Matthew Farnham: How baseball has got itself into an unnecessary sticky situation

The San Franciso Giants are still leading the way in Major League Baseball and, as predicted last week, have become the first team to win 50 games this season, keeping them ahead of LA and San Diego.

San Francisco Giants pitcher Jose Alvarez, right, has his cap inspected by umpire Alfonso Marquez. Picture: Jeff Chiu/AP
San Francisco Giants pitcher Jose Alvarez, right, has his cap inspected by umpire Alfonso Marquez. Picture: Jeff Chiu/AP

In the American League West, the Houston Astros are performing well keeping them ahead of a strong Oakland A’s club.

The MLB had a problem, past tense.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

They shouldn’t have had one, rule 3.01 and 6.02 to paraphrase say no player should damage the ball or apply foreign substance. Rule 6.02 says players shouldn’t be carrying any item or substance to deface or damage the ball.

So, the rule is there, in black and white, yet the league has seen more and more substances used to give pitchers the upper hand.

A week ago, the league chose to start enforcing these rules with umpires checking starting pitchers “more than once” a game while pitchers from the bullpen will be checked at the end of the inning they enter.

The original rule has been in place since the death of Ray Chapman in 1920, still the only player to have died from a pitch. But over the last two decades, the rule has become less used as managers have reduced the number of times they have asked for inspections, maybe in order to protect their own players?

Despite a full schedule of games, it took until Sunday before a pitcher was removed from a game, and what is sure to be a future trivia question, Seattle Mariners reliever Hector Santiago was ejected from the game and now faces a ten-day suspension.

Santiago argues he was using only rosin powder, supplied by Major League Baseball which is kept in a bag at the pitcher’s mound and allows the pitchers to grip the ball better.

While Santiago will be remembered for being the first ejected player Oakland A’s pitcher Sergio Romo took the search to new levels when he unbuckled his belt and dropped his trousers for umpires and the thousands in attendance, creating his own historical moment.

Of course, the matter of grip is why the rosin bag – rosin is a sticky sap from fir trees, dried to a powder – is allowed by MLB. The issue has come as more and more players have turned to other substances that they place on their belt, hat or on the glove.

Then a few years ago players noticed not only do these substances create grip, but from that, they can increase the spin rate of the ball.

So, what right?

The spin rate not only makes the movement of the ball harder for the batter to pick up, but it also causes more movement, giving the pitchers a distinct advantage. A study in 2017 by Lewis University found that the higher the spin rate the more strikeouts a pitcher collected.

Not only did their strikeouts increase but the chance of the batter making solid contact was reduced with there being a decrease in solid contact when the spin rate of the ball was higher.

So, it's obvious that pitchers benefit from using “sticky stuff” on their persons, but what's less obvious is that now the league has made this new inspection routine, how will we know those who were, undeniably cheating.

The answer is also in the spin rate.

Yes, the players stats should decline overall but pitchers can argue that’s fatigue or the change in weather, warmer weather equals more home runs.

But the spin rate is undeniably obvious. By simply watching this stat, as they do so many others the game could skew away from this ridiculous pantomime of umpires marching to the mound, and coaches calling for inspections to disrupt a players rhythm.

Having someone check the spin rate and find anomalies in innings or games would make this a behind the scenes decision.

It would take away delays and avoid these public pantsing's, which, while entertaining, are just another distraction from what's taking place on the diamond.

The technology is available and while so many people fight against it in other aspects of the game, please let sense prevail. Monitor the spin rate. Identify the cheats using the technology. Let the past lay and let's play ball.