MLB intends to increase enforcement of sticky stuff checks in the 2023 season

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Major League Baseball intends to increase enforcement of the league’s foreign matter policy in 2023. On Thursday, MLB Vice President Michael Hill issued a memo to all 30 clubs informing them that umpires were encouraged to increase foreign matter checks this season, The Athletic reports. Foreign substance checks were carried out on June 21, 2021.

Here are the details of the MLB’s tightened foreign substance controls:

  • The inspections of pitchers’ hands and fingers by umpires that began last season would be more thorough than the often perfunctory inspections umpires conducted last year.
  • These inspections would also be more random, unlike last season when starting pitcher inspections were generally conducted after the same innings of each game.
  • Umpires could also resume checking pitchers’ caps, gloves and belts – a practice they used in 2021 but abandoned in 2022 in favor of more streamlined inspections of hands and fingers.
  • Most importantly, umpires would be able to be more aggressive in inspecting pitchers than in the past.

Last season, 871 players pitched in a major league game and none were caught with a foreign substance. It would be naïve to think that foreign substances are completely out of the game. It means enforcement is lacking, so MLB is ramping it up again.

Once upon a time, pitchers would use foreign substances to manipulate the ball and get unnatural movement or just get a better grip to improve their control. In recent years, pitchers have weaponized foreign substances or “gooey stuff” to generate extreme spin rates and movement. This has helped increase the number of strikeouts throughout the game.

Here’s the league’s average four-seam fastball spin rate over the past two seasons:

  • Opening day 2021 to June 20, 2021: 2,308 rpm (no penetration of foreign matter)
  • June 21, 2021 through the end of the 2021 regular season: 2,248 rpm (foreign matter checks begin June 21, 2021)
  • Opening Day 2022 to All-Star Break 2022: 2,264 rpm
  • 2022 All-Star hiatus through end of 2022 regular season: 2,292 rpm

For a single pitcher, a spin rate change of 50-60 RPM is nothing. This fits into normal game-to-game variability, much like a pitcher sitting 94 mph one game and 95 mph the next. RPM changes in the 200 RPM range indicate the use of sticky material.

However, for an entire league, a 50-60 rpm change suggests that foreign matter was widespread. The league’s average fastball spin rate dropped significantly after sticky-thing checks were introduced in June 2021, but has since picked up gradually and was near pre-check levels by late 2022. That suggests pitchers might be better at hiding sticky things, or using a substance that’s harder to detect, or both.

Only two players – left-handers Héctor Santiago and Caleb Smith in 2021 – have been banned for foreign substances since the controls began. Beginners are hit with a 10-game ban and repeat offenders can be penalized more severely.

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