Since Major League Baseball’s ban on the use of sticky substances used by pitchers on baseballs, spin rates on four-seam fastballs in June were the lowest of any month since August 2018.

MLB is trying to fix a sticky problem

“Your salary can be based on your spin rate. Now you’re getting a competitive advantage.”

By Max Goodwin

Mike Macfarlane played 13 seasons as a major league catcher from 1987 to 1999, all but the final two seasons with the Royals. 

With former Royals player Kevin Seitzer, Macfarlane founded Mac N Seitz, located at 137th and Holmes. It was designed to develop young players in the area with the goal of preparing them to play and thrive at the college level. This year Mac N Seitz has 20 players from the 2021 high school class that are moving on to play at colleges like the University of Central Missouri, Fort Hays State, and William Jewell.

Mike Macfarlane played for the Royals in 1987–1994 and 1996–1998.

After more than a decade behind the plate in the major leagues, Macfarlane is deeply familiar with the traditions of the game that players have passed down over the years. Between the hitter and the umpire, working with a pitcher through each pitch, a catcher is more intimately involved in the game than any other position on the field. The Royals current manager Mike Matheny also played 13 seasons in Major League Baseball as a catcher. Before Matheny, the Royals were managed by Ned Yost who was also a catcher. 

MacFarlane knows sticky stuff of some kind has always had a part in the game, whether it be rosin used with sweat or pine tar. But he says what some pitchers are doing now is beyond what he saw in his career.

“When I played, I’ll admit I had pine tar all over me,” Macfarlane said. “Some of it was for my benefit on a cold April day in Toronto or New York because I felt like I needed the grip. You could lather a little bit of sweat on it and get it a little bit tacky. But sometimes that pine tar was just the extra little grip that you needed.”

When a pitcher can grip the ball better they can apply more spin to the ball and still have control over where it goes. High-speed cameras are used to track the revolutions per minute that each pitch spins out of a pitcher’s hand, this stat is known as spin rate. An increased spin rate means more movement on a pitch making it harder to hit.

The rosin bag sits right behind the pitcher’s mound and has a sticky feel to it, but it takes some moisture to be able to use that stickiness from the rosin to get a grip on the ball. In recent years pitchers have experimented more with different substances and found what works, and through technology now having a stat like spin rate, they can track just how much a specific substance enhances their pitches.

“Now when you’re getting into these substances that are clear and mixing different compounds to maximize the tackiness,” Macfarlane said. “Your salary can be based on your spin rate. Now you’re getting a competitive advantage.”

Pitchers had clearly gained a competitive advantage over hitters across the board. League batting averages had dipped to a collective .236 and were on pace for the lowest recorded hitting average in league history.

The sticky stuff became a common topic of questioning among MLB reporters, with Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole when asked if he used a substance called Spider Tack paused for more than several seconds before responding “I don’t know how to answer that. I mean, there are customs and practices that have been passed down from older players to younger players. From the last generation of players to this generation of players.”

One of the best pitchers in the game was asked point-blank whether or not he used a specific substance that was proven to help pitchers enhance the spin and movement on their pitches and he seemed unable to deny using Spider Tack. 

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred decided soon after that it was time to act. The enforcement of rules 3.01 and 6.02 was announced on June 3rd and put into play on June 21st.

“After an extensive process of repeated warnings without effect, gathering information from current and former players and others across the sport, two months of comprehensive data collection, listening to our fans and thoughtful deliberation, I have determined that new enforcement of foreign substances is needed to level the playing field,” Manfred said in a statement announcing the rule enforcement.  “I understand there’s a history of foreign substances being used on the ball, but what we are seeing today is objectively far different, with much tackier substances being used more frequently than ever before.”

Since umpires began checking for foreign substances, spin rates on four-seam fastballs in June were the lowest of any month since August 2018. Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole has struggled, his spin rate has decreased, and he was booed off the mound by Yankee fans after allowing 4 earned runs in 3.1 innings against the Mets on July 4th.

The rule has come with unintended consequences as well. Many players have criticized that the rule enforcement was announced mid-season, and Macfarlane echoed those critiques. He would have liked to have seen the rule announced in spring training. 

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow partially tore his ulnar collateral ligament in his first start after the rules went into place and blamed the MLB rule for the injury.

“I switched my fastball grip and my curveball grip,” Glasnow said in a video conference with reporters after that game. “I had to put my fastball deeper into my hand and grip it way harder. Instead of holding my curveball at the tip of my fingers, I had to dig it deeper into my hand.”

Now that the rule is in place, Macfarlane says he’ll watch like everybody else to see if batting averages and hard hit balls go up and if pitchers can adjust and get a grip on the new normal.

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