Questions and answers surrounding MLB’s sticky stuff problem

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The attention on baseball’s sticky stuff has skyrocketed the last few weeks, first with the news that Major League Baseball plans to dramatically increase its enforcement of the existing rules against pitchers’ ball manipulation, then with Gerrit Cole’s awkward response Tuesday to a direct question concerning whether he has used Spider Tack. Do you have questions about all of this? Here are some answers.

Q. Wait, isn’t this old news? Didn’t Gaylord Perry ride his illegal “spitball” all the way into the Baseball Hall of Fame?

A. He sure did! And only seven years ago, Michael Pineda drew a 10-game suspension for placing pine tar on his neck, a moment that was treated as humorous rather than scandalous. What has changed is 1) the sophistication and effectiveness of the sticky stuff now available; 2) the ability to measure a ball’s spin rate, giving us a more tangible way to express the impact of the sticky stuff; and 3) the dramatic increase in strikeouts, which emanate partly but not wholly from items 1 and 2.

Q. Whoa, there’s a lot there. First of all, what is this new sticky stuff and how does it differ from its predecessors?

A. In the old days, pitchers used sunscreen, rosin and pine tar to get a better grip on the ball, a phenomenon that hitters welcomed particularly in cold-weather games. No reason for a pitch to lose his grip and bean a batter, right? But now there are, to name two examples: Spider Tack, which was originally designed to help weightlifters, and Pelican Grip, originally designed to help batters improve their bat grip (ironic, right?). These substances go well beyond aiding a pitcher. The industry-wide belief is they enable pitchers to transform into a considerably superior performer.

Gerrit Cole has been accused of using Spider Tack to enhance his pitches.
Gerrit Cole has been accused of using Spider Tack to enhance his pitches.
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Q. By significantly enhancing their spin rates?

A. Correct.

Q. So what is spin rate?

A. It’s how many revolutions per minute a pitched ball spins. The higher the spin rate – through Tuesday’s action, the Dodgers’ Trevor Bauer led all 2021 pitchers with an average four-seam fastball spin rate of 2,822 rpms – the nastier the pitch, generally.

Q. Speaking of Bauer, why does it seem like he and Cole are getting the lion’s share of attention?

A. Bauer put himself on the radar with his tweets and interviews about spin rate and sticky stuff. He clearly doesn’t mind his prominent place in this saga, nor roping in others. In 2018, when Cole began to surge with the Astros as the spin rate shot up for all of his pitches, Bauer publicly implied that the Houston pitchers were up to no good. Then the Twins’ Josh Donaldson, in an interview last weekend, mused how Cole’s spin rate dropped in his last start (June 3, in a loss to the Rays) after word began to leak about increased enforcement.

Q. What sort of increased enforcement?

Trevor Bauer pitches for the Dodgers.
Trevor Bauer pitches for the Dodgers.
Getty Images

A. The primary piece, which could be announced early next week and implemented shortly afterwards, concerns umpires checking pitchers for sticky stuff, be it on the brim of their hat, their hands, their belt or anywhere else. Every pitcher entering the game will likely be examined, and multiple checks of an individual pitcher are possible. Obviously, the longer a pitcher lasts in a game, the more likely he’d get looked over more than once.

Q. Does baseball have itself another steroids-sized imbroglio on its hands?

A. I reject that. Players who used steroids were breaking actual laws, not just baseball rules, and that brought law-enforcement agencies as well as Congress into the picture; people went to jail. They also were putting their health at risk (hence the banning of the drugs they utilized). Sticky stuff is relatively small (if sticky) potatoes. We’ll have a better idea by the end of the season whether this initial wave of enforcement accomplishes its mission without creating any unintended consequences (like making the games even longer).

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