Baseball’s Crackdown On Foreign Substances Draws Praise And Criticism A Month Into New Rules

When he addressed baseball writers during the All-Star Game festivities in Denver this week, commissioner Rob Manfred gushed about the early returns of the league’s crackdown on pitchers’ use of foreign substances.

“I think the substance checks have been an important step forward for the game,” Manfred told members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America before the Midsummer Classic. “I think that enforcing our rules is really important.”

Shortly after those new rules went into effect June 21 this season — which include regular checks of pitchers by umpires and the ejection of pitchers caught using sticky substances, along with an automatic 10-game suspension — Manfred told the New York Times for a June 28 story that the “data seems to suggest that we’re moving the game in the right direction, that we found a problem that needed to be addressed and it’s being addressed.”

But while the commissioner is buoyed by the rules changes he authorized — the Players Association had no tangible input on the decision and it was not a collectively-bargained issue — and several baseball voices on the league/ownership side say tackling an age-old problem is a necessary undertaking, it hasn’t been all a rosy affair. Some pitchers scoffed at the random umpire inspections when they started, and this week the executive director of the Players Association, Tony Clark, said an important layer of this debate is the need to develop a baseball that will benefit both sides.

“Manufacturing a baseball with consistent properties, one that pitchers and fielders can reliably grip, should be a top priority,” said Clark.

New substances to grip the baseball — like Spider Tack — have become part of the baseball lexicon in the last year, as have analytics terms like the “spin rate” on a pitch. But doctoring a ball in the majors goes back decades.

Manfred said in the Times report that his office began communicating with clubs last year about the use of foreign substances — after a Los Angeles Angels clubhouse manager was fired for providing sticky gripping agents to pitchers — but the commissioner didn’t act until June of this year.

“We communicated about our concern on the issue. We came back prior to the start of the ’21 season, communicated again about it and I think that when we saw what we perceived to be an escalation in the behavior, not a de-escalation, we came to the conclusion that we had to do something now,” Manfred told the Times. “That’s a judgment call.” 

One of the sport’s biggest power brokers, agent Scott Boras, said that implementation of the new rules mid-season, however, “is rather shocking because there are so many undefined dynamics.” One of those dynamics, Boras said, is the need for MLB to be transparent with its findings, or the “data” that Manfred leaned on in the Times report.

“Release of all aspects of the studies upon which the decision to enforce a rule that has not been enforced for nearly two to three decades, is needed,” said Boras, who represents ace pitchers Max Scherzer (Nationals) and Gerrit Cole (Yankees) among many star-studded clients. “We want pitchers in Major League Baseball to control the baseball and we don’t want performance enhancement. Legislation in this area is appropriate because technological iterations of gripping agents have evolved to the point where modern measurement illustrates performance enhancement beyond gripping.

“The question is, after a review of the studies, is there an agent that provides proper control of the baseball and a better tackiness of gripping without creating performance enhancement?” 

Boras criticized the manner in which the new enforcement is carried out, likening umpires to “TSA (Transportation Security Administration) agents.” Umpires have been conducting searches in a plain view of fans, sometimes disrupting the rhythm and pace of play of the game. During the first week of the new rules, after Scherzer was inspected by umpires two times early in his start against the Phillies, opposing manager Joe Girardi requested a third check of Scherzer. The three-time Cy Young Award winner reacted angrily, throwing down his hat and unbuckling his belt as umpires approached. Scherzer also jawed with Girardi, who was ejected.

After that game, Scherzer called the new MLB crackdown, “Manfred’s rules.”

“Max Scherzer is a Hall of Fame player. He’s a (World Series) champion, a Cy Young Award-winner. Our game is so lucky that this man can still perform and will perform for years at extreme levels in the game,” said Boras. “Anything in our game, the perspective of (the World Series trophy as) a ‘piece of metal,’ anything like that tarnishes the game. We have (Scherzer) who’s a teacher, a model citizen of our game. And to put him on a field where he is frisked in plain view, and to create systems where he is judged in a manner that is subjective? These things cannot happen. There is nothing about the sequence of those events that has anything to do with the best interests of the game.”

Boras suggested that pitchers should be checked by umpires in the stadium tunnels, away from the fans’ view. That way, he said, “the enforcement can be properly administered without interruption of the fan experience.”

If some pitchers were annoyed during the first weeks of these new rules, Sandy Alderson, the Mets president, said that after nearly a month of the new normal, pitchers are “accepting the fact that the commissioner’s office is doing something about (the issue).”

“I think the players believe that MLB is serious about this issue, and it’s not just a temporary attempt to address it. I think they see it as sustainable,” said Alderson. “The new rules have caused pitchers to take this seriously. The creation of foreign substances have emerged and it’s gotten out of hand. The commissioner is trying to bring uniformity to this area of the game and I support him on that.”   

Another league source credited Manfred for having “stepped in, in the middle of the season and lowered the boom. That’s not an easy task to do. It’s had the proper effect. It stopped the shenanigans.”

But even if strikeouts are falling and pitcher dominance is leveling out, Boras said he’s heard from pitchers in the game — “not specific players that I represent” — that there are already health concerns, with pitchers possibly developing forearm soreness from having to put more stress on fingertips to gain control of the baseball.

“This is why we need to analyze and examine the studies, so we can potentially create a gripping agent that serves to provide less injury, and also does not create a performance enhancement aspect of use of that substance,” said Boras. “None of us know if that exists.”

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