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Elephant Rumblings: MLB will clamp down on pitchers doctoring baseballs in 2021

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Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies
Pine tar: Now only for bats!
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Good morning, Athletics Nation!

Cheating has been a hot topic in baseball for the entire 21st century, from the Steroid Era to the Houston Astros stealing signs. Now MLB will crack down on another form: pitchers doctoring baseballs.

The league informed teams that it will analyze Statcast spin rates in an attempt to identify pitchers suspected of using foreign substances on baseballs, reports Joel Sherman of the NY Post. Plans also call for thorough monitoring of “dugouts, clubhouses, tunnels, batting cages and bullpens” by compliance officers, and random lab tests of game-used balls to check for illegal substances, adds Jeff Passan of ESPN. It’s not yet clear what penalties might result.

The use of pine tar, among other things, is a well-known and long-standing practice by pitchers to help them grip the ball better. The rulebook strictly prohibits it, but everyone mostly looks the other way and lets it go. Per Sherman:

But for years a gentlemen’s agreement existed not to challenge a pitcher, namely because so many were doing it that to challenge an opponent was to risk having your pitchers challenged as well. Also, even hitters were generally in favor of pitchers using something sticky, especially with slick balls in cold weather, to better control them and avoid those hitters being hit by pitches.

Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer has spoken out about the issue on multiple occasions, estimating that 70% of MLB pitchers do it, and pointing out the Astros in particular as a team that had figured out how to weaponize it at a systemic level.

Eno Sarris of The Athletic wonders if the answer might be to just legalize it, and have the league develop an approved sticky substance that everyone can use freely and equally — after all, if everyone prefers doing it then why not just let them, and level the playing field? Bauer agrees that there’s no possible way to fully and equitably enforce the current ban, and that the prohibition only opens an avenue for some teams/individuals to exploit for an unfair advantage.

But the league is instead choosing to lean into the existing rule, by significantly upping its enforcement in 2021. The increased velocity and spin rates that come with doctored balls is likely a factor in the recent Three True Outcomes revolution of strikeouts, walks, and homers, so this path clearly aligns with MLB’s stated goal of stemming that trend and manufacturing more batted-ball action.

Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors is skeptical about whether spin rates will be an effective tool in this investigation, given that there is no control-group baseline to compare against since pine tar predates Statcast. He does concede that it could help prevent pitchers from newly adopting the practice moving forward, and that examining the baseballs themselves could catch offenders.

Hot take: In general I’d probably agree with Sarris, that the best answer is to legalize it and regulate it. But if the league wants to decrease 3TO culture, then I’d rather they do it this way than by messing with the actual rules of the game. I’ll take no pine tar if it means we don’t need to have an automatic runner on second base in extra innings, or whatever other madness Rob Manfred might cook up next.

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