Why one Olympic pitcher thinks he just found a solution to MLB's sticky stuff problem

·4 min read

YOKOHAMA, Japan — On Friday night in Yokohama, Japan, Joe Ryan threw six innings of one-run ball in Team USA’s 8-1 victory over Israel. The 25-year-old Triple-A right-hander started the first U.S. Olympic baseball game in 13 years just one week after he was traded from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Minnesota Twins. (He called it a “three-team trade” since it went down while he was already with Team USA.)

Afterward, he couldn’t say enough good things about the baseball. The literal baseball.

“It is the best ball in the world,” Ryan said. And then he got even more effusive.

“They need this ball over in America. It is amazing. It’s perfect, I think the hitters love it. I love throwing with it, all the pitchers love throwing it,” he said. “SSK did an outstanding job creating this. We need this ball.”

SSK is a Japanese company that manufactures baseballs for the World Baseball Softball Confederation events — including the Olympic qualifiers — although not the same company responsible for the Nippon Professional Baseball balls.

Ryan was so enamored with the ball after pitching with it in qualifiers in Florida that he brought some balls back to show other pitchers in the Rays’ organization, and he’s eager to keep evangelizing.

“I’ve had several other major league pitchers ask me to bring some back over,” Ryan said. “So if SSK wants to send me some more, I’m all ears. Please send me whatever.”

USA's starting pitcher Joseph Speer Ryan hurls the ball during the second inning of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games baseball opening round group B game between USA and Israel at Yokohama Baseball Stadium in Yokohama, Japan, on July 30, 2021. (Photo by KAZUHIRO FUJIHARA / AFP) (Photo by KAZUHIRO FUJIHARA/AFP via Getty Images)
USA starting pitcher Joe Ryan hurls the ball during the second inning of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games baseball opening-round Group B game between the USA and Israel at Yokohama Baseball Stadium in Yokohama, Japan, on July 30, 2021. (Photo by KAZUHIRO FUJIHARA / AFP) (Photo by KAZUHIRO FUJIHARA/AFP via Getty Images)

What’s so good about them? “This ball is consistent, you don’t need any substances whatsoever.”

Consistency and grip: two features that have inspired several years of controversy and complaints in Major League Baseball. This summer, the simmering discontent of the past few seasons was pushed back into the discourse by the sticky stuff scandal and subsequent crackdown.

In recent years, MLB has assumed greater control of the production process at Rawlings, which produces the official baseballs. That period has coincided with increased criticism from pitchers over perceived inconsistencies and suspicion that the league is intentionally altering the baseball to affect the style of play.

Meanwhile pitchers are believed to have ramped up their use of grip-enhancers in recent years — going well beyond the time-honored concoction of sunscreen and rosin that has always been technically illegal but almost always ignored. With scrutiny on the abuse of sticky stuff intensifying — and a better understanding of how it was shifting the balance away from offense — MLB added a layer of enforcement to the existing rules banning foreign substances.

That inspired its own outcry about just how difficult — or even dangerous — it can be to grip the chalky baseball.

Since at least 2019, MLB has been attempting to develop a solution in the form of a universal legal substance or a pretacked baseball like those used in the NPB and Korea’s KBO leagues. The league maintains that it’s proven prohibitively tricky thus far to add grip without enhancing performance for pitchers or altering the other properties of the baseball.

But Ryan is insisting one already exists.

“I think it would solve a lot of the current issues with foreign substances that people like to talk about. It is, I can’t say enough, the best baseball I’ve ever touched. We need this,” he said. “With this ball, I barely even touch the rosin bag. It’s amazing. It fits your hand a little bit easier, but it has some seams so you can get some grip there. I think it works for both parties. I haven’t heard anything from the hitters I’ve asked about seeing a difference in the flight characteristics, but it seems to be the same.”

Here’s where things get a little bit confusing. Ryan describes the balls as “pretacked” — so they come out of their wrapper with some sort of grip on them — but also rubbed up with mud. Richard Baker, the communications director for the WBSC, insists they’re not pretacked, just rubbed up with mud.

Whether there’s a specific substance applied to the baseball before the mud or whether the particular properties of the other materials used create less of a slick “cueball” feel is not as important as the reliability and viability of the end result. Ryan emphasized how remarkably consistent the baseballs he’s encountered as part of the WBSC events, in opposition to his experience in Triple-A (where the baseballs are ostensibly the same as those used at the major league level).

MLB has long said it can’t build a better baseball than the one it has that’s causing so many problems. But apparently, someone else already can.

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