

Baseball has watched a resurgence of pitchers dominating the game. Baseball doesn’t like either side of the ball getting an obvious advantage. Problem is, every time they see it, they legislate or manipulate things to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. It tends to create just as many problems as it serves.

Now, analytics have made it very apparent who is cheating. Spin rates are a dead giveaway and the thing is we don’t have a baseline for using absolutely nothing, because as many players suggest, as much as 80-90% of pitchers are using something.

Baseball has known about this forever, and honestly they’ve been fine with it until recent innovation created jumps of 300-600 RPMs on spin rate.

This would be like NASCAR having a restriction on horsepower that they knew just about every driver and team were ignoring, but a couple racers don’t just touch the top of the restriction and pass it my a fraction, instead they have flames shooting out the exhaust and are easily lapping the competition.

Everyone was fine with the “assistance” even though it was technically cheating, until it became so obvious that they might as well have been calling a press conference before every outing and slapping Rob Manfred in the face.

Rules and laws are weird, sometimes they just exist while everyone ignores them. For instance in Michigan blasphemy is still illegal. Imagine if they announced tomorrow they were going to start enforcing it. Here’s a good one, swearing at sporting events is illegal in Massachusetts, I mean, have you met a Boston fan?

What should We Expect?

Honestly, it’s not likely to be pretty. I think we started seeing evidence this was having an impact a couple weeks back. Guys who were bending it like Beckham suddenly can’t control where it winds up. high fastballs are getting blasted.

Measurably, spin rates are already down. Even pitchers who don’t throw hard like Tyler Anderson last night saw a reduction. In fact it even changed his pitch mix, completely dropped the curveball. Gee, I wonder why?

Just so we’re clear, I’m not choosing to go after one player here. I’m of the belief most pitchers have used something, and I don’t mean they just started when they got to MLB. This was present when I was in high school. Bug Spray and rosin, bubblegum, sun tan lotion, cotton candy, tricks of the trade to help control the ball have been widely used and it’s not like hitters were left in the dark either. I mean did you ever think it was strange how many pitchers liked to hit with no gloves? Hmm wonder why?

What MLB has just done is give each and every one of us the ability to easily prove our suspicions. two months from now, head over to Baseball Savant and check out the spin rate trends on your favorite pitcher. Chances are you’ll see it reduced. If it’s a huge reduction, they were probably using the Spider Tack, if it’s marginal good chance they were using something more benign.

Now if cheating is cheating to you and there’s no grey area, I guess be prepared to know you’re watching a league full of cheaters. Technically being a baserunner at second base and picking up on signs is illegal too, but I get it, you’re principled and a far superior person to everyone else.

Can it Lead to Injury?

Well, maybe. I’m not sure I can go as far as Tyler Glasnow did, blaming the rule change in part for leading to his elbow injury. Especially since his spin rate figures lead one to believe he was a Spider Tack guy.

But he isn’t wrong either. The league has turned a blind eye to this stuff for decades, and if you know anything about pitching it’s all about repeatable motion and muscle memory. Change something small like where you stand on the rubber, or adjust release point by a fraction of an inch and it could be a two week process to gain confidence and effectiveness. Now imagine asking as much as 80% of the league’s pitchers to change things like that on the fly in the middle of a season.

Yes, it could lead to injury.

More likely though, it leads to reduced velocity to gain some modicum of control. More likely it deals more damage to effectiveness than it does put guys on the shelf.

Pirates Angle

The team is in no danger of winning anything this season, so all the competitive balance issues won’t touch the Buccos in 2021. That said, they have some guys they want to move who may have just lost the bloom on their rose.

Richard Rodriguez, Tyler Anderson minimally can’t be looked at as having reliable stats. You know you’ve watched Rich Rod giving up more hits lately, now, did he just give up his sticky stuff knowing this was coming or just having an off couple weeks? Yeah, that kind of question.

Even things that many of us have used as measuring sticks in the analytics world will be called into question. That guy who added 6 MPH to his fastball over the offseason, did he do that naturally? When trading for prospects can Ben Cherington rely on spin rates or Whiff rates as accurate?

Oh there are a ton of angles here.

My Take

Just because everyone is doing it, doesn’t make it ok, and I completely get the league wanting to crack down. They specifically wanted to target Spider Tack and after spending the first two plus months of the season warning guys they were checking balls and going to do something they saw, measurably mind you, that they were being ignored.

Something had to be done, and my only real issue is the timing.

This is a year when every team executive was already worried about the health of pitchers coming off the shortened 2020 season, and I think they just threw a few knives into the juggling act.

I remember the steroids era very well, and I also remember the stigma guys who never tested positive received. If this is indeed as wide spread as many believe they might have to just board up the windows on the Hall of Fame for a while.

Trevor Bauer started this ball rolling. He went after old rival Gerrit Cole for his incredible increase in spin rate after his trade to Houston. Now, if the league had stepped in right then, maybe we avoid the mess this has become. Instead, they put their head in the sand and ultimately led Bauer to decide he wasn’t going to just complain about it, instead he’d do it too. Why not right? The league was apparently ok with it.

Now, here we are.

If they really manage to clean this up, in 4 or 5 years a wicked curveball will have a new look, we’ll adjust to what that is and we’ll be just as excited when we see it. I’m not sitting here telling you that the game has been destroyed. I will tell you though, be prepared to see some guys you really thought were incredible suddenly look human.

The enforcement rules are designed to equally punish the team and the player. 10 game suspensions with no ability for the team to replace the roster spot.

In other words, if you have 3 guys pinged for this, your roster is now 23 players instead of 26. It’s designed to get the teams to work just as hard to clean up the mess as the players themselves, but the players still get paid (otherwise they’d have to go to the negotiation table ya dig?) so really the teams will have a bit more onus on them.

An already sure to be contentious CBA negotiation just got a bit more so if you ask me. For those of us who want a cap, hey, I hope they flat out hate each other. I bet there are some big clubs who wear pinstripes wishing they knew this was coming before they signed someone to a 300 million dollar contract.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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