By RONALD BLUM, AP Baseball Writer
Major League Baseball is asking umpires to make more random checks of pitchers for sticky substances after watching its crackdown become less effective late last season.
MLB instituted regular checks last June 21 for grip aids. Seattle’s Héctor Santiago was ejected on June 27 and Arizona’s Caleb Smith was tossed on Aug. 18, and both received 10-game suspensions.
“After an initial dip in spin rates as a result of the periodic checks, unfortunately the data showed that spin rates started to rise toward the end of the season as players grew accustomed to the circumstances of routine umpire checks,” MLB Senior Vice President of On-Field Operations Mike Hill wrote in a memorandum Friday to team owners, executives and managers, and all major and minor league players.
“As a result, umpires have been instructed to be more vigilant and unpredictable in the timing and scope of their checks during the 2022 season,” he said.
The memorandum, first reported by Sports Illustrated, was obtained by The Associated Press.
Last season, umpires checked all starting pitchers multiple times and all relievers either at the end of his first inning or when removed, whichever occurred first. Caps, gloves and fingertips were checked.
“We are working with the umpires in an effort to make inspections less invasive,” Hill wrote. “Rather than focusing on uniforms and belts, umpires have been given additional guidance to help them determine whether a pitcher’s hand or fingers contain a foreign substance in violation of the rules.”
“An umpire checking a pitcher for foreign substances will use his thumb to check for stickiness on the pitcher’s thumb, index finger, middle finger, and palm,” Hill wrote.
While the timing of checks with be more random, it appears the frequency will not change.
“Starting pitchers should continue to expect more than one mandatory check per game,” Hill wrote. “Each relief pitcher will be subject to at least one check when he enters the game, at the conclusion of the inning in which he entered the game, or when he is removed from the game. In general, inspections will be conducted between innings or after pitching changes to avoid a delay of the game and to allow the umpire to perform a thorough check of the pitcher.”
Fastball spin rates declined from an average of 2,323 revolutions per minute in May to 2,258 in June, according to Statcast data. Plans for the crackdown first emerged June 3 following an owners’ meeting.
While the average was 2,239 in July, it rose to 2,263 in September.
The major league batting average for the season dropped to .244, its lowest since the year of the pitcher in 1968.
“We now have extensive data, including testing by third-party researchers, which shows how the use of foreign substances on baseballs has a material impact on performance,” Hill wrote. “Specifically, foreign substances significantly increase the spin rate and movement of the baseball, providing pitchers with an unfair advantage over hitters that our playing rules were expressly designed to prohibit. We also learned about a dangerous side to foreign substances — that foreign substance use appears to be contributing to an overall decline in control because it enables a style of pitching in which pitchers sacrifice control in favor of spin and velocity.”
Velocity was virtually unchanged, increasing from 93.6 mph before June 3 to 93.7 mph after.
Teams must submit documentation in advance of each series for a pitcher to use a substance for a medical reason, such as to treat blisters, cuts or broken nails, although treatment is allowed for in-game medical issues.
“Catchers and position players may be subject to inspections based on the circumstances,” Hill wrote.
In addition, “an opposing manager may request that the umpire inspect the pitcher or a position player only if the manager (or a member of his team) observes behavior on the field consistent with the use of a foreign substance.”
Those checks would take place between at-bats, not during.
“A manager will be subject to discipline if he makes the request in bad faith (e.g., a request intended to disrupt the pitcher in a critical game situation, a routine request that is not based on observable evidence, etc.),” Hill wrote.
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