A sticky dilemma: MLB crackdown could put minor league pitchers in a bind

·11 min read

In one Double-A clubhouse this week, a group of pitchers was talking about the video of Gerrit Cole stumbling over a conspicuous non-denial of using a sticky substance called Spider Tack to impart an unnatural level of spin on his pitches. They were a little caught off guard that reporters knew the specific name of the sport’s new favorite way of doctoring baseballs, but they certainly weren’t surprised by Cole’s reaction.

And if they were anxious about what it might mean for themselves, they didn’t tell each other.

“We laughed it off,” a pitcher who was there told Yahoo Sports. “I mean, I don't know how people felt internally.”

There’s some reason to think the majority of his cohort might have felt differently than he did. Unlike what he estimates to be 85% of the pitchers in pro ball, he doesn’t use illegal sticky stuff — the kind that is suddenly the center of attention in baseball despite an established history as an open secret. (Major leaguers have estimated between 75-to-100% of pitchers use it in recent stories about the concerning rise of sticky stuff influencing the sport.)

It’s not a moral abstention for this pitcher, he just doesn’t like the feeling. He wouldn’t use it if it was legal. But he also doesn’t judge the guys who do.

“Not one bit,” he said. “We’re all trying to get paid. So whatever is gonna make you more successful, go ahead and do it. I mean, the saying goes, ‘If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying.”

(Players were granted anonymity to speak openly for this story without fear of repercussions from their teams or MLB.)

In fact, that pitcher and his teammates thought Cole’s drop-off in spin rate in a recent start against the Rays perhaps was a sign the Yankees’ $324 million ace had been scared straight by reports this month of an impending MLB crackdown on sticky stuff. And even the pitcher who doesn’t use it himself had some advice for Cole.

“He should, apparently, keep doing what he was doing and not change it because he's a lot more successful with it, if he was not using that one day, ” he said.

And if it would be wise for Cole — who already got paid and is undoubtedly a dominant pitcher relative to his peers, no matter what he uses — to push the boundaries as long as he can, well, just think about the incentives in the minor leagues. There, guys earn comparative pennies and an edge in the form of a couple hundred extra rpms, which could be what it takes to get noticed by their front offices. And everyone around them knows it, too. Which is why they face a particularly difficult choice amid a coming crackdown, as encouragement and incentive to use sticky substances often flows from the organizations they play for.

DENVER, CO - APRIL 25:  A bag of baseballs sits on the mound in the bullpen as the Pittsburgh Pirates prepare to face the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on April 25, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Minor leaguers are often introduced to the practice of using tacky substances to improve grip. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

How pitchers convert to using sticky substances

“I never used any sticky stuff in college, didn't even use it my whole first year in pro ball,” a pitcher in a different organization told Yahoo Sports. “I went to instructional league that fall and was basically introduced to it. They said, ‘We're not going to tell you to use this, but your metrics are going to improve, you'll have a better breaking ball, you'll have a better fastball. Everything is going to improve if you use it.’”

This was a few years ago. One day, while he was throwing a bullpen, a pitching coordinator encouraged him to try Pelican Grip, and even demonstrated the best places on a glove to hide it — the thumb lace, the pinky lace, or inside on the thumb.

He’s heard rumors around the clubhouse that the team used to push the practice even more explicitly. Older guys told him there used to be organizational meetings on the best ways to doctor a baseball. Those haven’t happened recently, but pitchers still talk about sticky stuff openly amongst themselves. And coaches and player development staff — many of whom played in eras when the use of foreign substances on baseballs was less sophisticated but also widely tolerated — push it for the sake of giving guys the best chance at getting a promotion.

The Double-A pitcher who doesn’t use anything said it’s been suggested to him, too. Ever since the introduction of Statcast in 2015 allowed for the quantification and analysis of this crucial element of pitching, spin rate is increasingly integral to how pitchers are evaluated, and they know it. Even at the lowest levels, teams provide reports after every appearance that highlight two numbers: velocity and spin.

“Even if you had a good ERA, and traditional pitching numbers — low walks, stuff like that — you might get passed up by a guy who has a worse ERA and more walks, but more upside in terms of his carry is 20 inches and his fastball spin rate is like 2,800,” said a pitcher in a third organization who has spent time between the majors and the minors in 2021.

He’s a sinkerballer, which means spin is not as much a priority for him. But for most pitchers, it’s increasingly accessible and important.

“One hundred percent, guys are more aware of their measurables than ever before,” he said.

The second pitcher, after his coach’s suggestion, gave it a try. He was immediately impressed.

“To spin a breaking ball that hard is impossible without it,” he said. “You just can't do it.”

As sticky stuff has started to turn into more of a scandal, the narrative has largely been that there’s little-to-no policing — mutually assured destruction keeps managers from calling out opposing pitchers, so umpires largely just look the other way. That isn’t always the case, however. During a low-level start in a recent season, the pitcher who tried it at his team’s suggestion got caught.

The other team’s bat boy noticed a mark on a pitch he threw in warmups. The opposing dugout shouted for the ump to check his glove where, of course, there was sticky stuff.

So far this season, four minor league pitchers have been suspended 10 games for violating the foreign substances rule. They’re not the first to be popped for it in the minors, where players don’t have the power of a union to grieve (or threaten to grieve) punishments, but MiLB isn’t actually sure how many pitchers have been suspended for sticky stuff in previous seasons because the individual leagues used to handle enforcement on their own, and the entire minor league system has since been brought under the commissioner’s office umbrella.

