Beau Sulser of the Indianapolis Indians submits to a random, routine check for foreign substances after an inning of a game on June 27, 2021
Beau Sulser of the Indianapolis Indians submits to a random, routine check for foreign substances after an inning of a game on June 27, 2021

The 2021 pitch doctoring controversy arose in Major League Baseball (MLB) around pitchers' use of foreign substances, such as the resin-based Spider Tack, to improve their grip and spin rate on their pitches. On June 15, 2021, MLB announced a 10-game suspension for any player caught using foreign substances on baseballs, with umpire inspections of all pitchers starting on June 21, a decision that was met with mixed reactions from players and coaches.

Background

See also: Cheating in baseball § Grip enhancers

Throughout the history of Major League Baseball (MLB), pitchers have used various methods of "doctoring" the baseball, using foreign substances or physically altering the shape of the ball to increase a certain aspect. An early example would be the spitball, which was popularized by Elmer Stricklett in the early 1900s.[1] The spitball was formally banned in 1920, after Ray Chapman was struck in the head and killed by one such pitch. Another historical method of doctoring pitches included the emery ball, in which sandpaper or an emery board was used to scuff one side of a ball and change its flight pattern.[2] In 2012, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Joel Peralta came under fire when he was found to be using pine tar to improve his grip while pitching. Peralta was caught using pine tar in his glove during a game against the Washington Nationals, was expelled from the game, and received an additional eight-game suspension. Peralta argued that he had been using the pine tar for batting practice, where the substance is allowed for help gripping the bat, and that "It's not like I'm using pine tar my whole career".[3]

In 2009, professional weightlifters James Deffinbaugh and Michael Caruso began working on a substance that would allow weightlifters and bodybuilders to better grip the large, awkwardly-shaped lifting stones used during World's Strongest Man competitions. Caruso, who had a Ph.D. in molecular biology and a background in chemistry, developed a resin-based substance that the pair began marketing commercially in 2010 as Spider Tack. In addition to strongman competitions, Spider Tack became popular in the wheelchair sports community, as the tackiness of the substance helped athletes maintain their grip on the wheels of their chair.[4]

Usage

The use of Spider Tack and other foreign substances was first openly discussed in February 2020, when Trevor Bauer, then playing with the Cincinnati Reds, spoke to HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel about how he "would guess 70 percent of the pitchers in the league use some sort of technically illegal substance on the ball".[5] MLB undertook an informal poll during the 2020-21 offseason, during which they found that a majority of field managers considered foreign substances to be the most urgent issue in the sport. At the beginning of the 2021 MLB season, umpires and other officials collected baseballs from teams and analyzed them in an independent laboratory.

Simultaneously, the league-wide batting average at the start of the 2021 season was .237, the lowest that it had been since 1968. There were, on average, 8.98 strikeouts per team per game, the highest in MLB history, and pitchers had thrown six no-hitters by June 12.[6] On June 15, 2021, MLB announced that any pitcher found using illegal foreign substances during a game would be immediately ejected, and would face an additional 10-game suspension. The rosin bags that are placed behind the pitching mound were allowed to remain, but pitchers were not allowed to combine rosin with other substances, such as sunscreen.[7]

New York Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole's comments on Spider Tack placed him at the center of the controversy.
New York Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole's comments on Spider Tack placed him at the center of the controversy.

