Dave Martinez hesitated before heading down the path. But after watching Austin Voth suffer a broken nose when he was hit in the face with an errant pitch Sunday afternoon, the Washington Nationals manager decided it was time to speak up.
With strikeouts up and batting averages down, Martinez knows MLB is weighing a crackdown on the flagrant use of foreign substances — the pine tar, rosin and sunscreen that pitchers are routinely using to dominate today’s hitters. But the Nationals manager is worried that forcing pitchers to stick strictly to the rulebook will lead to more batters getting hit — like Voth.
Letting pitchers doctor the ball may give them more control, Martinez says. More control, Martinez says, might mean fewer batters getting hit with dangerous, errant pitches.
“I’m afraid if we don’t come up with something — something unified for everybody — you’ll see a lot more of that,” Martinez said. “And that’s a scary feeling because these guys throw 95, 96, 97, some guys throw 100. So hopefully they’ll come up with some kind of a happy medium to resolve the baseball issue with the sticky stuff.”
Injuries at the plate have become a problem this season in MLB as pitchers increasingly pursue velocity over control.
In April, the Phillies’ Bryce Harper took a 97-mph heater to the face. He was lucky to avoid any major damage. The Mets’ Kevin Pillar wasn’t as fortunate after he was hit in the face in May. He needed facial surgery to repair multiple nose fractures.
Voth was the latest, a pitcher who was at the plate when he was beaned by Vince Velasquez’s fastball during the Nationals’ loss to the Phillies on Sunday. Voth spent the night in Philadelphia and needed his nose to be reset.
The issue of foreign substances has come into full focus this season because of the alarming dip in offensive production. Entering play Monday, the batting average across the majors rests at .237 — tied for the lowest in MLB history with 1968, which was coined the Year of the Pitcher.
To go along with that, there have never been more batters striking out in a game than the 8.99 averaged so far in 2021, and the 7.83 hits allowed per game are the fewest since 1908.
The falloff in offensive production is being blamed on the increase in pitch velocity, along with an increase in the spin rate that adds more movement to a pitch.
A central figure in the foreign substance debate has been Dodgers starter Trevor Bauer. In 2018, the right-hander told Sporting News the use of foreign substances was widespread. And while Bauer said he didn’t use any such substance, he noted how using a sticky substance could drastically change his fastball.
His fastball sits around 93 to 94 mph — 19th percentile. But if he were to use a foreign substance, he said at the time, his fastball could become an elite pitch with more spin. Bauer’s four-seam spin rate in 2018: 2,322 revolutions per minute. His four-seam spin rate in 2020, when he won the National League Cy Young award with the Reds: 2,779 rpm.
He’s continued that in 2021 with the Dodgers, increasing his average spin rate to 2,822 rpm. Between 2018 and 2021, Bauer’s fastball spin rate has gone from 82nd percentile to 100th percentile, although he has never explicitly stated he began using a foreign substance.
But now MLB appears ready to increase enforcement of rules against the use of foreign substances by pitchers. According to an ESPN report, that action could include pitchers being randomly checked by umpires during games, as well as possible suspensions for violators.
Four minor leaguers were suspended last week for doctoring baseballs, a potential sign of what’s to come. And veteran umpire Joe West asked Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos to change his hat May 26 after West noticed a dark spot on Gallegos’ brim.
Perhaps those were warning signs to Bauer and Yankees starter Gerrit Cole. Cole allowed five runs in five innings against the Rays on Thursday, and his spin rate on his fastball dropped 116 rpm.
“Is it a coincidence that Gerrit Cole’s spin rate numbers went down [Thursday] after four minor leaguers got suspended for 10 games?” Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson said (via The Athletic). “Is that possible? I don’t know. Maybe. At the same time, with this situation, they’ve let guys do it.”
And for Bauer on Sunday, he gave up three runs, four walks and six hits in six innings against the Braves. Bauer’s four-seam spin rate decreased 210 rpm in that start.
“It’s a hot, humid day in Atlanta,” Bauer told the Los Angeles Times before he continued to reference the foreign substances MLB is poised to crack down on. “I just want to compete on a fair playing field. I’ll say it again. That’s been the point this entire time, that everyone can be on a fair playing field. So if you’re going to enforce it, enforce it. And if you’re not, then stop sweeping it under the rug, which is what they’ve done for four years now.”
But enforcing the rule doesn’t address the concern Martinez aired in the wake of Voth‘s injury.
He pointed out how batters use pine tar and other sticky substances to help hold onto the bat, “because the bats do slip, and that’s also dangerous.”
So the question becomes: should pitchers be allotted the same ability to use a foreign substance to enhance their grip and control, or does diminishing the increase in spin rate outweigh the enhanced safety of hitters?
MLB appears to have sided with the latter half of that question, preparing to cut out foreign substance use from the sport, potentially decreasing the surge in spin rates that have made pitches so unhittable.