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Nightengale: MLB Crackdown on Pitchers and Illegal Foreign Substances Starts Next Week

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A Colorado Rockies pitcher shows his grip to a teammate during a spring training baseball workout in Scottsdale, Ariz., Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

By Bob Nightengale |

Major League Baseball, tired of pitchers blatantly cheating, will inform teams as early as Tuesday that every pitcher appearing in a game will be checked for the use of illegal foreign substances, with violators receiving an automatic 10-game suspension, two persons with direct knowledge of the protocols told USA TODAY Sports.

The rules are expected to be strictly enforced by MLB umpiring crews at the start of next week’s games.

The persons spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the protocols have yet to be sent to the clubs and umpires.

The protocols stipulate that every starting pitcher will be checked at least twice a game for foreign substances, and relief pitchers at least once by the umpiring crew. Catchers and position players may also be occasionally checked as well.

The umpires will have clear guidance to enforce that all illegal substances will be banned, with pitchers permitted to only use the rosin bag to assist their grip. MLB, assuring there are no loopholes in the enforcement, also stipulates that no pitcher will be checked more frequently than any other, unless umpires detect suspicious behavior.

When pitchers will be checked

There will be some randomness involved in the checks, but umpires will most often examine pitchers for illegal substances — on their gloves, caps, and uniform — at the end of an inning or when exiting, not to interfere with the flow of the game. If a pitcher is caught possessing or using an illegal substance, he will be ejected and suspended for 10 games with pay.

“It’s about damn time,’’ one National League position player told USA TODAY Sports. “We got tired of it. The balls are moving like they’re wiffle balls. This has been going on way too long. I’m glad they’re finally doing something about it.’’

MLB officials don’t believe this is a panacea to all of the offensive woes in the game, but the threat of the crackdown has already had a huge impact.

Spin rates dropping, batting averages up

In the 11 days since MLB owners were told that the league was going to strictly enforce the ban of foreign substances, the spin rate (2,290 on fastballs), strikeout rate (23.4%) and walk rate (8.4%) are the lowest of any month this season.

The league-wide batting averages, home runs, slugging and OPS [on-base-plus-slugging percentage] is the highest of any month. Hitters are batting .247 this month — compared to just .232 and .239 the first two months — with an .318 on-base percentage, .419 slugging percentage and .737 OPS. The home run rate has soared from 12.7% to 14.7%.

Pitchers’ average spin rate in MLB games last week was the lowest of this season. More than two-thirds of pitchers (67.2%) have had a reduced spin rate since June 3, including 37 pitchers by at least 100 rpm, according to theScore.com.

The argument by pitchers that they need sticky substances to improve their grip to avoid hitting batters also lost considerable merit with walks decreasing from 9% to 8.4% with hit-by-pitches remaining flat at 1.2% per plate appearance.

There have been several noticeable decreases in spin rates in recent weeks, involving everyone from Trevor Bauer and Kenley Jansen of the Los Angeles Dodgers to Gerrit Cole of the New York Yankees to closers James Karinchak of Cleveland and Josh Hader of the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Boston Red Sox’s pitching staff, coincidence or not, has badly struggled since MLB owners were informed that the league would soon begin its crackdown. The Red Sox have yielded a 9.23 ERA and 66 hits over 39 innings in the past nine games. The Red Sox deny any cheating, but according to Statcast, four of their starters have had a reduction in spin rates.

“These guys are getting an extra 400, 500 rpms on their spin rate,’’ Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman told the Sports Junkies on 106.7-FM in Washington, D.C., last week, “which is basically taking a very mediocre pitcher who could be in the big leagues but might not be in the big leagues and propelling them to a level that is elite.

“Whether it is all their pitches, one pitch or whatever it is. To me, that’s cheating. I can’t do that with anything in the batter’s box. I think that’s where the problem lies.’’

Bauer, who signed a three-year, $102 million contract with the Dodgers, has drawn the most scrutiny. The spin rate on his four-seam fastball has increased by 550 rpm over the last four seasons, and he leads all pitchers with his 2,822 fastball spin rate this season. His four-seam spin rate was 2,277 rpm in 2017, and has risen each year. Yet, in his last two starts, his spin rate dropped by an average by 200 rpm.

Bauer is the one who called attention to pitchers cheating in 2018, pointing out the Houston Astros’ dramatically increased spin rate, says he’s all for the enforcement, as long as everyone is treated equally.

“That’s been the whole point this entire time,” Bauer said. “Let everyone compete on a fair playing field. So if you’re going to enforce it, enforce it. And if you’re not, then stop sweeping it under the rug, which is what they’ve done for four years now. …

“It would be nice as players to know what rules we’re competing by and what rules are going to be enforced. As everyone knows, a rule that’s written down that’s never enforced is not a rule.’’

MLB tried to issue warnings before the start of the season, letting teams know that it would routinely confiscate baseballs from pitchers, and track the difference in their spin rates. Managers were encouraged to freely ask umpires to check opposing pitchers if they were suspicious of illegal substances. Yet, with managers knowing their own guys were cheating, too, no one had the courage to ask.

The warnings clearly weren’t working as the average spin rate for sliders increased by 353 rpm, curveballs 252 rpm and cut-fastballs 208 rpm since 2015, according to Statcast. The soaring increases don’t happen unless your velocity suddenly soars, or you’re cheating.

Well, beginning next week, the cheating should come to an end, with Rule 6.02 (c) enforced by every umpire in the game, and applied to every pitcher who takes the mound.

Baseball’s dirty little secret, as St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt called it, will finally be exposed.

You want to take a chance on being caught? Feel free. But don’t come crying when you are publicly humiliated and booed everywhere you go on the road.

The warnings have been loud and clear.

Now, it’s time for action.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll actually start to see a return of offense in the game, too.

“I actually think it’s a good thing because one of the things we’ve been fighting is the nonaction in our game,” Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “I think this could change things. I really do. It will be interesting.’’

Gentlemen, start your checkpoints.

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter.

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