JUNE 10: In a follow-up tweet last night, Drellich noted it’s no longer clear whether MLB plans to carry out the second part of the testing process later in the season as they’d initially intended. He adds that the league halted the experiment in the Southern League after just two weeks for reasons unclear.
JUNE 9: Major League Baseball has been testing a pair of tacky substances in the Texas and Southern Leagues — two of the three Double-A levels — during the season, reports Evan Drellich of the Athletic. It’s the continuation of ongoing league efforts to find an improved grip substance for pitchers.
Drellich provides a breakdown of the experiment. For the first two months of the year, a substance from one of two different manufacturers has been applied to the baseballs. The league is now pivoting to treating the balls with mud, the standard process used at the MLB level, as a control group. That control testing will be with the standard Major League ball, which is different than the ball typically used up through Double-A. The second manufacturer’s substance will be tested at some point later in the year.
The testing in Double-A comes on the heels of other fairly recent experiments about applying a universal grip enhancer to the ball. Baseball America reported last September that MLB would introduce a pre-tacked prototype ball in certain Triple-A games late in the 2021 season, and Drellich writes that one of the substances currently under consideration was first introduced during last year’s Arizona Fall League. Commissioner Rob Manfred has previously expressed support for the possibility of a pre-tacked ball eventually being implemented at the major league level.
Sticky stuff hasn’t been as prevalent a topic this season as it was last year, when MLB implemented a midseason crackdown on pitcher use of foreign substances. The league had long banned the application of foreign substances — outside of the provided rosin bag — to the ball, but it had previously left ball-doctoring largely unenforced in practice. As more pitchers began to use particularly powerful grip enhancers to meaningfully improve the spin and movement on their pitches, however, the league began a sometimes controversial system of enforcement last June.
After an initial few weeks of some dispute, however, the foreign substance checks largely faded into the rearview mirror. Two pitchers — Héctor Santiago and Caleb Smith — were suspended last season for failing substance checks, but there wasn’t any overwhelming rash of discipline. Sports Illustrated reported this spring that MLB worried that pitchers might’ve found a way to skirt the enforcement later in the year and planned to conduct more rigorous screenings this season. Through the first two months of 2022, however, no pitchers have been ejected or suspended for a foreign substance violation.
Despite the crackdown, the league has looked for ways to introduce a more moderate grip enhancer that could aid pitchers’ control of the ball without dramatically improving the quality of their stuff. MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Morgan Sword tells Drellich they’re continuing to search for a viable grip enhancer but don’t consider altering the ball an absolute must.
“We have a ball that has served the sport well for decades and we have taken a number of steps to make the baseball the most consistent it has ever been,” Sword said. “While we continue to explore solutions to add tackiness without materially increasing spin rates, it’s a very hard thing to get right, and we have set a very high bar for success.”
The primary impetus for the league’s increased diligence in rooting out foreign substances has been a downturn in balls in play that MLB and many observers find alarming. The league strikeout rate has risen throughout essentially its entire history, but it’s taken a particularly sharp upward turn over the past decade or so. Improved pitch quality is no doubt a contributor to the uptick in swing-and-miss, and the league has looked for ways to push some of the balance back in hitters’ favor.
MLB has dealt with more concerns about offense this season, although swing-and-miss issues have leveled off somewhat. The league strikeout rate sits at 22.2% entering play Thursday, down a percentage point from last season and 1.2 points from 2019-20’s record high. MLB’s 76.6% contact rate — on what percentage of swings a batter makes contact — is up slightly from last season’s 76.1% and a fair bit better than the 75.3% mark of 2020.
Nevertheless, league run-scoring has fallen alongside a drop in power production. Foreign substance usage is one of a myriad of factors that affects the league offense, of course. Such things as weather, the composition/storage of the ball, the implementation of the universal designated hitter, and hitters’ approach and mechanics all have their own impact on run-scoring and style of play.
Drellich writes that the early returns on the substances currently being tested in Double-A have drawn substantial pushback from some of the league’s players and coaches. One pitcher called the first substance tested “horrible,” while another indicated he and his teammates were excited about the return of the standard mudding process for the control part of the testing. An MLB official acknowledged that the newer substances “are popular with some and not popular with others, just like our current ball is popular with some and not others.”
The varied at best feedback illustrates the challenges MLB continues to face in potentially introducing a tackier ball to the highest level. One league official tells Drellich that while the league isn’t ruling out the possibility of introducing a pre-tacked ball to MLB by 2023, it doesn’t seem likely to be viable by that point. The league and MLB Players Association have remained in contact about the experiment, Drellich writes, and the league presumably would prefer to have the union’s cooperation in any efforts to implement it in the majors. (Minor league players are not unionized and have little recourse to push back against any of the rule experiments being conducted at affiliates).
The Athletic’s post is well worth a read in full for those interested in the topic. Drellich speaks with various players, league officials, player development personnel and others about the challenges and complications of the testing.