The Place Beyond the Pine Tar

Photo Credit: Jordan Johnson (USA TODAY Sports)

Major League Baseball has gotten itself into quite the sticky situation.

On Monday, the league began its increased inspection of pitchers to crackdown on the use of foreign substances on game balls. Players use this as a grip aid, increasing the velocity, spin rate, and nastiness of their pitches.

Of course, this has been a rule for decades, so why is the league cracking down now? It’s the worst-kept secret in baseball that many pitchers, if not most, use something besides just rosin to make the ball a little tackier.

A sizable number even go beyond pine tar to get the grip they’re looking for.

Well, in a year where offense has been down considerably, combined with strikeout totals yet again reaching a new high, the league has had enough.

On May 26th, Cardinals pitcher Giovanny Gallegos was asked to change his hat so that the umpire crew could inspect it after the game. Shortly after that exchange, MLB released a memo saying that extra enforcement would begin on June 21st, and any pitcher who was caught using a foreign substance would be suspended for 10 games.

Basically, they said if you’ve been breaking the rules, you need to get your affairs in order in the coming weeks because you will be checked. Mom found your secret stash of booze, so now she’s going to start smelling your breath whenever you walk through the front door.

Without making any accusations, it’s pretty interesting to look at some of the pitchers who diced up the Twins earlier this season. Their numbers since that incident have taken a considerable hit.

Of course, it could definitely be coincidental. In years past, offense usually increases league-wide as the weather starts to warm up. But something about these numbers raises an eyebrow this time around.

Just look at some of the pitchers who rank in the upper echelon in fastball-spin rate this year, according to Baseball Savant.

Corbin Burnes of the Milwaukee Brewers made headlines earlier this season when he broke the record for most strikeouts in a season before walking a single batter. He was one of the filthiest pitchers in baseball for the first month, starting with a gem against the Twins back on April 3rd.

In the second game of the season, he held Minnesota’s offense to 6.1 innings of one-hit ball with no walks and a whopping 11 strikeouts.

Since the league sent their memo warning of increased inspection, Burnes has been quite mortal. He’s definitely still a very good pitcher by today’s standards — that was never in question. All we can see is that his underlying stats, such as batting average against and walks plus hits per innings pitched (WHIP), suggest a major dip since Memo Day™. Batters have a .297 batting average against him since his final start in May, during which he has a 1.56 WHIP (league average is 1.26).

Similar trends can be seen in Chicago White Sox hurler Dylan Cease’s numbers. In the first two months of the season, he had a sterling 2.98 ERA with 11.57 strikeouts per nine innings. The Twins saw him on May 11th, and while he only made it through five innings, he struck out seven batters. Since that start, he has a brutal 6.75 ERA and made it to the sixth inning only once.

Both Burnes and Cease are in elite territory when it comes to fastball spin rate (Burnes is in the 100th percentile, Cease the 97th). Using a foreign substance to aid grip has shown to increase spin rate, amping up the batter’s deception on incoming pitches. The more revolutions per minute, the harder it is to track a pitch.

These pitchers have seen their quality dip since the league fired a warning shot. Might it be because of fewer spins on the heater?

Similar trends can be seen in the league’s highest-paid pitcher. New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole had a laughably awkward response when asked directly if he had ever used Spider Tack, a popular illegal adhesive initially created to aid weightlifters.

Cole has a mediocre 4.26 ERA since Memo Day™, and his strikeout numbers have plummeted, at least from his standard line (12.80 K/9 before the league’s memo, 9.00 K/9 since then). Again, not bad, necessarily, just missing the bite on his pitches that he enjoyed before this sticky mess started.

Last but not least is Chicago’s Opening Day starter for the past two seasons, Lucas Giolito.

He really stuck it to the Twins when he shoved through eight innings of two-hit ball with 11 strikeouts on May 19th. But in June, Giolito has been anything but elite. In three starts, he has a 5.27 FIP, and two of those games were against the lowly Detroit Tigers (second-worst offense in the league based on wRC+). His stuff has been underwhelming against bad bats.

Look, at the risk of sounding like Cole in this assessment, these players are professionals whose organizations have brought them up with certain standards and tools at their disposal. Cracking down in the middle of a season is definitely irritating, but commissioner Rob Manfred wouldn’t be doing this if things hadn’t gotten out of hand. Pitchers have been getting too much of an advantage, and it’s making the game harder to watch for fans.

There’s certainly an argument to be made that this rule is outdated and should be revisited to include some widely used substances such as a popular sunscreen and rosin combination. The league could regulate this much like they do pine tar for hitters.

But until then, pitchers don’t really have a choice but to follow the rules in place. At the end of the day, they need to figure out how to get past the advantages they’ve been giving themselves and find a way to get a grip on their own.

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