MLB is planning greater enforcement of rules against pitchers doctoring baseballs — sort of.
In a memo sent Tuesday from Michael Hill, MLB’s new senior vice president of on-field operations, teams were informed the league will be collecting baseballs to look for illegal foreign substances and also diving into Statcast data to search for wide changes in spin rate, especially when use of foreign substances is suspected.
In addition, MLB is planning to use compliance monitors already present at ballparks to try to discourage electronic sign stealing — among other things — to also be vigilant in regard to the presence of foreign substances to doctor baseballs in and around the clubhouse.
The memo said MLB can punish players for infractions and that the punishment can come for violations “regardless of whether evidence of the violation has been discovered during or following a game.”
Yet, MLB does not anticipate a free-for-all of penalties, including suspensions. It is hoping that greater focus on the issue will, among other items, serve as a deterrent not only in the majors, but teaching how to use substances for gain in the minors, especially since the memo states no member of an organization from clubhouse attendants up can assist in helping to doctor balls by providing substances or techniques on how to do it. Those who participate in that way also face punishment.
Much like survey steroid testing in 2003, MLB is using this as an educational tool to see how widespread a problem it has before becoming even stricter on the issue. MLB wants to determine what kind of sticky substances are being used and to what advantage. MLB would like to be armed with the information as it continues to work on a baseball that like the one used in Japan will have a tackier surface and, perhaps, discourage the need to cheat.
The union was given a courtesy phone call a few weeks back to inform it that MLB would be intensifying its scrutiny in this area. But because the rule already exists that a ball cannot be doctored, MLB did not need union approval to further enforce the rule. However, the union maintains its right to challenge any player disciplined under the rule.
MLB also wanted as much information on the doctoring of baseballs heading into collective bargaining. While the union does not have to be consulted on pre-existing rules, it does need to approve new ones. And MLB wants to try to make adjustments to lessen the ever-rising three true outcomes — homers, strikeouts and walks. There is strong belief that the increase in spin helped by sticky substances has led to certainly more strikeouts, which has also triggered more walks and homers.
The analytic revolution verified that increased spin helps with ride on fastballs and break on curves and sliders. Pitchers learned that using sticky substances promoted greater spin and a cottage industry sprung up to devise concoctions that worked best and were hard to detect on the body or uniform.
Despite the prevalence of the foreign substances — in February 2020, Trevor Bauer surmised three-quarters of pitchers were using something — teams did not challenge one another in fear that their pitchers would be challenged. So MLB is trying to remove the onus from clubs. Nevertheless, it is possible that greater scrutiny in this area will lead to, say, teams that believe they have fewer users to wage challenges during the season.
For now, though, MLB seems more determined to deter and perhaps punish just the worst offenders while fact-finding about what it is facing. To that end, the league said it will remove balls that appear dubious and randomly select others to send to a third-party lab for inspection for foreign substances. In addition, Statcast data has been tracking velocity, spin and movement for several years and MLB plans to compare especially suspected pitcher’s spin rates with previous baselines to try to cull evidence of cheating.