Amid reports this week that Major League Baseball plans to crack down soon on pitchers’ widespread use of foreign substances on the baseball, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said on Sunday he didn’t believe that was necessarily cheating. Yet.
“I think cheating is more of when rules are imposed or in place, and you break them. I think we’re getting to that point,” Roberts explained. “As I understand it, the players that do get caught using a foreign substance that’s not allowed by Major League Baseball will be deemed cheaters, but up to this point, the line is kind of blurred. Players are going to use whatever advantage they can when things are blurred.”
There is actually a rule in place already on the books. Rule 3.01 states, “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.”
Roberts isn’t naive here. He’s right in that, since the rule is rarely enforced, it isn’t much of a rule at all.
The advantage is tilted toward pitching and defense at the moment, with MLB entering Sunday hitting .236, what would be the lowest batting average in league history, a shade below the .237 average during 1968, The Year of the Pitcher. The league strikeout rate, that has climbed steadily for over a decade, is also at an all-time high (24.2 percent) in 2021.
Which is why figuring out how to curb pitching was among the topics discussed at last week’s MLB owners meetings. Normally adding any sort of punitive rule would require input from the players association, but as Buster Olney at ESPN pointed out this weekend, among the items being discussed involve enforcement of a rule that’s already codified.
Doctoring the baseball comes with an automatic 10-game suspension, a penalty levied to four minor leaguers last week.
On May 26, Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos was asked to change his hat for possibly having a foreign substance on the brim. St. Louis manager Mike Shildt was ejected, and still irate during the postgame. From The Athletic:
“This is baseball’s dirty little secret, and this is the wrong time and the wrong arena to expose it,” the manager said. “... You want to police some sunscreen and rosin? Go ahead. Get every single person in this league. ... Why don’t you start with the guys that are cheating with some stuff that’s really impacting the game?”
Trevor Bauer is notable for his outspoken stance on this issue, beginning with calling out Astros pitchers for using foreign substances in 2018. In March this year, when MLB first sent a memo to clubs that it would test baseballs and analyze spin rates to determine the use of foreign substances, Bauer in a video reiterated a point he made in 2018.
“There’s no good good way to go about enforce it, so you should legalize it and standardize it for pitchers to use,” Bauer said in March. “But it doesn’t seem like we’re going in that direction. It seems like we’re going more for a public posturing of ‘We’re going to enforce the rule, but we’re not going to enforce the rule.’”
Enforcement becomes tricky when the vast majority of pitchers are using something on their fingers. A common concoction is a combination of sunscreen and rosin, which isn’t technically against the rules. Eno Sarris at The Athletic in April showed that a readily-available product called Spider Tack, “the stickiest stuff we knew of,” produced a fastball with over 500 more revolutions per minute than sunscreen and rosin.
Naturally, more eyes are on spin rates these days, which bring us to Sunday in Atlanta.
Bauer entered the series finale with a seasonal average spin rate of 2,835 rpm on his four-seam fastball, a pitch he throws nearly half the time. But on Sunday, Bauer’s fastball averaged 2,612 rpm, down 223 rpm from his average. It was Bauer’s lowest fastball spin rate since August 31, 2019, and just the second time in his last 28 starts his fastball dropped below 2,700 rpm.
“It’s a hot, humid day in Atlanta,” Bauer explained after the game.
“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 continued. “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.”
When asked on Sunday if his spike in spin rate in 2020-21 can be linked to foreign substances, Bauer said, “I’ve made a lot of public comments. If you want to go research it and make your own decision, go for it.”
Bauer in February 2020 wrote in The Players Tribune, “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.”
In 2019, Bauer’s four-seam fastball had an average spin rate of 2,410 rpm, to that point a career high. But with the Reds in 2020, his 4-seamer spin increased to 2,779 rpm, and by Run Value was tied for the most valuable fastball in baseball, on his way to the National League Cy Young Award.
Asked if he was worried about Bauer, who allowed three runs in six innings on Sunday, might suffer a performance drop if he sweats, Roberts said, “It could have easily been six innings, one run, two runs. He gave us a chance to win. I’m not worried about Trevor.”