Major League Baseball, wary of players finding new ways to add additional tack to the baseball, will continue to routinely inspect pitchers for foreign substances during the 2022 season, according to an internal memo obtained by ESPN.
The memo, distributed to teams on Friday by MLB senior vice president of on-field operations Michael Hill, states that all pitchers should expect at least one inspection by umpires every time they appear in a game, either between innings or during pitching changes (starters will be subject to more). Those believed to have added illegal sticky substances to the baseball, which constitutes anything outside of the standard rosin bag, will be ejected and subsequently suspended.
This year, in what MLB described as part of a "less invasive" procedure, umpires will check for sticky substances directly on a pitcher's hand rather than focusing on gloves and belt buckles like they did for the last four months of the 2021 season. Umpires are instructed to use their thumbs to inspect pitchers' hands from top to bottom and look for "any unusual looking foreign substances, including suspicious clumps or discoloration," according to the memo.
Sports Illustrated first reported on the league's new protocols.
"We want to thank the players for their cooperation last season and the umpires for doing an outstanding job of carrying out enforcement of the rule with great professionalism," Hill said as part of a statement to ESPN. "We saw a clear positive impact on the field with more balls in play, more action in the game, more runs scored and a return to the art of pitching with fewer strikeouts. We are encouraged the game moved in the right direction towards the version of baseball that our fans have told us they want to see."
Pitchers, believing that the rosin bag wasn't enough to attain proper grip on a baseball that oftentimes felt chalky, have long used other means to create additional stick, most commonly sunscreen and pine tar. The league, its managers and its umpires turned a blind eye to the issue for decades. Hitters, mindful of the dangers that could result from slippery baseballs, practically encouraged the practice.
But in recent years, as the industry has obsessed over spin rates and their correlation with swings and misses, the use of illegal sticky stuff has become both more extreme and more common. The uptick helped fuel rising strikeout rates but also an inordinate amount of hit by pitches, a product, many believe, of pitchers becoming more bullish with their ability to execute up-and-in fastballs with enhanced grips.
MLB tried to combat the issue by implementing enhanced monitoring at the start of the 2021 season and learned that the issue had only become more prevalent. Many pitchers had begun turning to a substance called Spider Tack, traditionally used in strongman competitions to help lift 100-pound boulders. It prompted the league to ask its umpires to routinely check pitchers as they came off the mound beginning June 21.
Spin rates on four-seam fastballs, the pitch probably most impacted by additional stick, fell off in June and July, shortly after word spread about MLB's new protocols. But those spin rates began to pick back up as the season progressed. The league believes players found ways to navigate around the inspections.
"As a result," Hill wrote in his memo, "umpires have been instructed to be more vigilant and unpredictable in the timing and scope of their checks during the 2022 season."
Umpires still have the discretion to inspect any part of a player's uniform if there is reason to believe foreign substances might be at play. Managers can ask umpires for additional checks, but only with valid suspicions; they will be subject to discipline if the request is made under what the umpire determines to be bad faith.
MLB has also for the first time standardized the rosin bag, utilizing Honduran pine rosin supplied by the company Pelican Bat Wax, according to the memo. Pitchers are barred from mixing other substances with the rosin and are advised not to use sunscreen during night games or in closed-roof ballparks to prevent potential discipline. Pitchers are also allowed to carry a wet rag in their back pockets but can't access it once they're on the rubber.
Caleb Smith, then with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Hector Santiago, at that point with the Seattle Mariners, each received a 10-day suspension for allegedly using illegal foreign substances in 2021, becoming the only players suspended under MLB's new protocols.
Offense slightly picked up during the second half last year, the league-wide OPS rising from .718 to .739, and strikeout rates dropped by more than a percentage point, from 23.8% to 22.5%.
MLB believes increased monitoring of foreign substances played a key role.