11:20 am: MLB has officially announced its guidance on foreign substance rules. “After an extensive process of repeated warnings without effect, gathering information from current and former players and others across the sport, two months of comprehensive data collection, listening to our fans and thoughtful deliberation, I have determined that new enforcement of foreign substances is needed to level the playing field,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said as part of the release. “I understand there’s a history of foreign substances being used on the ball, but what we are seeing today is objectively far different, with much tackier substances being used more frequently than ever before. It has become clear that the use of foreign substance has generally morphed from trying to get a better grip on the ball into something else – an unfair competitive advantage that is creating a lack of action and an uneven playing field.”
As previously reported, umpires will be instructed to check each pitcher (multiple times for starters) from both teams. Position players can also be ejected and suspended for foreign substance use, but only if the umpires determine the position player applied the substance to the ball for the benefit of his pitcher. As expected, pitchers are still permitted to use rosin bags on the mound but are prohibited from “intentionally (combining) rosin with other substances (e.g., sunscreen) to create additional tackiness.” Non-player personnel who encourage or facilitate players using foreign substances (or who help mask their use after the fact) are subject to discipline, including fines and/or suspensions.
Notably, a player suspended for an on-field violation cannot be replaced on the roster, which could lead to instances of teams forced to play shorthanded if their pitchers disregard the foreign substance ban.
The full release is available here.
8:52 am: Major League Baseball will distribute a memo to teams today outlining its plans for enforcing a ban on foreign substances, reports Jeff Passan of ESPN. Players found with illicit substances on their person will be suspended for ten days, with pay, with enforcement expected to begin on June 21, per Passan.
Notably, the league isn’t planning to differentiate between substances, Passan reports. MLB is prepared to hand down equal bans for players found to have used a combination of sunscreen/rosin versus those detected with Spider Tack, an industrial superglue originally designed to help strongman competitors retain their grip on atlas stones. As Passan notes, that lack of distinction figures to irk some players. Pitchers’ use of sunscreen/rosin to gain a better grip on the ball is a longstanding practice, albeit one that seems to violate MLB Rule 6.02(c)(4), which prohibits pitchers from applying “a foreign substance of any kind to the ball.” It’s not uncommon to hear hitters express support for pitchers’ use of some kind of grip enhancer, though; after all, a pitcher with better feel for the ball is less likely to accidentally throw a pitch that hits the batter in a dangerous area.
In recent seasons, however, many pitchers have increasingly adopted more sophisticated grip enhancers found to substantially increase spin. More spin can lead to more movement on pitches, and a not insignificant number of hurlers have fined-tuned sticky substances that can enhance the quality of their raw stuff, not simply their control. Former MLB pitcher Jerry Blevins breaks down the generally accepted distinction between a pitcher’s use of sunscreen/rosin and the introduction of more sophisticated substances in an interesting Twitter thread.
While failing to distinguish between forms of sticky stuff might seem overly basic, it’s an arguably necessary simplicity. Umpires are going to be tasked with checking players for substances on the fly in the middle of games. That’s not an environment especially conducive for differentiating between substances and deciding upon the severity of a player’s violation. Indeed, one MLB umpire tells Passan the league taking a firm stance against all forms of sticky stuff is critical for umpires’ enforcement efforts.
Certainly, the league is hoping to avoid handing down many suspensions, with the mere threat of a ban intended to encourage players to voluntarily stop using foreign substances. MLB has sent memos to teams in each of the past two Spring Trainings suggesting there’d be increased attention to the practice. Buster Olney of ESPN reports that former big league pitcher Chris Young- then MLB’s chief baseball officer- was the first person in the league office to raise concerns about increased use of sticky substances to enhance pitchers’ repertoires. (Young, who authored the first of those memos, has since been hired as GM of the Rangers).
This season, MLB made it known they were monitoring pitchers’ spin rate data and confiscating randomly-selected baseballs, building a dossier of sorts on which players they considered to be the most frequent offenders. Over the past few weeks, it became apparent MLB was planning to intervene in the near future. The league also recently sent documents to teams identifying pitchers on their clubs MLB believed it had caught using foreign substances, Passan reports. That appears to be another tactic the league has put in place to encourage players to curtail the use of sticky stuff before suspensions come into play. For what it’s worth, Passan hears from multiple pitchers who said they have indeed stopped using foreign substances with MLB’s crackdown on the horizon.
Nevertheless, it’d be a surprise if there weren’t some high-profile instances of discipline, given how widespread the practice has become. Brian Harkins, a former Angels clubhouse manager who was fired after it was revealed he’d provided a sticky concoction to players around the league, filed a defamation action against the team and MLB last year alleging he’d been singled out for a nearly ubiquitous practice.
The suit has since been dismissed (pending appeal), but Harkins detailed more specific allegations in a recent interview with Stephanie Apstein and Alex Prewitt of Sports Illustrated. He names stars like Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Adam Wainwright and Corey Kluber (among many others) as alleged users of his pine tar/rosin mix. (Kluber’s agent, B.B. Abbott, adamantly denied the allegation against him, calling it a “blatant lie”).
The former clubhouse attendant also provides Apstein and Prewitt a February 2020 text exchange with Giants pitching coach Andrew Bailey in which Bailey purchases some of Harkins’ concoction. Bailey admitted to Sports Illustrated that he bought the substance but provided Apstein and Prewitt evidence he never distributed it to his pitchers. Bailey claimed MLB had instructed teams to reduce foreign substance use in between the time he purchased Harkins’ product and when he was planning to distribute it, which he says stopped him from passing along any form of foreign substance to players in the year-plus since.
All of Harkins’ alleged distribution came before his firing in March 2020- long after the MLB rule banning foreign substances was on the books, but before the league had shown much interest in enforcing it. There are surely other players and coaches who were engaged in similar practices with distributors other than Harkins. Apstein’s and Prewitt’s piece is well worth a read in full for those interested in the broader context surrounding foreign substance use.
Regardless of players’ and team personnel’s past actions, it seems MLB is ready to turn the page on this issue. All signs suggest the league is prepared for a massive crackdown in the hope of reinvigorating an anemic offensive environment. It’ll be clearer shortly enough how much impact these efforts will have on the on-field product.