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Sticky situation: MLB, pitchers headed toward reckoning over secret substances

Los Angeles Dodgers starter Trevor Bauer did not cry coincidence when asked about the fact that his spin rate dropped Sunday, a few days after news broke that Major League Baseball is planning to step up enforcement of rules against pitchers using foreign substances. In fact, when asked about the fact that his spin rate dropped Sunday, Bauer seemed to bring up the idea of foreign substances himself.

“All I’ve ever wanted is to be on a fair playing field. So if MLB is going to be consistent with that — the ball is coming out fine,” said Bauer, whose spin rate on his four-seam fastball dropped by more than 200 rotations per minute, according to Baseball Savant. Asked by the Los Angeles Times’ Jorge Castillo whether that meant his spin rate drop was because of a change in the way he was using foreign substances, Bauer said, “I don’t know; a hot, humid day in Atlanta.”

Bauer isn’t the only pitcher who saw his spin rate drop in the days after last week’s owners’ meetings yielded a flurry of reports that MLB is planning to implement more stringent rules against the use of foreign substances. New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, whose spin rate consistently sat above 2,500 rpm during starts in the first two months of the season, lost more than 100 rpm on his four-seamer in his most recent start.

When asked directly Tuesday afternoon, he paused so long that it seemed as if the Zoom feed might have frozen. When he spoke, he didn’t deny using substances, either. He didn’t even rail against the idea of banning them more aggressively.

“There are customs and practices that have been passed down from older players to younger players, from the last generation of players to this generation of players. I think there are some things that are certainly out of bounds in that regard, and I’ve stood pretty firm in terms of that, in terms of communication between our peers and whatnot,” Cole said. “If MLB wants to legislate some more stuff, that’s a conversation we can have because, ultimately, we should all be pulling in the same direction on this.”

On March 23, MLB sent a memo to teams alerting them to increased monitoring of game-used baseballs for signs of foreign substances. It made clear that, by analyzing Statcast data, collecting game-used balls and using compliance monitors, it intended to gather as much information as possible about the scope of foreign substance use and its impact on game play. At the time, MLB also made clear that enforcement would not be a priority initially.

But after two months of data collection, enforcement is quickly becoming a priority, according to multiple people familiar with MLB’s thinking and conversations with club representatives. Those people said the owners’ meetings yielded a consensus that the time is right to move from information gathering to increased enforcement of existing rules. The next step is figuring out exactly what that enforcement will look like.

MLB prohibits pitchers from altering the baseball in any way, whether with saliva, sweat or less organic substances. That pitchers find ways to use everything from rosin to pine tar, from sunscreen to sweat, is one of the worst-kept secrets in baseball, one that MLB has yet to find a way to limit, even as the incentive to do so is being backed by more data.

But even though a rule has long been on the books prohibiting the use of sticky stuff, it has rarely been enforced with much enthusiasm. When umpires have taken steps to prevent such behavior — such as when Joe West confiscated St. Louis Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos’s hat last month because he noticed a dark patch on it — those decisions often have been met with outcry from players and managers bemoaning the inconsistency of enforcement.

To crack down on the issue, MLB believes it will need to create clearer guidelines about what enforcement should look like. MLB officials are having those conversations with umpires, teams and the Major League Baseball Players Association, according to a person familiar with the situation, who added that those guidelines probably will be finalized before the All-Star break — within weeks, not days.

There already has been stepped-up enforcement in the minor leagues. Four pitchers were suspended 10 games each for using foreign substances in the first month of the season, according to an MLB official.

Without similar regulations in place in the majors, speculation is running rampant. When video surfaced on social media of New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom moving his belt during his start this weekend, teammates such as catchers Tomás Nido and James McCann — aware of the increased scrutiny on every successful pitcher these days — took to Twitter to head off any accusations that deGrom may be trying to sneak something onto his pitching hand.

“I promise you he doesn’t use anything. If he did they would be lucky to even foul tip the ball,” Nido tweeted in defense of deGrom, whose ability to increase his velocity into his 30s and his stunning 0.62 ERA make him a target for accusations of foul play.

“I can confirm. The (goat) is substance-free. Can you imagine if he did use something?” McCann replied. DeGrom’s spin rate has remained steady this year.

Whatever MLB decides, it plans to enforce the rule on the field — meaning it will fall to umpires, who technically have been responsible for enforcing rules about foreign substance use all along, to implement new guidelines, according to a person familiar with MLB’s thinking. The players’ union will have to sign off on any changes to enforcement guidelines, but people around baseball point out that coaches and other team staff may have some culpability, too.

Cole is a high-ranking member of the MLBPA, meaning he is and will likely continue to be a prominent messenger for player interests as MLB and the union head toward an offseason of collective bargaining. Suddenly he has emerged as something of a scapegoat for a problem that people around the game agree is spread across leagues, teams and even generations.

Bauer also has emerged as one of the more prominent targets for those making foreign substance accusations, though he is largely credited with starting the discussion about the need to examine the way pitchers are using sticky stuff to gain an advantage.

In 2018, Bauer suggested the Houston Astros’ success in increasing pitchers’ spin rates was because of widespread use of foreign substances. Multiple Astros, including Lance McCullers Jr., took issue with the accusations. Two years later, Bauer told HBO that he estimates about 70% of pitchers are using foreign substances to increase their spin rates.

“I want to compete on a fair playing field. I think everyone wants to compete on a fair playing field. So if they’re serious about actually doing something about the rule that’s on the books, that’s all I’ve wanted for four years,” Bauer said Sunday. “It’s nice to see them finally catching up to something I’ve been talking to them about for four years. We’ll see what they do.”

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