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What Is Major League Baseball's 'Sticky Stuff' Scandal and How Will It Impact Fantasy Baseball?

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What Is Major League Baseball's 'Sticky Stuff' Scandal and How Will It Impact Fantasy Baseball?

Offense is down across Major League Baseball, and the league is ready to crack down on what they think is a primary suspect.

Strikeouts are spiking while runs and batting averages are down in 2021, leading to the question: are pitchers at an advantage due to the use of foreign substances?

What do foreign substances do? The use of foreign substances to get more movement on pitches has always been illegal in MLB, but the rule has mostly gone unenforced.

In essence, applying a sticky substance to a baseball increases grip, which increases the spin and movement of the ball. It also allows pitchers to throw harder due to increased control. The increased movement leads to more swings and misses and more strikeouts.

Pitchers are allowed to use a rosin bag to increase grip, but that is minuscule compared to other substances. The most egregious of them all, a substance called Spider Tack, was designed for power-lifters to grip exceptionally heavy amounts of weight and not for baseball. However, major league pitchers have been able to get away with a variety of substances, ranging from sunscreen and rosin, pine tar, vaseline and hair gel.

As analytics have become integral to modern baseball, focus on “spin rate” is now a key part of pitching. Improved technology has allowed teams and players to analyze spin rates on pitches and find ways to improve them, which is what using sticky substances has done. While there is a lack of data to show just how much they impact spin rates, it's generally believed Spider Tack can make a good pitch great.

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How will MLB crackdown? The league has an established policy for violations of the foreign substance rule. In 2014, Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was suspended for 10 games after getting caught using pine tar. Last week, four minor league pitchers were suspended for 10 games for using illegal substances on balls.

In the upcoming weeks, the league will surely announce a more detailed procedure and guidelines for punishments. Mid-game checks will occur and ejections/suspensions are likely. Repeat offenders will surely be given longer bans, but as of now, that information is not known.

Two names that come up time and time again in this discussion are Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer.

When the Houston Astros traded for Cole before the 2018 season and immediately set out to change his spin rates. According to The Athletic, his average spin rate on four-seam fastballs has jumped from 2,164 rpm in 2017 to above 2,500 rpm since 2019. That jump is very significant in creating swing-and-miss pitches and increased velocity.

Bauer has been vocal about the benefit of using sticky substances and has seen his spin rate jump over 400 rpm over the past few seasons. Both Cole and Bauer showed significantly lower spin rates in their last starts after the league announced its plans for a crackdown. Cole has been credibly accused of doctoring his pitches and players like Minnesota Twins' third baseman Josh Donaldson have spoken out about their knowledge of many pitchers doing this.

Will this crackdown impact fantasy baseball? In short, yes, but to an unknown degree. With the threat of suspensions, top pitchers could miss significant time if caught using foreign substances. However, the game-to-game impact could be great.

Without hard data to verify, these are just theories, however, strikeouts are up while batting averages are at an all-time low this season at .237. Only one other time in the last century has the league batting average been below .240.

Pitchers will have less control, leading to more walks and balls in play. In turn, this will raise key fantasy statistics like WHIP and ERA. it will also decrease strikeout numbers across the board, but it will not impact every pitcher the same. The best pitcher in the game, Jacob deGrom, has publicly said he doesn't use foreign substances and his teammates have strongly backed him. Pitchers who don't heavily rely on these sticky substances will continue to put up similar numbers while others could see some regression.

 

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