Major League Baseball has issued a memo informing all 30 clubs that it will seek to crack down on pitchers doctoring the baseball through the use of foreign substances, as first reported by Joel Sherman of the New York Post. One of the league’s tactics, per Sherman, will be to use Statcast data to gauge spin-rate increases for pitchers suspected of doctoring the ball.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan (Twitter thread) and ESPN’s Jesse Rogers provide further detail, reporting that the league will have compliance officers monitor dugouts, clubhouses, tunnels, bullpens and batting cages in an effort to reduce the use of foreign substances. Those officers will also pull random samples of baseballs to be analyzed in a third-party lab. Balls suspected of being doctored by a pitcher will be tested against that pitcher’s spin-rate data from Statcast.
MLB’s memo indicates that pitchers are subject to discipline from the Commissioner’s Office whether evidence is discovered during the course of a game or after the completion of a game. It’s unclear at this time just what type of penalties will be levied against pitchers who are found to be utilizing foreign substances. It’s also not clear if there will be any warnings issued or if the league will jump straight into discipline for first-time offenders. The league’s memo also indicates that team personnel can be the subject of discipline if they are determined to be helping pitchers doctor the ball.
Rampant use of foreign substances, be it pine tar or otherwise, isn’t exactly a well-kept secret throughout the league. There are rare occasions of managers calling out an opposing pitcher when the presence of a substance is particularly egregious, but as Sherman notes, many are reluctant to do so, knowing the accusation could quickly be turned back on one of their own pitchers.
The league’s attempt to crack down on the use of foreign substances aligns with other efforts to increase the amount of action in the game and move away from an increasingly three-true-outcome-oriented (i.e. home runs, walks, strikeouts) style of play. Reducing the use of foreign substances could cut back on strikeouts and perhaps on walks — at least in theory.
At the same time, it’s not at all clear how the league plans to differentiate 2021 spin-rate data from “normal” spin-rate data. The very presence of these new policies indicates that the league considers use of foreign substance to be a widespread problem, after all.
However, the widespread nature of the issue likely also means that prior offenders are already benefiting from inflated spin rates on their pitches. If a pitcher who used pine tar, sunscreen or any other number of substances continues to do so in 2021, a notable change in his spin rate would be unlikely. That could still result in discipline if a ball taken out of play after being thrown by a pitcher is found to have significant traces of a foreign substance, but the spin-rate analysis may not be as telling as MLB hopes. At the very least, that practice could prevent new pitchers from adopting the use of foreign substances, but depending on how prevalent one believes the issue to be, that could represent a rather small number of players.
Depending on the extent and frequency of disciplinary measures enacted by MLB, it’d be a surprise if we didn’t see some appeals from pitchers around the league. It’ll surely be a talking point in the final week of Spring Training and early in the season, but only time will tell whether the new measures have any actual efficacy.