Major League Baseball issued a memorandum informing all 30 clubs that it will seek to crack down on pitchers who manipulate baseball through the use of foreign substances, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post first reported. One of the league’s tactics, according to Sherman, will be to use Statcast data to measure increases in turning speed for pitchers suspected of handling the ball.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan (Twitter thread) and ESPN’s Jesse Rogers provide more details, reporting that the league will have compliance officers who will monitor dugouts, clubhouses, tunnels, bullpens and batting cages in an effort to reduce the use of foreign substances. Those officers will also draw random samples of baseballs for analysis in a third-party lab. Balls suspected of having been tampered with by a launcher will be tested using the spin speed data for that launcher from Statcast.
The MLB memorandum indicates that pitchers are subject to disciplinary action by the Commissioner’s Office if evidence is discovered during the course of a game or after the completion of a game. It is unclear at this time what type of penalties will be imposed on pitchers found using foreign substances. It’s also unclear if warnings will be issued or if the league will take disciplinary action for first-time offenders. The league’s memo also indicates that team personnel may be subject to discipline if they are determined to help pitchers manipulate the ball.
The rampant use of foreign substances, be it pine tar or otherwise, isn’t exactly a well-kept secret across the league. There are rare occasions when managers yell at an opposing pitcher when the presence of a substance is particularly egregious, but as Sherman points out, many are reluctant to do so, knowing the prosecution could quickly turn against one of their own pitchers.
The league’s attempt to crack down on the use of foreign substances aligns with other efforts to increase the amount of action in the game and move away from a style of play increasingly geared towards the real three outcomes (i.e. home runs. , walks, strikeouts). . Reducing your use of foreign substances could reduce strikeouts and perhaps walking, at least in theory.
At the same time, it is not entirely clear how the league plans to differentiate the 2021 rate of turn data from the “normal” rate of turn data. The very presence of these new policies indicates that the league considers the use of foreign substances to be a widespread problem, after all.
However, the pervasive nature of the problem likely also means that past violators are already benefiting from inflated turn rates in their fields. If a pitcher who used pine tar, sunscreen, or any number of other substances continues to do so in 2021, it is unlikely that there will be a noticeable change in his turning speed. That could still result in discipline if a ball taken out of the game after being thrown by a pitcher is found to have significant traces of a foreign substance, but analysis of the spin speed may not be as revealing as MLB hopes. At the very least, that practice could prevent new pitchers from embracing the use of foreign substances, but depending on how prevalent the problem is believed to be, that could represent a fairly small number of players.
Depending on the scope and frequency of disciplinary action enacted by MLB, it would be a surprise if do not see some appeals from league pitchers. It is sure to be a talking point in the final week of Spring Training and early in the season, but only time will tell if the new measures have any real effectiveness.