On June 5, 2021, third baseman Josh Donaldson of the Minnesota Twins accused New York Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole of using Spider Tack. He noted that, in Cole's first start after MLB announced a crackdown on foreign substances, the spin rate on Cole's pitches dropped by up to 125 RPM. He asked The Athletic, "Is it coincidence that Gerrit Cole's spin rate numbers went down (Thursday) after four minor leaguers got suspended for 10 games?"[8] On June 8, during a Zoom conference after a game, Cole was asked directly whether he had ever used Spider Tack, to which the pitcher said, "I don't quite know how to answer that, to be honest."[9] Cole was one of a handful of pitchers named in a lawsuit by Los Angeles Angels visiting clubhouse manager Bubba Harkins, who claimed that several players had ordered tins of homemade tacky substance from Harkins.[10] After the press conference, Cole clarified that his hesitation was because he did not believe that Zoom was the appropriate forum to discuss the issue. Meanwhile, his Yankees teammate Jameson Taillon admitted that he had tried Spider Tack while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but that he had struggled to pitch with the substance and thus no longer uses it.[11]

Controversy

Several batters have spoken out against the use of Spider Tack and other sticky substances. Donaldson threatened to expose "an entire catalog of video" of pitchers that he believed to be using foreign substances, before telling reporters that he wanted umpires to check "every half-inning" for non-compliance.[8] J. T. Realmuto, the starting catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, also spoke out against the use of Spider Tack and pine tar, telling The Philadelphia Inquirer, "I think if they cracked down on that, that would honestly help the offense a lot, get the ball in play more often, and less swing and miss."[12]

Some individuals have argued against MLB's blanket ban on grip-enhancing substances. After Phillies pitcher Vince Velasquez lost control of a pitch, fracturing Washington Nationals pitcher Austin Voth's nose as a result, Nationals manager Dave Martinez argued that the injury could have been prevented had Velasquez been allowed to use a substance to increase his grip. Martinez told reporters, "I understand them trying to clean some stuff up. But it's hot, it's slippery, it's sweaty. I know Velasquez didn't throw in there intentionally, but I'm afraid that if we don't come up with something unified for everybody, you'll see a lot more of that."[13] Tyler Glasnow, a pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays who openly admitted to using a mixture of sunscreen and rosin to improve his grip on the baseball, blamed the MLB crackdown on such substances for his season-ending ulnar collateral ligament injury.[14] Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo called Glasnow "courageous" for admitting to using grip-enhancing techniques, and criticized MLB for the sudden ban.[15]

Enforcement

On June 15, 2021, MLB issued a press release announcing new guidance regarding "a uniform standard for the consistent application of the rules, including regular checks of all pitchers regardless of whether an opposing club's manager makes a request." Included in MLB's announcement was a mandate for routine, random checks of all pitchers by umpires in the Major and Minor Leagues, with any player found to have a foreign substance immediately ejected and suspended for 10 games.[16] Enforcement across MLB began on June 21.[17]

The process of being checked for sticky substances has been met with scrutiny. Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw suggested that an opposing manager should face punishment if he requests a substance check and the pitcher is clean, while Oakland Athletics reliever Sergio Romo, frustrated with the regular checks for foreign substances, dropped his pants in protest. Most notably, Phillies manager Joe Girardi and Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer clashed in a game when Girardi requested that officials perform a substance check on Scherzer in the fourth inning of a Phillies-Nationals game. The two clashed over whether the request was made in good faith, with Girardi ultimately ejected from the game.[18]

On June 27, Seattle Mariners left-hander Hector Santiago became the first player ejected under MLB's heightened enforcement, after umpires discovered a foreign substance on his glove. Both Santiago and Mariners manager Scott Servais said that Santiago was only using rosin, which is allowed, and that it had become sticky when mixed with his sweat.[19] MLB announced a 10-game suspension for Santiago on June 29, which Santiago appealed.[20] Caleb Smith of the Arizona Diamondbacks was the second pitcher to be suspended under the new policy; umpires found suspicious material inside Smith's glove on August 18, during a game against the Phillies. He appealed the suspension, arguing that the substance was an accidental combination of rosin and dirt. Under the new policy, Smith would have faced suspension regardless for applying rosin to his glove.[21]

