Baseball’s application of the use of foreign substances by pitchers, manipulating the ball to add speed and spinning speed, began with a bang, or rather, it began with the falling of boxes on the field.
That’s what Oakland Athletics reliever Sergio Romo did when a referee stopped to check for any sticky material on June 22. The Romo incident followed the Max Scherzer show, finding himself unbuckled in the middle of an inning before a referee felt the Washington Nationals scouring sweaty hair for foreign substances. There were none.
Those incidents added drama to MLB’s decision to increase the application of foreign substances, which have long been banned but have been loosely controlled until recently. But in the two weeks since then, on-field displays have given way to a grudging acceptance of the new rule, with pitchers handing umpires their hat and glove before heading to the dugout, without needing to undress. .
And while two weeks in baseball is a small sample size compared to the full 162-game roster, the changes have been remarkable, if tiny in some ways.
The biggest difference between the pre and post application times has been the sharp reduction in spin speed, which is a measure of how many revolutions a baseball makes per minute in the 60 feet, 6 inches between mound and home plate. from home.
With a decrease in turning speed, there may be an increase in offense that could already be on display, despite the small sample size. For baseball, those are the first signs of what a successful compliance policy could be, leveling a playing field that seemed to tilt in favor of pitchers in recent years.
During the first two months of the season, that domain became known. Through May 31, the MLB-wide batting average of .236 was a record low. Batters slugged .394 and struck out 24.2% of the time.
Since enforcement of the foreign substances law began on June 21, the offensive figures have improved. The next 15 days of games they posted a .244 batting average and a .410 slugging percentage. The strikeout rate fell to 23%. The home run rate rose from 3.4% to 3.8%. They are small changes, but perhaps emblematic of a shift towards neutrality.
“The spin rates are down and the offensive numbers are up,” said Tim Kurkjian, a baseball analyst at ESPN. “Which I think is good for baseball, because I think the pitching was too overwhelming for the first two full months of this season.”
As the weather gets warmer, the ball carries more. So making sweeping judgments based on a two-week window is hard to sell. But the sharp drop in spin speed can be attributed to the lack of sticky material available to pitchers.
According to Baseball Prospectus writer Robert Arthur, the turn rate ratio had steadily increased since 2018. But in mid-May, revolutions per minute fell off the table for many pitchers. Others took longer to show signs of some variation than usual.
The cracking down on sticky stuff has produced an absolutely insane reduction in spin rates across the league. We don’t really have a good historical parallel to how low RPMs will end up, but this change will lower K% and increase runs a lot. https://t.co/c5ST8JF3t0 pic.twitter.com/k98ASf223q
– Rob Arthur (@No_Little_Plans) June 25, 2021
Scherzer, for example, saw his turning speed show the first signs of a major decline with his start against the San Francisco Giants on June 11. The app hadn’t started yet, but word of a possible app had already spread. In that game, Scherzer’s curveball spun 238 rpm less than his yearly average, and his fastball dropped 80 rpm, according to Baseball Savant. His next start, when law enforcement began and Phillies manager Joe Girardi asked umpires to check Scherzer for a foreign substance midway through an inning, Scherzer’s four-seam spinning speed. decreased 105 rpm. His curve ball dropped 170 rpm and his slider dropped 155 rpm.
The Yankees’ Gerrit Cole saw his spin rate plummet during his start on June 22, with his 215-rpm fastball versus average. Its platen dropped 326 rpm, its slider 205 rpm, its knuckle curve 147 rpm, and its gear change another 96 rpm. The Dodgers’ Trevor Bauer saw the same thing during his June 23 start: His fastball, slider and knuckle curve lost at least 109 rpm compared to their season average.
Scherzer has maintained his strong performances despite a decrease in turning speed. Cole, meanwhile, has allowed 10 runs in his last two starts, and his most recent outing lasted 3 1/3 innings. Those pitchers are part of a larger trend in slowing turning speeds, and offenses are starting to heat up.
“It appears this could be due to less sticky substance use,” said Andy Andrés, a professor who teaches a course in baseball sabermetrics at Boston University and Tufts University. “In other words, [the offensive numbers are] Trend the right way you’d expect if churn rates are going down. “
On June 30, MLB teams erupted to score 204 runs, the most runs scored in a single day since 2009.
“That’s a good sign that the pitchers maybe they were getting an unfair advantage, and not now,” Kurkjian said. “Some. I mean, we can’t prove any of this, but it sure looks like that. And I think that’s healthy for the game, that we’re looking at a little more offense.”
This is not the first adjustment MLB has made to alter the batting average. After the “Year of the Pitcher,” in which batters set a record average of .237, MLB lowered the mound height by five inches in 1969 and lowered the strike zone.
Reducing the use of foreign substances could be another example of that, with the aim of alleviating some of the struggles against pitching that has become increasingly dominant, and perhaps a bit difficult, of late.
A larger sample size at the end of the season will collect more information, proving whether the slight offensive spikes were more than a coincidence or a trick of the weather. But for the moment, the elevation of offensive starts while spin rates decline is an early indication that the application of foreign substances is affecting the game.
“The rates of effects on certain launches have definitely gone down due to the repression,” Andrés said. “And you are likely to see better contact going forward. Less strikeouts, better contact, more barrels, more hard hitting balls, less pop-ups, less roll, all of those things. “