March 26, 2023

M.L.B. Says It Will Punish Ball Doctoring

The era of sticky baseballs and artificially high spin rates may be coming to an end. Major League Baseball placed pitchers on notice Tuesday when it announced new guidelines designed to enforce rules against placing prohibited foreign substances on baseballs, a practice that is believed to improve pitching performance.

Beginning June 21, a pitcher who is found to have a foreign substance on his person or who has applied it to a ball in play will be ejected from the game and suspended for 10 additional games. Repeat offenders will face an increasing scale of punishment, and team officials and employees can also be disciplined for failing to ensure compliance with the rules.

Umpires will conduct regular searches in games, M.L.B. said.

“After an extensive process of repeated warnings without effect, gathering information from current and former players and others across the sport, two months of comprehensive data collection, listening to our fans and thoughtful deliberation, I have determined that new enforcement of foreign substances is needed to level the playing field,” Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, said in a statement.

M.L.B. conducted a lengthy investigation into the matter and concluded that pitchers have been secretly placing foreign substances on baseballs to improve their grip and thus increase the spin on their pitches. The more spin on the ball, the more it moves and is harder to hit.

Research has also shown that increased spin helps fastballs defy their natural arc downward. M.L.B. noted in its statement that those pitches had been particularly difficult to hit in recent years, which helps account for historically low batting averages and high strikeout rates. The leaguewide batting average going into Tuesday’s games was .238, the second lowest in M.L.B. history (it was .237 in 1968 before the mound was lowered to assist batters), and there have been an average of 8.95 strikeouts per team per game this year, the highest rate ever.

The sport was already favoring pitchers over batters in recent years, but the dominance has gone into overdrive, and M.L.B. believes the use of foreign substances has become ubiquitous.

“Foreign substance use appears to contribute to a style of pitching in which pitchers sacrifice location in favor of spin and velocity, particularly with respect to elevated fastballs,” the M.L.B. statement said.

In its statement, M.L.B. also dismissed the notion that the substances were being used in the same manner that they had been for decades. Previously, pitchers claimed to have used various substances to help them control the ball and avoid hitting batters inadvertently with errant pitches.

“The evidence does not suggest a correlation between improved hitter safety and the use of foreign substances,” the statement said. “In fact, the hit-by-pitch ratio has increased along with the prevalence of foreign substance use. Through May 31, the 2021 season has the highest rate of hit-by-pitches of any season in the past 100 years.”

M.L.B. has begun to suspend minor league pitchers for using foreign substances and that, combined with recent published reports that new enforcement was on the way, may have prompted pitchers to eliminate the substances on their own. Statcast, M.L.B.’s data collection source, found that the average spin rate dropped last week to its lowest level all season.

On June 21, it may drop even lower.

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