“Many if not most of the pitchers in baseball use foreign substances, whether it’s pine tar or sunscreen or something else entirely. It’s widely known and widely tolerated and Major League Baseball has turned a blind eye to most foreign substance use.” - Craig Calcaterra
If 70 percent of MLB pitchers are putting foreign substances on the ball, can we honestly say it is still cheating? Little is being done to keep the practice from getting out of hand; it has begun to look more like a competitive advantage and less an ejectable offense.
What if it became a way to cure pitch movement at altitude?
With an “18-percent difference” in curveball movement from sea level to Coors Field, Charlie Blackmon cures the variable with a data-driven approach and a pregame pitching machine. A Rockies pitcher could do the same by using a super-substance in Denver. It wouldn’t negate the entire effects of altitude, but it would at least limit how thin air impacts spin-induced movement. It would allow pitches at home to more closely resemble pitches on the road, which in turn promotes consistency and collective pitching in Colorado.
Foreign substances are notorious for increasing spin on pitches, which in turn magnifies spin-induced movement and makes pitches tougher to hit. If you’re in search of a little extra vertical break on your curveball, why risk a mechanical change when a little something on your fingers can do the trick? Using such a substance is ‘illegal’ per MLB rules, but it’s difficult to crack down on the issue with anything shy of a TSA agent at the bullpen gate. We cannot play foreign substance hide and seek with umpires before every inning, so at what point do we just accept the substances and play on?
Brian Harkins was the visiting clubhouse manager for the Angels until he was caught distributing foreign substances to opposing pitchers. On Thursday it was reported that New York Yankees starter Gerrit Cole reached out to Harkins by text prior to the 2019 season. Cole was seeking help with a “sticky situation,” and apparently Harkins had the good stuff when it came to doctoring baseballs. Cole’s fastball is spinning more since he supposedly texted Harkins; if he truly is using an illegal substance, he doesn’t seem to be the only one.
We cannot prove that Trevor Bauer was doctoring the ball without clear evidence, but we can see what a jump in spin rate did for his Cy Young season. Bauer’s page on Baseball Savant reveals a huge uptick in spin last year. A fastball with a 2300 RPM spin rate is around league average; Bauer’s fastball averaged 2776 last year, which was 364 RPM above his 2019 mark.
Bauer told us this: “I’ve melted down Firm Grip and Coca-Cola and pine tar together. . . I’ve tested a lot of stuff. At 70 MPH, when we were doing the tests, spin rates jumped between 300–400 RPM while using various different sticky substances. The effect is slightly less pronounced at higher velocities—more game-like velocities—but still between 200–300 RPM increase.”
The places to hide foreign substances are innumerable. You can put them on your hat, on your neck, inside the web of your glove, on your wrist, inside your belt, or elsewhere noted by Eddie Harris of the movie Major League. The list of substances is equally innumerable: old fashioned pine tar, Pelican Grip Dip, Cramer Firm Grip, Bullfrog sunscreen with rosin, or perhaps even a pre-outing Tootsie Pop rubbed on the forearm. With so many options to chose from, many are easily disguised. A brown-haired pitcher could replace hair gel with Pelican Grip for all we know.
If MLB does nothing to regulate foreign substance use, and widespread use is merely ‘frowned upon,’ it could be a matter of time until analytics teams start prescribing foreign substances to the exact spin profile of a pitcher. The Rockies could benefit unlike any other team as they float between sea level and 5,280 feet. Perhaps a strategy to ‘combat altitude’ is the most ‘legal’ way to an ‘illegal’ practice. Some substances are far better at inducing spin than others, and those are the ones that could best combat pitch movement at altitude.
In other words: Yes, it’s against the rules—but no, it doesn’t seem to stop anyone else.
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MLB.com’s Ken Gurnick writes a glowing requiem on Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda, a legend for the Los Angeles Dodgers and for all of baseball. Lasorda managed the Dodgers for 21 years, stepping down from his post in 1996 after leading the Dodgers to four National League pennants and two World Series rings.
“He is one of only four managers in big league history to manage the same team for 20 years or more.” His impact was relished by the Dodgers organization for 71 years, and his influence has left a huge imprint.
Congratulations to former Rockie Jhoulys Chacin on receiving his United States citizenship. Another congrats for his new deal with the New York Yankees; his contract is only a minor league deal, but he can make up to $1 million in 2021 with incentives.
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