The players in our national pastime have always looked for an unfair edge. Pitchers recently found a new one. Here's everything you need to know:
How are players cheating?
Pitchers have been doctoring the baseball with sticky stuff, baffling batters with enhanced pitches that can seem unhittable. Unlike the classic spitball — which pitchers began throwing more than a century ago, using Vaseline, K-Y Jelly, or actual saliva to make the ball slip out of their hand and wobble unpredictably — the new trick relies on commercial substances that give pitchers improved grip. The stickiness enables pitchers to throw harder while maintaining control, and to increase their pitches' spin rate and make sliders, curveballs, and sinkers bend and dive like never before. The average pitcher this season is striking out 1 in every 4 batters — on par with all-time greats such as Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan. Major League Baseball began sending this year's game-used balls to a lab, finding suspicious "dark, amber-colored markings that are sticky to the touch" on a majority of specimens. "This should be the biggest scandal in sports," a team executive recently told Sports Illustrated.
Why is this stuff so effective?
Pitchers have always been allowed to use rosin — extracted from pine trees — to modestly improve their grip; in its unadorned state, a baseball is shiny and slippery, and nobody wants a fastball slipping from someone's hand and beaning a batter. In recent years, pitchers began lathering their arms with sunscreen and mixing that with rosin to form a stickier composite. Then they discovered concoctions of hair gel, or Spider Tack, a glue meant for World's Strongest Man competitions, or Pelican Grip, made for bat handles. Pitchers sneak these "foreign substances" onto the mound in their gloves or on their jockstraps, hat brims, shoelaces, or belt buckles.
Have they gotten caught?
Until recently, umpires mostly looked the other way, as did teams, rather than call attention to their own pitchers. But the stickiness of these new substances isn't subtle: A ball once stuck to a catcher's chest protector like Velcro without consequence, and another team was spotted playing with a sticky ball in the dugout, laughing as it dangled from players' open palms. Trevor Bauer, now of the Los Angeles Dodgers, said in 2018 he'd done tests in a pitching lab and found that the new sticky substances enabled him to increase his spin rate enormously. "If I used that s---, I'd be the best pitcher in the big leagues," he said. "But I have morals." In 2020, his spin suddenly climbed, and the once-mediocre pitcher landed a contract paying him at least $38 million this season.
Is cheating new?
It goes back to the dawn of pro baseball. In the 1910s, Chicago White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte threw a signature "shine ball" coated with talcum powder hidden in his pants pocket. Mid-20th-century greats like Gaylord Perry, Whitey Ford, and Joe Niekro were well-known mound scientists, lubing up spitballs or scuffing the ball with secret emery boards or sharpened belt buckles and wedding rings to make pitches break unexpectedly. In 1980, Seattle Mariners pitcher Rick Honeycutt forgot he'd taped a thumbtack to his finger and accidentally gashed his face.
What about batters?
They've used plenty of their own tricks. Six sluggers since 1970 have been busted for using a "corked" bat — drilling a hole in the end of the bat and filling the barrel with cork, making a large bat lighter and thus easier to swing. During the steroid era in the 1990s and early 2000s, hitters used performance-enhancing drugs to build massive, Popeye-like forearms and biceps. Sluggers such as Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds grew so massive they could hit the ball out with a flick of the bat, and shattered virtually all home run records. Then there's the art of "stealing" catcher's signs to the pitcher — legal if players on the field simply use their eyesight, but against the rules when teams use technology. The Houston Astros' 2017 championship was marred when it emerged that the Astros used an outfield camera hooked up to a video monitor to steal signs and relay them to the dugout, where players or team staff banged on a trash can to tell batters whether to expect a fastball, breaking ball, or changeup.
Can MLB stop the cheating?
Starting last week, the league began threatening 10-game suspensions for any pitcher caught using foreign substances. Umpires began searching every pitcher's hat, glove, and hands during games, to the irritation of some pitchers: Oakland reliever Sergio Romo sarcastically dropped his pants while being searched. The crackdown seems to be working. The average pitch spin rate has dropped to its lowest level all season, and some pitchers, including Bauer, have become noticeably more hittable. After Tampa Bay ace Tyler Glasnow tore his elbow ligament, he blamed it on the new rules enforcement, saying he had to grip the ball tighter. "I had to change everything I'd been doing the entire season," he complained. "You can't just tell us to use nothing. It's crazy."
The impact on the game
Major League Baseball cracked down on doctored balls out of fear fans would be bored by the lack of hitting and run scoring. The leaguewide batting average is about .237, the second-lowest mark in MLB's 146-year history. During the height of the steroids era, the league batting average was .270. Striking out one batter per inning, once the mark of an electric pitching performance, is now the league norm, and there have been an astonishing seven no-hitters thrown so far this year, tying the modern record for an entire season. There are several factors behind pitching dominance — improved mechanics, teams positioning their fielders based on advanced analytics, batters being trained to uppercut and swing for the fences — but there's no doubt that sticky substances are many pitchers' secret weapon. "Guys are throwing 97 mph super sinkers, or balls that just go straight up with all this sticky stuff," says Colorado outfielder Charlie Blackmon. "It's really hard not to strike out."
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.