MLB has gotten through with a truly unusual baseball season beset by the coronavirus. But the teams went through it mostly untouched all the way to the World Series, and it is now the offseason, and the season’s awards are being given out. Last night Trevor Bauer of the National League and Shane Bieber of the American League won the Cy Young Awards for both leagues. But could they have cheated during the season to achieve those awards? I’m not going to touch that with a ten-foot pole. I will leave that up to you to decide.
If either of them did cheat, it was probably using different types of foreign substances to increase the spin rate and ball movement. I should add that if they did, they most likely didn’t do anything that nearly every other pitcher in baseball didn’t do at some point in the season. The use of foreign substances by pitchers is widespread and nearly unenforceable.
Trevor Bauer is well known for speaking his mind and often controversially so. Bauer has been very upfront about experimenting with tar-like substances. The fact is that using tar-like substances or “grip enhancement” is illegal in baseball and violates Official Baseball Rule 6.02, which states that the pitcher may not “apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball” or “have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance” or “attach anything to his hand, any finger, or either wrist.” The paradox is that some coaches believe that 99.9% of pitchers use something.
Your favorite pitcher most likely is using something. One player development executive said, “it’s better than steroids.” Trevor Bauer actually did a very public demonstration of how grip enhancement improved spin rate during an inning when he was with the Cleveland Indians.
In 2018 Bauer took to Twitter to accuse Gerrit Cole who is now with the New York Yankees of using grip enhancement substances.
Bauer took to Twitter insinuating Gerrit Cole and his fellow Astros pitchers are using foreign substances to enhance their grips and, thus, enjoying increased spin rates as a result.
“For eight years I’ve been trying to figure out how to increase the spin on my fastball because I’d identified it way back then as such a massive advantage,” Bauer himself wrote in a piece for The Players’ Tribune. “I knew that if I could learn to increase it through training and technique, it would be huge. But eight years later, I haven’t found any other way except using foreign substances.”
“I’ve tested all sorts of different stuff in the lab up at Driveline,” Bauer told Jordan Bastian in 2018. “I sat down with a chemical engineer to understand it. 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. So, that’s a lot of the research we’ve done. We’ve done it with multiple test subjects. … And those are the results we found.”
This may be the first time Gerrit Cole was accused of using a substance, in 2020 after the New York Yankees acquired Cole, in a doubleheader against the Tampa Bay Rays, Cole looked like the ace the Yanks were looking for, striking out 10 batters through 4.2 innings of work. Then, as the ace labored through the 5th inning, remote video editor for Driveline Baseball Lance Brozdowski dropped a gem on the Twitterverse (above). As Cole adjusted his cap on the mound, his fingers seem to stick to the bill of his cap, leaving us wondering why? The obvious answer is that Cole was using an illegal sticky substance.
The sticky substance situation is not like the steroid use situation over a decade ago. During that mark on baseball, some or many hitters and pitchers were using steroids to disadvantage those that weren’t. This situation is a case were not only many, but most pitchers are breaking the rules. And because the situation is so unenforceable due to the multiple applications used, including sunscreen, some have suggested that it be made legal, ending the rule-breaking.
There is no question that the “sticky ball” is putting hitters at a disadvantage. Strikeout rates across baseball have increased dramatically since 1974. When facing fastballs where the spin rate is so important, hitters were striking out 13% of the time; this year the strikeout rate has risen to just over 23%.
Although player development people, coaches, and even team managers have acknowledged the use of enhanced grip aids, no one is doing anything about it. Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona has admitted that some of his pitchers have used substances. The only way to enforce non-use is for the umpire to check the pitcher each game, each inning, and each thrown pitch, that is just not practical. Game managers don’t want to alert the umpire that the opponent’s pitcher may be using something because they know turns about is fair play, so they just stay quiet.
Not a single case in the 2020 season was a pitcher called out for using illegal substances. It is only when it becomes obvious, such as when the New York Yankees’ Michael Pineda practically covered the entire side of his neck in pine tar in a 2014 game or when the Orioles’ Brian Matusz was caught with a foreign substance on his arm in Miami in 2015, that MLB acts.
