By Steven Urena
It seems as though baseball is in a sticky situation. One of the first rites of passage for a pitcher in professional baseball is to learn how to doctor a baseball.
I first learned that pitchers put illegal foreign substances on baseballs when I watched the baseball movie, Major League. Below is the clip.
Sports Illustrated just released a story claiming the application of “sticky stuff” on baseballs is the new steroids. Below is the article, but if you like the CliffNotes version, I provide that as well. I spoke with four ex-professional baseball players (none of which have been on my Q & A) about the recent allegations and they all agreed, without a doubt, that balls are being doctored by pitchers in professional baseball at a high rate.
The article reported that 80-90% of pitchers, to some capacity, are applying some kind of foreign substance on the ball. Usually, pitchers are using the sticky stuff, which is a mixture of sunscreen and rosin. This glue-like substance gives pitchers a better grip on the ball, which in turn, increases friction and increases spin rate. Many feel this is a major contributor to the historically low aggregate batting average of .236.
The elaborate schemes performed by Major League clubs used to cover up using foreign substances makes the Watergate Scandal look like a walk in the park. Rules are in place that ban pitchers from using anything on the baseball but those rules are not stopping pitchers, coaches and even the clubhouse attendants (clubbies) from doing all they can to gain an advantage. Stuff is being hidden on baseball hats, shoelaces, pants, gloves, belts, bare arms, necks and even the catcher has a few aces up his sleeve to tamper with baseballs.
Section 6.02(c)(4) of the rulebook states: “The pitcher shall not apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball.” Section 6.02(c)(7) adds, “The pitcher shall not have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance.”
The new baseball is about an ounce lighter. The hope was the new ball would not travel as far and decrease home run rates. The lighter ball is easier to spin, increasing movement and making it harder for hitters to make contact. Add foreign substance and boom, you got the lowest batting average in baseball history, along with alarming strikeout rates.
Aside from sunscreen and rosin, several concoctions are used to gain an advantage. Others include hair gel, pine tar, surfboard wax, drumstick resin and sticky glue grip used by bodybuilders. Back in the day, it seemed more likely that pitchers used saliva or Vaseline to doctor baseballs.
You heard the stories from pitchers using stuff back in the day. The first one that comes to mind is Gaylord Perry. Perry wrote a book (Me and the Spitter) on how he used Vaseline to get him into the Hall of Fame. Everyone knew he was doing it but he was only disciplined once. He was notorious for tricking and frustrating hitters by touching his cap, head or uniform to trick hitters into thinking he was putting stuff on the ball, when indeed he was not. Make no mistake, there were several times when he did.
Whitey Ford, Hall of Famer, admitted to using substances on the ball at the tail end of his career. Another infamous case of defacing the ball was Joe Niekro. When confronted by the umpires, Niekro, tossed the emery board he was using to scuff up the ball out of his pocket. Of course the umpires spotted it. Jay Howell of the Dodgers was tossed in the 1988 NLCS vs. the Mets for having pine tar on his glove.
More recently, Gerrit Cole and other MLB pitchers have been put on the spot for doctoring balls. Cole’s response to the simple question, “have you ever used sticky substances on the ball” tells you all you need to know. He basically said he and everyone else is using foreign substances on baseballs and that it is a part of the game. Below is the awkward and guilty response.
Former Angels employee Brian “Bubba” Harkins is connected with Cole and several other MLB pitchers for purchasing his special sticky concoction. Those pitchers included Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez, Corey Kluber and Adam Wainwright. The list also included half of the Angels pitching staff. Harkins was basically a one-man scapegoat and was fired by the Angels. Harkins, in return, is suing the MLB. Baseball fans will watch this story with great interest.
Trevor Bauer has not been quiet on the topic (shocker). He accused the Houston Astros of major baseball doctoring before their sign stealing scandal. The Astros had a higher spin rate than most MLB clubs and when new pitchers came in, their spin rate jumped almost immediately. Bauer, no stranger to new and strange practices, studied the use of pine tar. He found that his spin rate jumped up 300 rpm with the use of pine tar. Ironically, the Dodgers currently have higher spin rates than normal and will most likely go under investigation as more time passes.
Doctoring baseballs has become an art and a sweet science. One ex-pro ball player told me he had trouble adjusting to the use of sticky substances and could not control his pitches. Another told me he had almost immediate success with using pine tar. A third ex-pro ball player told me even position players would mark and scuff balls to give their pitchers an edge. Minor leaguers, especially, are looking to gain an advantage and stand out. Not only is doctoring baseball acceptable in the minors, but it is encouraged by teammates and the coaching staff.
The added spin on the ball does not only generate velocity, but also movement. Friction and leverage through the use of sticky stuff now changes a pitcher overnight. A fastball, down the middle, with 2,499 rpm hitters have batted .330. A fastball, down the middle, with 2,500 rpm hitters have batted .285. Say what you will, it is about survival and about cashing in the big pay day. Currently, the risk is worth the reward.
Many felt the rise in strikeouts and drop in batting average was due to players “swinging up” and trying to hit home runs. Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies, said it is all due to the fact that guys are throwing upper 90’s with nasty movement. Blackmon said balls are defying physics and many times hitters are seeing pitches they’ve never seen in their careers. This changes the thoughts on launch angle, home runs, and the decline in batting averages.
MLB seems determined to decrease the use of substances on balls. Balls and other equipment have been collected in an attempt to catch cheaters. Umpires are supposed to do routine checks on pitchers. It seemed like MLB swept spitballers under the rug but now that it seems to be a problem. Fans like home runs and bat flips. Not strikeouts and pitchers duels. MLB must take action.
The Urena Express appears every Wednesday at JoeTorosian.com
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