After he was caught, the pitcher cut out sticky stuff completely.

“My spin went down 150 points with the snap of a finger as soon as I stopped using it,” he said. “And I haven’t used it since.”

His organization encouraged him to be more careful, even supported him in stopping to ensure he doesn’t get caught again.

“But then they sort of wavered on that,” he said. “The messaging is not clear one way or the other.”

How could it be? With most of his peers reaping the benefits, isn’t anyone abstaining left at a disadvantage?

“Yes. No doubt. Absolutely.”

MLB prepares to crack down

In February 2020, the league office distributed a memo to teams essentially reiterating long-existing rules against doctoring the baseball. Enforcement would still be at the discretion of umpires, but the message also included a reminder that club personnel are prohibited from “facilitating the use of foreign substances by players on the field.”

A few weeks later, the Angels fired their longtime visiting clubhouse manager for selling a custom sticky substance to visiting pitchers. But before there could be any other consequences, the pandemic forced a suspension of spring training, throwing the sports world into chaos.

This spring, MLB tried again. A memo sent to teams in March outlined increased scrutiny on the use of sticky stuff. Dugouts and clubhouses would be monitored, used balls would be sent out for inspection, and Statcast data would be analyzed in search of spin rate spikes.

That memo threatened disciplinary action, “regardless of whether evidence of the violation has been discovered during or following a game.” But, evidently, that didn’t serve as much of a deterrent.

Over the course of the first two months of the season, in which offense hit an existential nadir, that process yielded thousands of baseballs and insights into just how prevalent the problem has become. That data was presented at the owners meetings earlier this month and the consensus was that the time has finally come to enforce the rule on the books.

Directives about that are reportedly coming in the next week or so. Umpires will be empowered to police pitchers more rigorously, potentially with regular checks between innings, and suspensions are expected for offenders.

According to sources familiar with the league’s thinking, the date of increased enforcement won’t be a surprise. Teams will have enough advanced warning to clean up their act, and punishments won’t be levied retroactively (i.e. based on the data collected thus far in the season).

FORT MYERS, FL - FEBRUARY 17: Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora is framed by a high speed camera as he watches a live batting practice session during a spring training workout at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, FL on Feb. 17, 2019. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Organizations across baseball use high-speed cameras and pitch-tracking systems to quantify a pitcher's performance and often relay their metrics. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Are teams ready to loosen their grips?

At least some organizations changed their tune slightly after the March memo this year.

“The coaches, they were like ‘Hey, we can’t talk about this. We’ve been told from the top that it’s gotta be controlled and not too obvious, for lack of a better word,’” the Double-A pitcher who doesn’t use sticky stuff said. But he highly doubts anyone stopped because of that warning, and assumes it was simply a matter of coaches maintaining plausible deniability.

“There are definitely coaches who have said, ‘Stop doing this, they're really checking. But if you do, I can't know about it. It can't be in the ‘pen. Throw away sticky baseballs, it can't be out in a bag,’” said the sinkerballer.

And as long as it’s giving teams a competitive advantage, players and coaches will protect their own.

“Like we know who uses what and where they keep it,” the sinkerballer said. “And so if an MLB security guy comes around, you just throw a guy’s bag under a cupboard or under the bench.”

“I think they really, really don’t want guys to get suspended,” he said of the coaches, whom none of the pitchers I spoke to blamed or viewed as hypocritical. “And the best way to stop that is for guys to stop doing it. But they also realize, they want to succeed, and they want their guys to have success. So it's like you're going to do what you need to do to get outs.”

Then who is to blame?

“Oh Rob Manfred,” said the Double-A pitcher. “He’s a terrible commissioner.”

“MLB, I think, is the clear root of the problem because players just don't have a choice,” said the pitcher who was caught. “If it's your career, and you're making 1,500 bucks a month in the minor leagues and you want to make it to the big leagues, you're gonna do everything in your power to make the big leagues. Guys are gonna just try to do whatever they can to get ahead because the financial incentives are so, so big and so important.”

Letting sticky stuff run rampant in the game for so long, and without a legal alternative to give pitchers the grip they often need to control pitches thrown close to 100 mph, has created a culture of reliance and a sophisticated understanding of the advantage it provides. Now, individual players will be labeled cheaters, left hung out to dry in news conferences and disciplinary reports, for their all-but-obligatory participation in a league-wide arms race to win baseball games and stay employed.

And with everything at stake, it’ll be hard to give up the edge entirely. Instead, a new arms race is coming, one of concealment.

“One hundred percent, it's just gonna be finding ways to hide it,” the sinkerballer said. “It's going to be going from something dark to something clear. It's going to be from going on your hat to on your belt.”

Because the benefits from increased spin aren’t going away and neither are the physical limits.

“If your spin rate goes up 200 points out of nowhere, it doesn't happen out of nowhere. Either you completely change yourself mechanically or if you didn't do that, you are using something,” the pitcher who got caught said.

And if you’re an anonymous minor leaguer, desperate to do whatever it takes to get a crack at the life-changing money of just being added to the 40-man roster, your organization might not question exactly what kind of overhaul is giving your spin rate a boost.

“Oh, you would absolutely get positive feedback,” he said. “They would be like ‘You are a better pitcher now, well done.’”

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