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MLB cracking down on doctoring baseballs - A Hunt and Peck

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What does that mean for 2021?

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images

Most pitchers have something on the ball to give them a better grip — everyone knows this and for the most part has accepted it. Pitchers are hurling projectiles towards people at lethal speeds — it is in everyone’s best interest they do that as accurately as possible so there have been few complaints. Recently though what was whispered about has been shared out in the open via scandal. Offense has been on the decline. Technology has allowed for a deeper look into the type of competitive advantage a foreign substance on the baseball might allow a pitcher. Now Major League Baseball wants to crack down on foreign substances on the baseball. Per Jeff Passan of ESPN:

The idea is not to leave pitchers completely out to dry, of course, but to compromise. The league plans use a specially developed substance to “rub up the baseballs” with prior to the game. Per Joel Sherman of the New York Post:

“[Chris] Young, a former pitcher himself, said a goal before next season is to come up with a baseball or a substance that could be rubbed on the baseballs that provides desired grip without allowing a huge advantage in spin. MLB has toyed with a prototype of the baseballs used in the Japanese Leagues that are tackier, but some pitchers have complained the balls do not retain that tack.”

There are a few potential problems that have been pointed out with all of this. The first is the fear that the lack of control will lead to an increase in batters hit by pitches. (That is something I am curious about, but I my hunch is that it will not be a significant increase.) Another concern is the with the use of spin rate analysis. If the idea is to compare in-game spin-rate with career spin rates, pitchers that have been in the league and have been doctoring the baseballs will already have an unnatural baseline established. That would mean a comparison would not glean any useful information. Per MLBTradeRumors.com:

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.

You might recall that all this emphasis on the baseball comes in the wake of the Bubba Harkins scandal. The Ex-Angels clubhouse employee was revealed to have applied illegal substances to the baseballs for visiting pitchers. Harkins had filed a defamation suit against the Angels that looks to have been dismissed. The incident was quite embarrassing for the league and several star pitchers were named (including Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright). The affair no doubt has been the main motivation in the league’s newfound dedication to the issue.

As for the 2021 season this just adds to the uncertainty. The impact of a rule like this could be minimal — there is no way to really know how much a foreign substance on the ball helps pitchers until it is taken away. Will there be an increase in offense? Will there be more walks and hit batsman? Or will pitchers just find another way to get the desired grips? We find out April 1.

Ex-Angels staffer says Gerrit Cole, others used illegal product | Los Angeles Times

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