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Major League Baseball to enforce foreign-substance ban, beginning next Monday

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Ejections & automatic 10-game suspensions for violations

Los Angeles Angels v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The long-rumored memo from Major League Baseball to its teams was made official on Tuesday, with the league deciding to enforce its own rules that were already on the books regarding using foreign substances on the baseball.

Enforcement will begin on Monday, June 21, which makes one wonder what the final six days of this week will look like in terms of unfettered doctoring of the baseball. Beginning next week, starting pitchers will be subject to multiple mandatory checks by umpires, and relievers will be checked at either the conclusion of their first inning or work or, if sooner, when they are removed from the game.

“Umpires have been instructed to perform checks periodically throughout the game of all starting and relief pitchers on both teams, regardless of whether they suspect a violation of the rules,” MLB says.

Umpires can also check pitchers at any time they feel the ball has a sticky feel to it, or “when the umpire observes a pitcher going to his glove, hat, belt, or any other part of his uniform or body to retrieve or apply what may be a foreign substance.”

MLB’s decision to enforce the rules comes after two months of inspecting baseballs pulled from games for testing. A memo was sent to teams in March but did not prove effective in deterring doctoring the baseball. From MLB’s press release:

“Many baseballs collected have had dark, amber-colored markings that are sticky to the touch. MLB recently completed extensive testing, including testing by third-party researchers, to determine whether the use of foreign substances has a material impact on performance. That research concluded that foreign substances significantly increase the spin rate and movement of the baseball, providing pitchers who use these substances with an unfair competitive advantage over hitters and pitchers who do not use foreign substances, and results in less action on the field.”

The rules ban any foreign substance applied to the baseball other than rosin. That rules out even the previously-acceptable combination of sunscreen and rosin which was widely used for better control. Former relief pitcher Jerry Blevins, a major leaguer for 13 seasons ending in 2019, explained the issues Monday night in an informative tweet thread, beginning here:

The banning of sunscreen comes with this unintentionally hilarious edict in MLB’s memo: “Pitchers have been advised not to apply sunscreen during night games after the sun has gone down or when playing in stadiums with closed roofs.”

Many other substances have been shown to increase spin rate, like Spider Tack, which Eno Sarris at The Athletic found in April could add 500 rpm of spin rate more than sunscreen and rosin.

Former Angels clubhouse manager Bubba Harkins, who was fired last year for violating foreign-substance rules, supplied his own “sticky stuff” concoction to a number of major league pitchers, including Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, and Adam Wainwright, per Stephanie Apstein and Alex Prewitt at Sports Illustrated.

Major League Baseball in its enforcement of the rules does not distinguish between foreign substances. Rule 3.01 says, “no player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sand-paper, emery-paper or other foreign substance.”

Punishment for violations of these rules, which again have been codified for years, are ejection and a 10-game suspension. As part of MLB’s enhanced enforcement, repeat offenders can be subject to even longer bans.

Catchers will be subject to routine inspection, and can also be ejected and suspended if they are found to be aiding the pitcher in doctoring the ball. Any player who refuses to cooperate with an umpire’s inspection will also be ejected and suspended.

Any player suspended for doctoring the baseball cannot be replaced on the active roster.

Any club personnel can also be fined and suspended under this policy as well: “Any Club employee who encourages a player to use foreign substances, or otherwise trains a player how to utilize a foreign substance in violation of the rules, will be subject to severe discipline by the Commissioner up to and including placement on the Ineligible List.”

More details can be found at MLB.com.

There are other parts of the memo MLB sent to clubs that are less clear.

While most of this seems cut and dry, how players and teams will adjust to the new enforcement will be the key to all of this. Especially after Major League Baseball ignored the issue for years, instead doing nothing as players and teams devised new ways to apply substances to the baseball to increase performance.

“Up to this point, the line is kind of blurred,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said on June 6. “Players are going to use whatever advantage they can when things are blurred.”

Trevor Bauer has been at the center of this issue for years, noting the widespread use of foreign substances throughout baseball as far back as 2018. In a February 2020 article for The Players Tribune, Bauer said, “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. 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.”

He then saw the spin rate on his four-seam fastball increase by 15 percent, from 2,410 rpm in 2019 to 2,779 rpm in 2020 en route to winning the National League Cy Young Award. He parlayed that into a three-year, $102 million contract with the Dodgers that, depending on whether he exercises one of his two opt-out clauses, could mean either $40 million over one year or $85 million over two years, both the highest figures in major league history.

Bauer’s fastball spin rate has been down his last two starts, from a 2,815 rpm seasonal average to 2,608 on June 6 and 2,643 on June 12.

“I just want to compete on a fair playing field. I’ll say it again. That’s been the point this entire time, that everyone can be on a fair playing field,” Bauer said on June 6. “So if you’re going to enforce it, enforce it. And if you’re not, then stop sweeping it under the rug, which is what they’ve done for four years now.”