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MLB Plans to Use Pitch Data to Try to Bust Illegal Substance Cheaters

Chicago Cubs

The rampant use of grip-enhancing substances by pitchers across MLB has been one of those vogue discussions this offseason, from reporting that dug into just how widespread the issue is (and how unclear the rules are), to a lawsuit alleging that a number of top pitchers had sought substances from an Angels’ employee, to our own beefing about how obvious certain cheaters were making things.

That last one seems to be where MLB is finally drawing a line, because in the age of micro data about pitch spin, movement, angle, tilt, gyro, whatever, it isn’t difficult to notice when something appears very unnatural. As Trevor Bauer went to great lengths to point out, the only way a pitcher can immediately add 300+ RPM to his fastball is by using an illegal grip substance – a cheating event he compared to the use of steroids when it comes to the results. And a point he seemingly proved in 2018 and 2019 … and then just decided to go ahead and do it for a full season in 2020, in which he won the Cy Young. When the guy who has been calling you out for years about not enforcing your illegal substance rules clearly goes out and joins the party (and wins the highest pitching award in the process), it’s probably time to make a decision.

Keep in mind, we aren’t just talking about pitchers using substances to get a better grip on a slick ball so that they can better control their pitches. Even hitters are probably OK with that, as we don’t want guys getting crazy wild out there. Instead, we’re talking about using above-and-beyond grip substances to artificially increase spin rate, which can give fastballs much more late life and can give breaking balls more movement. The substance alone won’t do it – you have to know how to grip and deploy your pitches to maximize the effect – but it’s against the rules, and it’s being laxly enforced by the league. In those ways, the situation really is so much like the Steroid Era.

From my seat, I would’ve been fine with MLB going either of two ways on this: (1) create a better, uniform substance (beyond the rosin bag) that pitchers can use for grip, and ONLY that substance and/or rosin; or (2) get much more serious about enforcing the rule banning illegal grip substances. Number one sounds better to me – more workable and realistic – but I get that number two comes with the added benefit of maybe giving hitters a little boost against strikeout pitchers, something the league wants anyway.

Per a league memo and a report from the New York Post, the league has opted for option two:

Aberrant spikes are going to be the most obvious tell here, so does that mean guys who’ve been successfully cheating for a long time – and have thus created a higher baseline for their spin (for example) – will be able to keep getting away with it? Guys like Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer pretty clearly did something if you’re going by the data, so … are they safe from further scrutiny because they established baselines before 2021? Or is the tech sophisticated enough to determine the difference between 3000 RPMs created naturally and 3000 RPMs created using a grip enhancer? I won’t pretend to know on that one.

If the tech can’t differentiate in the ways described there, then doesn’t this approach actually just risk further punishing pitchers who DON’T use substances, since now they’re the ones who can never “catch up”?

The league memo indicates it will also be monitoring in-game changes in spin, so I guess you’re also safe if you make sure to cheat on every pitch? All questions TBD.

I will be fascinated to see the impact this year, if there is any. And if the impact is significant, hey, maybe it’s good that the Cubs have a command-control rotation, AMIRITE?!



Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.