Sticky stuff isn't a scandal: Why vilifying pitchers is counterproductive for MLB

·8-min read

Pitchers’ use of sticky stuff — even the performance-enhancing superglue — and the forthcoming crackdown isn’t really a cheating scandal, it’s a belated reckoning that has more to do with aesthetics than ethics. And the entire baseball world would be having a more productive conversation right now if it was focused on easing what is widely recognized as a dramatic transition instead of centering the idea of pitchers getting their just desserts. Fans, too.

Here are some things that are certainly true: The balance between pitching and offense is a sensitive scale that does not modulate itself and instead requires deft oversight, that balance — or lack thereof — is a critical factor in the ever-fluctuating flavor of the on-field product, the commissioner’s office not only can but should put a thumb on the scale, pitching has recently and increasingly established an upper hand, among the many advancements designed to optimize all aspects of the game is a sophisticated understanding of how tackiness improves spin and spin improves pitching, and, as such, curbing the use of foreign substances is one way to potentially curtail pitchers’ dominance.

It makes all the sense in the world, then, that MLB would move to eradicate sticky stuff as a first and ideally even subtle step in addressing the panic-inducing lack of offense this season. Doing so should make pitchers less effective in the same way that moving the mound back a foot might. (Or limiting pitching staffs, or some other form of pitching restrictor plates.) That there is already a rule about foreign substances on the books made it the easier, or at least more obvious, option.

But — hear me out — the existing rule is in some ways a red herring for how that ban should be implemented.

MLB is effectively creating a new rule

It is morally neutral to put something sticky on a piece of equipment for a game. There are absolutely actual issues of real-world morality that intersect with sports — exploitation, racism, homophobia, to name a few.

Breaking the rules is bad, too, because it disrespects the social construct required for sports to work. It is, in other words, unfair. And yes, there is a written rule (actually, two) prohibiting the use of foreign substances on balls. But the social construct engendered by players, teams, umpires and the league was to behave as if there was not a rule. The issue, in fact, is that the total lack of an effective rule has begun to perceptibly alter the balance between pitchers and hitters. (Until very recently, the “open secret” of sticky stuff was mostly marveled at in the media. A 2012 story explored why there wasn’t more ball doctoring at the time.)

In the memo sent by MLB senior VP Michael Hill to teams earlier this week, a copy of which was obtained by Yahoo Sports, he writes that the league determined after two months of closely monitoring the situation, “the use of foreign substances by pitchers is more prevalent than we anticipated.”

I don’t know what they anticipated, but it was enough to merit closer observation, and then the actual amount was something more than that. And, for the past six years, no big league pitchers were punished for it — the same cannot be said for minor league pitchers or clubhouse attendants — despite high-profile attention on the matter in recent seasons.

I’m harping on the apparent ubiquity — which has been impressively and extensively cataloged in the media — because it’s hard to say something is “unfair” in the sense that it affected competitive integrity if everyone either was or could have been doing it. The use of sticky stuff, as encouraged by teams themselves and incentivized by the very nature of a highly stratified sport, was unfair almost exclusively to the pitchers who didn’t use it.

ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - JUNE 08: Tyler Glasnow #20 of the Tampa Bay Rays looks on during the first inning against the Washington Nationals at Tropicana Field on June 08, 2021 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
Rays ace Tyler Glasnow injured his elbow and raised concerns that the sticky stuff crackdown may have contributed. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

Pitchers deserve to be heard, not vilified

The longstanding assumption is that batters used to tolerate the rule-bending because they saw the personal safety benefit in allowing pitchers to get a secure grip on the ball. Their patience started to wear out as it got harder and harder to make contact, with the increasingly scientific use of sticky stuff at least partially to blame. Now, pitchers are making an argument that the total ban of extra tackiness poses an additional health risk. Clean-handed pitchers are squeezing baseballs — some like chalky pearls in especially dry environments — harder, creating new strain on already maxed out muscles of their arms. Or at least that’s how it feels to pitchers like recently injured Rays ace Tyler Glasnow who admit to going cold turkey in game situations for the first time.

MLB’s release about the crackdown pointed out that hit-by-pitches are up in the most recent, stickiest seasons and reasoned that “the foreign substance use appears to contribute to a style of pitching in which pitchers sacrifice location in favor of spin and velocity, particularly with respect to elevated fastballs.” That rings true, although I’m not confident the inverse will hold.

Meanwhile, many fans’ reactions to pitchers’ complaints have been that they deserve what’s coming to them. I’m sure everything they say is self-serving, I just don’t see why that invalidates it. Tuning out testimony because it’s based on first-hand experience only makes sense if you view the current controversy as a criminal trial against pitchers.

Still, this whole thing would be an easier argument to make if I focus exclusively on those grip-enhancing-for-the-sake-of-safety side of things. The ostensibly less egregious — although always technically and soon-to-be practically equally verboten — concoctions like a blend of sunscreen and rosin or pine tar are the proverbial inch that MLB gave, inspiring pitchers to take a mile in the form of house blends and Spider Tack. But the idea that there are gradations of guilt tied to how “performance-enhancing” a particular substance proved to be misunderstands tacit approval and competitive natures. 

Everything athletes do is designed to enhance their performance! It’s only a pejorative if you use it to describe something illegal and dangerous like drugs with adverse long-term health effects! Moralizing around the idea that guys did this specifically to get an edge — to get an advantage over batters and one another — is just pearl clutching.

The self-evident and also eminently provable truth is that pitchers use sticky stuff because it makes them better at pitching and because they could. Changing the parameters so that they cannot use sticky stuff for the specific purpose of making them worse at pitching is perfectly reasonable and within the league’s purview!

But leveraging the letter of the law to rush a belated overreaction without soliciting substantive input from the pitchers themselves — even if it’s because there was pressure to do so by other players who had become frustrated and suspicious — is an irresponsible tactic by the league. They could have, should have, or maybe even did know that doing so would mean branding some of their best players with a scarlet letter and sowing dissension.

Nowhere does MLB explicitly call the pitchers it regularly hypes for their unhittable stuff “cheaters” for engaging in what it likely took to make those pitches so beguiling.

(In fact the release quotes commissioner Rob Manfred advising against blame casting and calling this new step “a collective shift.”) And if you look in the right places, the coverage has been careful and considered. But over the past few weeks, the pervasive tenor of a salacious cheating scandal has reached an acrimonious fever pitch that threatens to obscure the pedantic nuances of what is, in spirit, a new rule that should have merited the same cautious rollout as any other.

I suspect the coming crackdown is just the beginning of this new chapter in the sticky stuff story. In the event that it is imperfect — that an absolute ban is unsustainable, that umpires find the work of in-game policing to be inexact and managers find that unfair or infuriating, that pitchers get hurt because of squeezing the ball too hard, or get hurt and think it’s because they had to squeeze the ball too hard, that batters are hit by more pitches, that strikeouts are still mind-numbingly prevalent, that spin rates still spike and suspicion still percolates — it will be critical to have a collaborative, good-faith space to work through the kinks.

To claim that pitchers abdicated their right to be useful in creating a new culture around sticky stuff by virtue of their participation in the previous culture is punitive for punitive’s sake. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by alienating the stakeholders with the most intimate understanding of the issue except to project a tough-on-crime, squeaky clean image.

Your favorite pitcher probably used sticky stuff, but you don’t have to call him a cheater.

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