MLB’s crackdown on sticky substances will be messy, but worth the effort if offense picks up

The next month will be a messy disaster for Major League Baseball, as the crackdown on sticky substances begins in earnest June 21. 

The official release went out at noon ET on Tuesday, a lengthy missive that explained what MLB sees as the problem — and it is an issue — while largely avoiding responsibility for creating the problem. But that’s a topic for a different column. 

In this release, the punishment for a first-time offender was specified: 10 days, with subsequent violations subjected to “progressive discipline.” Starting pitchers will have more than one mandatory check per game, with mandatory checks on relief pitchers after an inning or when they exit the field (whichever happens first), to reduce in-game delays. But umpires can stop the game to check any pitcher at any time if they are suspicious, because of a player touching his glove or cap or whatever. The days of an opposing manager needing to ask an umpire to check the pitcher are over. 

Enforcement is going to be something. 

Oh, and the combination of rosin and sunscreen that’s been an “accepted” grip agent for decades? That’s out now. Which means that any pitcher throwing an afternoon game in a non-dome stadium has to be incredibly careful not to accidentally mix the sunscreen on his arm with the sweat on his brow and the rosin from the bag behind the mound, because that’s now a potential 10-game suspension. Good luck to umpires trying to figure out which pitchers are trying to cheat and which ones are just sweaty bastards.

And it’s not just the pitchers potentially facing ejections and suspensions. A catcher found to be applying foreign substances to the baseball will be ejected and suspended. Any position player found to be doing the same will be ejected. Any coach who trains a pitcher on how to avoid detection will be subject to “severe discipline” including possibly being placed on the Ineligible List. Basically, anyone connected to the team who could possibly be involved in any process that results in a substance other than rosin winding up on the baseball — pitcher, catcher, coach, manager, trainer, ball boy, clubhouse attendant, etc. — is facing possible punishments from MLB.

It’s gonna be a disaster.

But here’s the thing: I do think it’s worth all the mess. Because here’s one statistic from the 2021 season that I just can’t stop thinking about: A few weeks ago, I checked the MLB strikeout rate and it was 24.1 percent. It’s now at 24.0, a tiny drop after news of the coming crackdown became public knowledge. But think about that. Basically, one of every four batters is walking back to the dugout without making contact.

That’s just too high. It’s a huge increase, not just from the “old days” of baseball. In 2009, the league-wide strikeout percentage was 18.0 percent. That’s a 33 percent increase in just a little more than a decade. The strikeout percentage didn’t top 20 percent until 2014. 

In 1968, when the pitchers were so dominant that the league dropped the height of the mound, the strikeout percentage was 15.8 percent. It’s 24.0 percent right now! 

And here’s a quick recap of why the sticky substances are a problem. The better a pitcher can grip the baseball, the more spin he can put on the baseball. The more spin, the more movement, the more swings-and-misses generated. Also, with a better grip, the pitcher can throw even harder, and more velocity leads to more spin and more movement, too. The worry, as people will point out, is that removing this ability to grip the baseball will worsen control and lead to more batters hit by pitches.

And that makes sense, in theory.

But here’s a fact: Hit-by-pitches are way up over the past few years. In fact, there have already been more batters hit in 2021 (852) than there were in the entire 1987 season (842). So, yeah, not sure about that. Initially and anecdotally, there will probably be a bit of an increase in HBPs, but worrying about that isn’t a reason to stop this trend.

You can go on down the list, and the same story is told. The league-wide batting average is .238, which is the second-lowest in MLB history (it was .237 in 1968). The league-wide on-base percentage is .313, which ranks 107th of the 122 seasons starting in 1900. 

It’s too much. Baseball is a better, more entertaining sport when the ball is in play on a regular basis. I love a 1-0 or 2-1 pitcher’s duel probably more than the average baseball fan, but I don’t want four of them every night. 

Strikeouts aren’t going away. Shutouts aren’t going away. The good pitchers will still be good pitchers, and the great pitchers will still be great pitchers. 

But it’s a good thing that good pitchers won’t be great all of the time. 

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