References

  1. ^ Perry, Dayn (June 17, 2021). "From the spitball to Spider Tack: A brief history of foreign substance use by pitchers in baseball". CBS Sports. Retrieved June 20, 2021.
  2. ^ Terbush, Jon (January 8, 2015). "Spitballs, nail files, and other ways pitchers cheat". The Week. Retrieved June 20, 2021.
  3. ^ Wagner, James (June 19, 2012). "Joel Peralta ejected from Rays-Nationals game because of pine tar in glove; Joe Maddon calls Davey Johnson's challenge 'cowardly'". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 20, 2021.
  4. ^ Beaton, Andrew (June 11, 2021). "This Is Spider Tack: The Men Who Inadvertently Created MLB's Stickiest Problem". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved June 20, 2021.
  5. ^ Heck, Jordan (February 26, 2020). "Trevor Bauer explains what 70 percent of MLB pitchers are doing that's 'a bigger advantage than steroids'". Sporting News. Retrieved June 20, 2021.
  6. ^ Waldstein, David (June 12, 2021). "Baseball's Sticky Situation". The New York Times. Retrieved June 27, 2021.
  7. ^ Waldstein, David (June 15, 2021). "M.L.B. Says It Will Punish Doctoring of Baseballs". The New York Times. Retrieved June 27, 2021.
  8. ^ a b Hayes, Dan (June 5, 2021). "Josh Donaldson wants illegal substances better enforced to impede 'next steroids of baseball ordeal'". The Athletic. Retrieved June 20, 2021.
  9. ^ Kepner, Tyler (June 8, 2021). "Asked if He Doctored Baseballs, Yankees Star Stumbles in Response". The New York Times. Retrieved June 27, 2021.
  10. ^ Lacques, Gabe (June 23, 2021). "Opinion: MLB's well-intentioned pitcher crackdown is instead creating a public spectacle". USA Today. Retrieved June 27, 2021.
  11. ^ Lennon, David (June 10, 2021). "Spider Tack didn't stick with Yankees' Jameson Taillon". Newsday. Retrieved June 27, 2021.
  12. ^ Breen, Matt (May 20, 2021). "Baseball is desperate for more offense. J. T. Realmuto thinks he has a solution". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved June 20, 2021.
  13. ^ Dougherty, Jesse (June 8, 2021). "As Austin Voth hits the injured list, Dave Martinez pushes for answers on foreign substances". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on June 18, 2021. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
  14. ^ Salvador, Joseph (June 15, 2021). "Tyler Glasnow Blames MLB Crackdown for UCL Injury: 'I Truly Believe 100% That's Why I Got Hurt'". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved June 21, 2021.
  15. ^ Cadeaux, Ethan (June 16, 2021). "Rizzo: Rays' Glasnow 'courageous' for statement on sticky stuff". NBC Sports Washington. Retrieved June 21, 2021.
  16. ^ "MLB announces new guidance to crack down against use of foreign substances, effective June 21". MLB.com. Major League Baseball. June 15, 2021. Retrieved 2 July 2021.
  17. ^ Bumbaca, Chris (June 21, 2021). "New York Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom is checked for foreign substances and passes inspection". USA Today. Retrieved June 21, 2021.
  18. ^ Dougherty, Jesse (June 23, 2021). "Max Scherzer, Joe Girardi and the fastball at the center of MLB's messy sticky stuff drama". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 27, 2021.
  19. ^ Condotta, Bob (June 27, 2021). "Mariners win first game in Chicago as Hector Santiago is ejected for violating illegal substance rule". The Seattle Times. Retrieved June 27, 2021.
  20. ^ Snyder, Matt; Axisa, Mike; Anderson, R. J. (June 29, 2021). "Mariners pitcher Héctor Santiago suspended 10 games by MLB after ejection for foreign substance". CBS Sports. Retrieved June 30, 2021.
  21. ^ Piecoro, Nick (September 11, 2011). "Diamondbacks' Caleb Smith loses appeal, begins serving 10-game sticky stuff suspension". The Arizona Republic. Retrieved September 14, 2021.

Further reading