Baseball has a sticky situation on its hands

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Baseball has a problem with banned substances — but it’s not what you think

Since the Steroid Era ran out of juice in the mid-to-late 2000s, pitchers have taken back the game. Scoring in Major League Baseball is down from more than 10.3 runs per game in 2000 to 8.8 this year. The record for total strikeouts will almost certainly be broken for the 13th (!) consecutive full season. The cumulative big-league batting average has plummeted to .233 this season — tied for the lowest ever with 1968, the vaunted Year of the Pitcher.

We pinpointed the root cause of this in a recent newsletter: today’s pitchers are simply too good. More specifically, too many guys throw too hard and put too much wicked movement on the ball for hitters to have a chance to make good contact on a consistent basis. And now, we have a better idea of exactly how pitchers got so nasty.

The rules of baseball — specifically, Rule 6.02(c) — prohibit pitchers from applying a foreign substance “of any kind” to the ball. But gripping a baseball can be tricky, especially when you’re sweating through a summertime game. So pitchers have always been allowed a little leeway here. Think of the rosin bag they use to powder their throwing hand when it gets too damp.

At some point, though, pitchers began going to greater lengths to get a grip. This coincided with the discovery of, and increased emphasis on, the importance of spin rate. Basically, the more revolutions a ball makes from the time it leaves a pitcher’s hand to when it reaches the plate, the more it can move. This is especially true for sliders and curveballs, but even a fastball’s trajectory can become more difficult to hit with a higher spin rate. And a proven way to increase spin rate is by improving your grip on the ball. Dodgers ace Trevor Bauer, whose average spin rate has topped 2,900 rotations per minute in some games this year, figures he can pick up an extra 400 rpm by using foreign substances.

At first, pitchers turned to pine tar (legal for hitters to use on their bat handles), then a homemade blend of rosin and sunscreen. Now it’s commercial-grade products like Pelican Grip Dip, which is marketed toward baseball players, and even Spider Tack, designed for competitive weightlifters.

Unlike steroids, these supposedly illegal substances were not used in secret. There was an understanding that it was in everyone’s best interest — pitchers and hitters alike — for today’s flamethrowers to have a good grip on the ball. If they lost it, the argument went, batters might get seriously hurt. So Major League Baseball, just like it did with steroids, turned a blind eye to its own rules against these substances. And pitchers took advantage of that generosity.

But no more. Hitters are tired of being embarrassed at the plate, and Major League Baseball knows that these skyrocketing strikeout rates are bad for business. So it’s finally decided to enforce the rules that were already on the books.

Reportedly, MLB will soon instruct umpires to police the use of foreign substances by pitchers, and will issue suspensions to those caught cheating. The impending crackdown already seems to be working. Bauer and Yankees ace Gerrit Cole are two of the big names who have seen declines in their spin rates recently, coinciding with reporters starting to press them on the suddenly hot-button topic of foreign substances and the advantages they can provide. If you’d like to learn more of the details, I recommend this explainer by ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

Trevor Bauer has been notably forthcoming about the boost to spin rate that can be achieved with sticky substances. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Quickly…

The Stanley Cup semifinals are almost set. The feisty New York Islanders completed a six-game upset of Boston last night and will now face defending-champion Tampa Bay in the final four for the second straight year. The other semifinal will pit Montreal vs. the winner of the Colorado-Vegas series. Vegas can finish it off with a victory in Game 6 tonight (9 p.m. ET on CBC TV, CBCSports.ca and the CBC Sports app).

It’ll be a no-name French Open women’s final. You have to be a pretty big tennis fan to know Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Barbora Krejcikova. They’re ranked 32nd and 33rd in the world, respectively, and this is the first time either had reached even the semifinals of a Grand Slam. They’ll play for the women’s title on Saturday. The matchup for the men’s final will be decided tomorrow when No. 5 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas plays No. 6 Alexander Zverev, and Novak Djokovic faces Rafael Nadal. Some are calling that showdown, between the world No. 1 and the 13-time French Open champ, the “real” final. Read more about the women’s semifinals here.

A Canadian-based athlete is on the Refugee Olympic Team for Tokyo. Made up of athletes who have fled their home countries, the refugee team debuted at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where it had 10 members. It’s grown to 29 (in 12 different sports) for Tokyo, and one of them is karate athlete Hamoon Derafshipour. The 28-year-old left his home country of Iran in 2019 for unspecified reasons and settled in Kitchener, Ont., with his wife, who is also his coach. The Canadian Olympic Committee connected them with Karate Canada for training and support, and Derafshipour was among the athletes chosen by the International Olympic Committee this week to compete on the refugee team. Read more about him here.

And finally…

Robert Lewandowski is not German. In yesterday’s newsletter previewing soccer’s European Championship, I wrote that the high-scoring striker plays for Germany. Though his club team is German powerhouse Bayern Munich, Lewandowski is in fact Polish and will be suiting up for them. Sorry for the error (especially if you’re a Poland fan) and thanks to the (many) readers who wrote in about it.

Coming up on CBC Sports

Judo world championships: Watch live bouts in the women’s 78-kg and men’s 100-kg divisions on Friday from 4 a.m. ET to 12:30 p.m. ET here.

Volleyball: Watch the Canadian men’s team play France at the Nations League event in Italy on Friday at 1:15 p.m. ET here.

You’re up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.



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