These are not good times to be a hitter in Major League Baseball. Through Wednesday, the league-wide batting average was .237, nearly tied for the lowest ever with 1968—the year hitters were so overmatched that the league decided to even things out by lowering the pitcher’s mound. Hitters are striking out in nearly 1 in 4 plate appearances, the highest rate in league history. Relatedly, teams are scoring just 4.38 runs per game, the fewest since 2014.
Why are major-league offenses so putrid? A new report in Sports Illustrated suggests ball-doctoring pitchers are largely to blame. Pitchers have concocted and used various adhesives, ranging from hair gel to mixtures of sunscreen and resin, to tighten their grips on the ball. In turn, their pitches move in unnatural, unpredictable, and increasingly unhittable ways.
The use of what’s known in baseball as “foreign substances” is now rooted in a league-wide pursuit of a higher “spin rate.” Teams have realized that more spin makes baseball harder to hit. Doctoring the ball, it turns out, makes it easier to spin it on its lightning-fast journey toward home plate, causing the slides, ducks, and dives that can make hitters look helpless. S.I.’s analysis shows that some teams have seen curious year-over-year rises in spin rate, with the sharpest jump coming from the world champion Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers signed 2020 Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer in the offseason, Bauer being one of the first pitchers to draw an explicit connection between ball-doctoring and boosting spin numbers. His spin rate dipped in a loss on Sunday, a game that came right after the league office signaled it’d crack down on ball-doctoring. You can be your own judge.
By this point, the entire sport is wise to this gooey phenomenon. The only thing that’s new here is that “spin rate” is now a quantifiable metric. Everything else about this story fits neatly into baseball tradition.
Pitchers’ obsession with manipulating the movement of the ball is as old as the game itself. Way back in 1920, at the tail end of the two-decade Dead Ball Era, the league banned pitchers from throwing spitballs or using other foreign substances to grip the ball. (It did grandfather in 17 pitchers who were allowed to keep spitballing until they retired.) Spin rate, then, has become an innovation essential to modern pitching even though it’s not that different from a dude named Burleigh Grimes (nickname: Ol’ Stubblebeard) spitballing for the 1918 Brooklyn Robins.
Pitch doctoring isn’t the only thing that’s suppressing offensive firepower in modern baseball. It’s also not the only “innovative” idea that was first discovered generations ago. A lot’s been made recently of the increasing deployment of defensive shifts, where a team puts three fielders on one side of second base. In 2016, the median major league team shifted 13 percent of the time, while in 2021, the median is north of 33 percent. (A couple of teams are shifting on more than half of opposing plate appearances.) But the first big unveiling of the shift was in 1946, when Cleveland player-manager Lou Boudreau figured out it might be a good way to limit the era’s most fearsome hitter, Ted Williams. The shift only became a sabermetric pursuit when teams started getting detailed diagrams of every single spot a player has ever hit a ball. (That moment arrived at different times for different front offices, but MLB has detailed, public spray charts for every hitter going back to 2008.)
Pitch framing by catchers has followed a similar path. As recently as the turn of the century, a Baseball Prospectus sabermetrician didn’t think a catcher’s ability to catch a ball and make it look more like a strike had any tangible effect on a pitcher’s performance. New-school observers mocked TV analysts like Tim McCarver for going on about the importance of a catcher’s framing ability. But by the middle of the 2010s, MLB teams had come to see pitch-framing as both a science and an art. Catchers who can’t do it well are now understood to cost their teams numerous runs over the course of a season. In essence, major league franchises are now focused on the same thing little league coaches have stressed to catchers for decades.
The infield shift and pitch-framing have affected how baseball is played in tangible ways. Ball-doctoring, by contrast, appears to have played a larger role in upending the game. After all, funny business tends to be a good explanation for weird statistical changes that hold up over extended periods of time. Comparisons between ball-doctoring and steroids are imperfect, starting with the obvious difference that doctoring the ball doesn’t physically hurt anybody. (This makes it feel a bit melodramatic when an executive tells S.I. that ball-doctoring “should be the biggest scandal in sports.”) If that point of comparison doesn’t work for you, maybe the league itself messing with balls will do better.
A collective problem demands collective action. MLB stepping up short-term enforcement is a good thing, but not worthy of much praise given that the league didn’t act until ball-doctoring became so pervasive as to clearly tank offense around the league. It’s on Manfred and team ownership to make sure enforcement lasts, whether that means ejections, suspensions, some kind of on-field penalty for violating teams, or a mix of the above. The MLB Players Association has some role to play, too, in determining how pitchers are punished for breaking the rules and what defenses they have against allegations from the league office. The subject could pop up in ongoing talks over a new collective bargaining agreement.
Recognizing that none of this is new carries two benefits. The first is that it probably helps us figure out MLB’s path forward. The second is that it shows how little power MLB might ultimately have to make offenses more prolific.
Given that teams know that a higher spin rate makes baseballs harder to hit, they’ll want their pitchers to achieve it in any fashion that doesn’t get them punished severely. Likewise, the shift will settle in as the new normal until MLB puts rules in place to roll it back, and pitch framing will remain vital until MLB replaces home plate umpires with robots. The league is apparently not close to banning shifts or instituting robot umps, because those are thornier issues than punishing pitchers for putting goo on their hands.
However, baseball has been on an inexorable march against offense for a long time, and in ways that might prove impervious to a league-wide crackdown. Pitch velocity has been rising since at least 2007 and seems to have pushed beyond what seemed to be a plateau. In an almost unbelievable feat of statistical symmetry, pitchers have set a new record for league-wide strikeout rate every year since 2008, going from 17.5 percent to a current mark of 24.1.
Foreign substances have something to do with the rise in strikeouts, but it’s not clear how much. The S.I. report details a rise in ball-doctoring over “the past two or three years,” a timespan that’s not nearly long enough to explain trends that have persisted for well over a decade. On top of that, teams’ increased defensive shifting has apparently been effective at turning batted balls into outs. The league-wide average on balls in play has ticked downward the past few years, even in seasons when hitters have made more hard contact than the year prior. At minimum, rolling back pitchers’ use of foreign substances would probably help turn around batters’ contact rates, which have reached record lows each year since 2015 and might do so again in 2021.
It’s worth remembering that the Dead Ball Era of the early 20th century didn’t last forever. The reasons it ended are open to debate, but could include changes in ballpark dimensions, stat-keeping, and the ball itself; Babe Ruth altering the way hitters hit; and MLB deciding, in 1920, to crack down on foreign substances. Some way or another, offenses eventually recovered, and that was long before Mark McGwire ever discovered a syringe. Batters might someday gain the upper hand again. But even if MLB follows through with long-term enforcement against doctored baseballs, there’s a chance the tables have turned against offense forever. That, finally, would be something new.