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'Sticky stuff' on MLB balls: What substances are illegal?

Comparing Tyler Glasnow, who uses sunscreen and rosin, to others who allegedly use illegal substances.
Credit: AP
Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow delivers during the first inning of a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox Monday, June 14, 2021, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — To cheat or not to cheat?

Actually, it’s not even a question.

Ask any pitcher in any league, and -- if they’re being honest -- they’ll tell you it’s rarer to see a guy throwing a “naked” ball, i.e., one without any type of foreign substance on it.

Sunscreen mixed with rosin, Spider Tack, home-made concoctions -- the various types of “sticky stuff” are lathered on balls all around the sport of baseball to help pitchers get a grip on an otherwise naturally slippery ball.

It all flew under the radar until recently, when MLB announced it would crack down on pitchers using goop, beginning June 21. The penalty for offenders is an ejection and 10-game suspension with pay, but the team cannot replace the suspended player on the roster.

“Everyone’s nervous and doesn’t want to be the first one to get caught,” a former pitcher and current National League team employee said. “Kinda panic mode but not really. Guys are adjusting to going back to normal.”

But, is using a substance cheating or not? Some pitchers claim having a tacky ball is safer: with more control, fewer batters get hit. And that’s what the sunscreen and rosin mix is for -- two legal substances that, when mixed together, become illegal in the MLB’s eyes.

Then there are the pitchers who use Spider Tack or other goops to bump their spin rate, therefore making their pitches more difficult to hit.

So, the situation is a little more grey than it appears.

“I don’t think it is black and white,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “It has not been black and white for a lot of years in this game. It’s become something that has become accepted. Now, MLB is trying to do their due diligence to make it black and white, which I think we all can appreciate. It has been something that has taken on too much. It’s a unique situation that -- with MLB’s thought’s -- rather than have anymore grey area, they’re just deciding, ‘we’re gonna stop it in its entirety.’”

Let’s compare the spin rates of pitchers who are known or rumored to use specific substances.

Tyler Glasnow said Tuesday that he’s used a sunscreen and rosin mix.

This came a day after he left his June 14 start after just four innings with a partial UCL tear. He hypothesized that the MLB’s crackdown led to his injury, as he went “cold turkey” with the tack and had to “choke the s*** out of the ball.”

We’ll take a look at the numbers starting in 2015, when the Statcast era began. Statcast makes it possible to track the spin rate of the ball.

We’ll look at just the four-seam fastball and the curveball, where spin really counts. High spin on a four-seamer gives it the "rising fastball" effect, which is more likely to get a hitter to swing and miss. High spin on a curveball means more break, which leads to more strikeouts. 

For Glasnow, we’ll start in 2016, when he first joined the Bigs.

Credit: 10 Tampa Bay

Glasnow has a huge jump of 231 rpm in his curveball from 2017 to 2018. However, that can be attributed to him leaving the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and joining Tampa Bay. The Rays are known throughout the organization for getting the best out of their guys.

The overall differential on the curveball may raise some eyebrows.

But another way to increase spin is to increase velocity, which is what Glasnow did during this time span. In 2016, his average velocity on the curveball was 79.8 mph. In 2021, it’s 83.5 mph.

The same can be said for the overall differential in spin on his fastball. He averaged 94 mph on his four-seamer in 2016 and averages 97 mph in 2021.

This lines up with Glasnow’s claim: “There is a fine line between guys using stuff -- Spider Tack -- to make their ball spin more, or doing something to get a grip. I've never been a dude to use it to get my stuff to be better."

Now let’s look at the New York Yankees’ Gerrit Cole, who is believed to use Spider Tack, due to this fiasco of an answer when asked about it:

Here are Cole’s numbers during the Statcast era:

Credit: 10 Tampa Bay

His biggest jumps in spin on both pitches came in 2018, when he left the Pirates and joined the Houston Astros and noted spin king Justin Verlander.

However, his overall differential is noticeable. The MLB average spin rate for a curveball is around 2500 rpm, so Cole started off close to it in 2015. But, he’s now in an elite area at 2824 rpm. His velocity did increase, but not a significant amount, going from 82.2 mph in 2015 to 83.4 mph in 2021.

The MLB average spin rate for a four-seamer is 2300 rpm. He started below that in 2015 and is now well above average. Meanwhile, the velocity did not have a drastic change, starting at 96.3 mph in 2015 and increasing to 97.3 in 2021.

Finally, we’ll take a look at the L.A. Dodgers’ Trevor Bauer, one of baseball’s most analytically driven players.

He seemingly tried to blow the whistle on the MLB’s foreign substance problem years ago, but no one listened. On December 12, 2019, he tweeted, “Foreign substance had (sic) been shown to increase spin rate by up to 500 rpm. That evidence is undeniable.”

On January 13, 2020, he seems to have given out his formula, saying: “Pine tar, firm grip, Coca-Cola, boiled/melted together in a metal coke can. Maybe some rosin. Just a guess though.”

Here are his numbers:

Credit: 10 Tampa Bay

Well… there’s not much to say here.

His spin rates on both pitches started at the MLB average. Now, they’re at an elite level.

And, his velocity did not increase. On the curveball, his average velocity was 79.9 mph in 2015 and is 79.7 now. On the fastball, his average velocity was 93.5 mph in 2015 and is 93.8 now.

This is why the MLB is cracking down on foreign substances -- to prevent obvious cheating, which is different from simply gripping the ball.

The Rays are taking the new rules seriously.

“Don’t do it, period,” Cash said. “This is a really good team. We don’t want to put ourselves behind the 8-ball with a suspension … the guys are asking questions, and we owe it to have answers. So does MLB. Everybody owes it to the players to have answers. This game is about the players. I think over the next few days, more information will come out, so we are as prepared and equipped as possible for that June 21 date.”

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