Today is the one-year anniversary of MLB’s ban on sticky substances. In that time, we’ve seen a massive decrease in spin rate, a few suspensions, plus a striptease or two from Max Scherzer and company. Even most fans seemed to like the change. Yes sir, everything was going according to plan for Rob Manfred and company. They twirled their mustaches and stroked their goatees with devilish intent as their plan unfolded. Now, in 2022, an unforeseen consequence of banning sticky substances has come to the forefront.
Three days ago now, Los Angeles Angels’ pitcher Michael Lorenzen plunked his former teammate Justin Upton in the head with a 91 mph sinker. It obviously wasn’t intentional. Lorenzen was riddled with guilt after Upton was forced to exit the game. However, Lorenzen didn’t blame himself as much as he blamed MLB’s “slick” baseballs. Lorenzen isn’t the only one fed up with them.
Angels’ interim manager Phil Nevin voiced similar complaints after the game, “[Lorenzen] had a hard time gripping the ball when they’re not rubbed up like that. There’s only so much you can do when you get a ball on the mound.”
Among those who have voiced similar complaints are Lorenzen’s teammate Ryan Tepera, Toronto Blue Jays’ ace Kevin Gausman, Jays’ reliever Yimi Garcia, Mets’ starter Chris Bassitt, and 2021 AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray, whose displeasures came during the same series as Lorenzen’s. After leading his Mariners to a win and carrying a no-hitter into the seventh inning, Ray said that the balls earlier in the game were easier to grip than balls later in the game.
“I don’t know if they run out of the rubbed-up balls and they are scrambling to get more rubbed up, but it seems like the balls later in the game are slicker,” he said. He went on to explain that the balls in Seattle have been some of the slickest he’s encountered this season.
It’s normal for balls to feel different in a pitcher’s hand at various stadiums. After all, every ball is scuffed up by someone in the dugout prior to reaching the field. Not every scuff up is going to be exactly identical, and while there are certain standards a scuff up needs to meet before it meets game requirements, it’s near impossible for any two balls to feel exactly the same all the way around. They’re snowflakes, thumbprints, or drunk texts to your ex at 3 am, similar but not quite the same. That said, some pitchers believe some balls feel so abhorrently wrong in the middle of games that something must be going on behind closed doors.
Ryan Fitzgerald is a career minor league infielder in the Boston Red Sox organization. While not a pitcher, Fitzgerald noticed something weird during his game against the Toledo Mud Hens on June 16. Minor League Baseball was using two different styles of balls throughout the game. Fitzgerald posted his discovery to his Instagram story, which was picked up by a few baseball content creators across various social media platforms, but was ultimately glossed over.
The balls in the video above are clearly very different. Not only does the ball on the left seem much more scuffed — although that could just be from more time on the field before being fouled out of play — but it seems like the seams are more abundant (if that’s the right word) as well. There just isn’t as much for a pitcher to grab onto with the ball on the right.
This wouldn’t be the first time MLB has done something like this. As recently as last year, the league was caught using different types of balls in several ballparks, based on whether or not they wanted more or fewer home runs. But what would be the point of having a less grippy ball in circulation this year?
Is it just to reinforce the ban on sticky substances? I mean, it stands to reason that with how often MLB players have found ways to circumvent the rules in the past, they’re bound to do it again. After all, inspections did were reinforced at the start of the season after it was revealed that the use of sticky substances increased late last season when umpire inspections eased up. If that’s the case though, why not just rely on the inspections. If the lack of grip is seriously putting players at risk, then that should be priority number one, right?
But is the lack of grip really a problem for pitchers? Walks are down from 2021. In fact, pitchers are walking fewer batters per game than they had in any season since 2016. Hit batsmen are down to their lowest mark since 2018. Wild pitches are down to their lowest mark since 2014. All these numbers point to better control for pitchers, so why are pitchers saying it’s an epidemic that needs to be fixed?
MLB did alter their balls after the 2021 season. In fact, MLB said in a memo that they would only be using balls manufactured after 2021 during the 2022 season due to a production change. During a March 29 memo, MLB wrote to all 30 clubs “Those production issues [regarding deadened balls in 2021] have now been resolved and the 2022 season will be played with only balls manufactured after the 2021 production change. No manufacturing changes have been made for the 2022 season.”
While the feel of the ball may be different this season, and may not sit well with some pitchers, control stats have increased in 2022. While I believe pitchers should only throw when comfortable, lest they put the hitter at risk, hit batsmen is not the epidemic several pitchers would have you believe it is this year.
That being said, if MLB has gone behind the public’s back (again, as is usual unfortunately), then they need to address the issue. Inconsistencies in the feel of a baseball mid-game can be devastating to a pitcher’s control. So, if there are several less grippy balls mixed in with a batch of normal balls prior to every game, that’s going to lead to a series of unfortunate events as the season progresses. However, we can’t say for certain that that’s the case. I’d like to believe the players. They tend to know something’s fishy before anything’s even tugged at their line, but we can’t prove it. All we can do is bring the issue to light and hope MLB decides to do something about it. What a pipe dream that is, huh?