Possibly the most surprising thing is that many or most hitters are okay with it. They understand that the balls after being ruffed up by umpires are very slippery; slippery balls cause wild pitches and lack of control. Basically hitters would rather see pitchers use something to get a better grip on the ball so they don’t get hit in the head by a pitcher, that has a lack of control, and if most or all pitchers are using it doesn’t put any team at a disadvantage. Brice Harper of the Phillies has said:
“Absolutely,” Harper says. “I’m all in favor of it. If there’s a guy out there that needs it, I’m all for it. I don’t want to get hit in the head or the face. So whatever they need out there, I’ll let them have it.”
However, all hitters are not in agreement with Harper. The New York Met’s Todd Frazier has this to say:
“I don’t like pitchers to put anything on the ball,” New York Mets third baseman Todd Frazier says. “To be honest with you, I think it helps them out in the long run. That’s why [baseballs] get rubbed up before the game. You don’t know exactly what the pitchers are using. You don’t know where they’re putting it. You’ve seen guys with it on their hat, you’ve seen guys rubbing their arms to get some stickum, you’ve seen guys with it on their cleats.”
Regardless of how many in baseball are talking about this issue, it seems that Trevor Bauer has been most articulate in the subject. During the Astros fiasco last season, during an interview, Bauer in part said this:
“There is a problem in baseball right now that has to do with sticky substances and spin rates. We might not have had the technology before to measure how sticky stuff affects the ball, how it spins, how it moves. But, all that research is clear now. We know how it affects spin rate and we know how spin rate affects outcomes and pitches and movements that have a big difference in a game, a season and each individual player’s career.”
In the same interview, he was asked what Major League Baseball should do about the use of sticky substances. This is how he answered:
“Allow it. I don’t see that there’s a way to enforce it, because you can’t go check a pitcher every single inning, every single pitch, and that’s currently how it is. You can get thrown out of a game and suspended for it if an umpire comes out and checks and finds out. But, it doesn’t happen. So, pick a substance that’s sticky, that gives you all the performance benefits, and just put it on the back of the mound. That way, if you want to use it you can and everybody knows it’s being used. And, if you want to use other substances and skirt the rule, whatever. Have a certain amount of outlawed substances — vaseline or whatever. But, if you want to use sticky stuff, it’s right there on the mound. Put your fingers on it and throw.”
Indians manager Terry Francona echoed nearly the same thing in his own way when interviewed about the subject.
“I actually do. I think we were one of the test teams this spring with the other ball. Anybody, the guys that are here all the time, like in Spring Training we talk about it, if you ever open a ball that the Japanese League uses, they pull it right out of the foil and it’s real tacky. Supple, is probably a good word. I know sometimes when I will take a ball from a pitcher and give it to the next guy, it feels like a cue ball sometime. Not all the time, but sometimes. I was just so impressed when you pull that ball out of a box, you can grab it. I think there’s something to that. I hope, and I don’t know the ins and outs of — I just hope that at some point, maybe we can morph into that, because I think maybe it could be really helpful.”
With all the things Major League Baseball is going to have to navigate this offseason when they don’t know what a 2021 season is going to look like, with the coronavirus spiraling out of control, it is doubtful that any action will be taken regarding grip enhancements or the stopping of rubbed up balls. However, in this writer’s opinion, it should be made legal, so all pitchers and hitter are on the same page.
The bottom line on this subject is these and other types of grip enhancements have been used forever in baseball. MLB outlawed the “spitball” in 1920. Two of the best pitchers in baseball Phil Niekro and Gaylord Perry were widely known for using substances. As with everything in our lives, we constantly try to improve things through innovation and technology. Baseball grip enhancement is no different.
Some information and quotes for the article were taken from an in-depth article by Jordan Bastian of MLB.com and Eno Sarris of The Athletic and other researched sources.
EmpireSportsMedia.com’s William Parlee is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research. Follow me on Twitter @parleewilliam.