MLB’s Sticky Situation


Pitchers have long been using foreign substances to gain a competitive advantage.

Trevor Butler, Sports Editor

Cheating and variations of it have long been prevalent throughout the MLB. Whether it be the 1919 Black Sox scandal, in which they rigged their own World Series game to cash out bets, or the steroid epidemic of the 80’s and 90’s, to the sign stealing scandal that punished the Houston Astros in 2017. But one scandal that has only recently come to light looks at pitchers, not hitters. Rule 3.02 of the 2010 MLB Rule Book states that “No player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sand-paper, emery-paper or other foreign substance. PENALTY: The umpire shall demand the ball and remove the offender from the game. In addition, the offender shall be suspended automatically for 10 games. For rules in regard to a pitcher defacing the ball, see Rules 8.02(a)(2) through.” This means that the pitcher can’t use any sort of foreign substances to increase control or spin rate. 

The MLB defines spin rate as “the rate of spin on a baseball after it is released. It is measured in revolutions per minute. The amount of spin on a pitch changes its trajectory. The same pitch thrown at the same Velocity will end up in a different place depending on how much it spins.” Spin rate gives pitchers a massive advantage on how much a pitch might move, especially on breaking balls. 

Throughout the 2010’s, offense was at an all-time high in baseball. Home run rates were the highest they’d ever been, being capped off by 6,776 blasts hit in 2019, the most the league had ever seen. Speculations of “juiced” baseballs – baseballs that had been altered by the MLB to increase offense – ran rampant. 

Yet, offense seemed to fall off in 2020. People didn’t think much of it, chalking it up to the much shorter spring training and season. But in 2021 things seemed to stay the same. Pitchers were absolutely dealing, and offense was at a major low. By May, 6 no hitters were thrown, only one shy of the regular season record. People became suspicious of how these pitchers were doing it after such dismal pitching years just two years prior. 

The MLB began investigating at the beginning of the 2021 season, trying to figure out why pitchers were so dominant in 2020, and figured out that foreign substances were to blame. On June 14, 2021, Sports Illustrated released an article where they interviewed former Los Angeles Angels clubhouse attendant Brian “Bubba” Harkins. Harkins shared text messages with SI revealing that had been creating a special substance and sending it to star pitchers including Gerrit Cole, Adam Wainwright, and Tyler Chatwood, among others, who had been asking for it. (You can read that article here: Bubba Harkins Made Sticky Stuff for MLB Pitchers for 15 Years. Now He’s Speaking Out. – Sports Illustrated 

On June 15, 2021, the MLB announced that all foreign substances were banned, and that any pitcher caught using them would face a 10-day suspension with pay. They also announced that to make sure pitchers were staying legal, they will be performing checks every inning, and that any pitcher caught  altering a ball during a game would be ejected immediately. As  expected, controversy arose because of these checks. Mariners’ pitcher Hector Santiago was the first pitcher ejected, after being tossed during the M’s June 27th game against the Chicago White Sox. 

Gerrit Cole was the first pitcher to draw suspicion when he was seen repeatedly rubbing his thumb on a dark spot on his hat during games. When asked if he used Spider Tack, a notorious substance that helped pitchers spin rates, Cole answered with “Um, I don’t…. I don’t know… I… I don’t know if uh… I don’t know quite… I don’t quite know how to answer that to be honest.” His answer didn’t help his case much. 

Cole’s 2021 stats before foreign substance ban (14 Starts): 1.64 ERA (Earned Run Average), 9 Home Runs given up, 89.2 innings pitched, 4.6 Hits Per Game, 8.4 Strikeouts Per Game 

Cole’s 2021 stats after foreign substance ban (2 Starts): 3.5 ERA, 4 Home Runs given up, 12 innings pitched, 5.5 Hits Per Game, 6 Strikeouts Per Game 

The other pitcher to draw suspicion was Dodgers star Trevor Bauer. Long noted as the “troll” of the MLB, Bauer called out Gerrit Cole and the Houston Astros for doctoring baseballs during Cole’s rebound 2018 season, a season which saw Cole’s spin rate increase by 200 RPM’s. Bauer tweeted “If only there was just a really quick way to increase spin rate. Like what if you could trade for a player knowing that you could bump his spin rate a couple hundred rpm overnight…imagine the steals you could get on the trade market! If only that existed…” 

 People thought very little of it until Bauer’s own hitting coach tweeted saying “This has nothing to do with jealousy. In fact, maybe look at Trevor’s recent data. Or ask Sig to do it and see if he sees anything weird.” Implying that maybe something could be going on with Bauer. 

Bauer continued as a major advocate for the banning of foreign substances and even Tweeted, “My fastball is about 2250 rpm on average. I know for a fact I can add 400 rpm to it by using pine tar. Look how much better I would be if I didn’t have morals.” 

Now here’s where things get weird. That Tweet came out in 2018, when Bauer’s average fastball spin rate was exactly 2,322. His rpm’s jumped to 2,410 in 2019, which really isn’t that noteworthy but still a slight jump. But in 2020, Bauer’s fastball rpm jumped drastically to 2,779, a whole 457 rpm’s higher than 2018 and 369 rpm’s higher than 2019. Anything seem odd there? Bauer added more than the 400 rpm’s he said he could add in 2018.  

Bauer’s 2021 stats before foreign substance ban (15 starts): 1.73 ERA, 14 Home Runs given up, 87.2 innings pitched, 3.7 Hits Per Game, 7.4 Strikeouts Per Game 

Bauer’s 2021 stats after foreign substance ban (3 starts): 1.67 ERA, 5 Home Runs given up, 19 innings pitched, 5.3 Hits Per Game, 8.7 Strikeouts Per Game 

Now, the MLB’s new rule about mid inning checks has brought some controversy with it. Oakland Athletics pitcher Sergio Romo was particularly unhappy with the rule, and when asked to remove his belt during a check, pulled his pants completely down. The big controversy came on June 22nd when Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer was checked three times in an inning by Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi, much to the anger of Scherzer. When it was requested a third time, Scherzer was visibly upset and tossed his cap on the ground while yelling at the umpires. Girardi was ejected from the game for his antics. 

The new rules aren’t loved by many, and are seen as a quick fix by Rob Manfred, but the jury is out on whether we will see them return next year, but they’ve definitely made this season much more interesting. And obviously, no hate to any of these pitchers, they’re all amazing athletes.