Major League Baseball’s efforts to root out pitchers’ usage of foreign substances was one of the biggest stories in the sport last summer. Beginning in early June, the league made clear that it was planning to crack down on grip enhancers, concerned pitchers were using sticky stuff to enhance the quality of their raw arsenals as opposed to merely trying to improve their control.
That decision wasn’t without backlash. Rays ace Tyler Glasnow claimed the timing of the midseason enforcement contributed to an injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery. Phillies manager Joe Girardi and then-Nationals star Max Scherzer had an on-field squabble after Girardi asked for umpires to check Scherzer. A pair of pitchers — Héctor Santiago and Caleb Smith — were suspended for ten games apiece.
However, the foreign substance controversy mostly faded from public view after the first few weeks of its enforcement. Umpires continued to examine pitchers’ hats, gloves and belts frequently, but Smith was the only pitcher to fail a substance check in the second half of the season.
Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated reports that MLB sent a memo to teams today informing them that foreign substance inspections will become more rigorous this season. Beginning with Spring Training contests this weekend, umpires will check pitchers’ hands directly, according to the memo. They may also continue to examine players’ equipment. Starting pitchers will be checked between random innings, while every reliever will be inspected at least once, as was the case last season.
Verducci obtains a copy of the memo, quoting MLB senior vice president of baseball operations Michael Hill as saying “If an umpire’s inspection reveals that the pitcher’s hand is unquestionably sticky or shows unmistakable signs of the presence of a foreign substance, the umpire will conclude that the pitcher was applying a foreign substance to the baseball for the purpose of gaining an unfair competitive advantage.” As was the case last season, that’d lead to an automatic ejection and suspension.
Position players aren’t subject to foreign substance inspections, but they would also be ejected and suspended if found to be harboring sticky stuff for pitchers. Verudcci writes that the league is tightening inspections in response to a fear that pitchers began carrying foreign substances on areas of their body besides their hat, belt and glove late last season. He notes that leaguewide fastball and slider spin rates and velocity-adjusted spin rates starting to trend upwards late in the year (albeit not to pre-enforcement levels) after falling dramatically in the immediate aftermath of the crackdown. Directly examining the pitcher’s hand should theoretically make it harder to skirt the substance checks and curtail whatever portion of that increase was due to pitcher subversion of the sticky stuff ban.
There remains the possibility that foreign substance checks won’t need to be as prevalent at some point in the future. MLB began to test pre-tacked baseballs in the minors late last season. In November, commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters the pre-tacked ball could be put in circulation during regular season action at some point in 2022.