Major League Baseball’s Sticky Situation

Ben Albert, Athletics Editor

We’re a little over a third of the way into the 2021 MLB season, and Major League Baseball currently finds itself in a difficult position. This season has seen pitchers dominating hitters like never before. At .237 so far, the league batting average is the lowest it’s been since 1968, when the average was also .237. The league strikeout rate is also at a high point, with league hitters striking out 24.6% of the time. In addition to all of this, there have already been six no-hitters thrown this season, the last one being on May 20th. The modern record for most in a season is seven. Its staggering numbers like these have caused players and fans to speculate what exactly is going on. Have pitchers just gotten better? Or is there something else behind their success? There have been many disagreements, but the one thing that everyone seems to be landing on is the use of foreign substances, usually a sticky substance like pine tar that allows pitchers to get a better grip on the ball and, as a result, pitch better. Foreign substances have caused quite the controversy in the MLB, so let’s take a look at what exactly is going on. 


Pitchers using foreign substances have long been an interesting topic in the world of baseball. Technically speaking, it is against the rules. Rule 6.02c of the MLB rulebook states that no pitcher is allowed to “apply a foreign substance to the ball in any way.” Seems simple enough, right? Well, not really. The issue is that the rule has not really been enforced over the years. Over the past couple of years, pitchers have only been penalized for breaking this rule if the offense is obvious. Back in 2014, New York Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was caught with the substance pine tar on his neck, which he was using to help him pitch.

With pine tar visible on his neck (pictured here), Michael Pineda caused a brief controversy in baseball over the use of the substance. Credit: TIME

He was ejected from the game and suspended for 10 games. Outside of this instance, there have been almost no cases of players, coaches, or fans even accusing pitchers of using foreign substances like pine tar until recently. Major League Baseball released a memo stating that if a pitcher is caught using any foreign substance during the game, they would be subject to suspensions and fines. The first major instance was when St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Giovanny Gallegos was forced to switch his hat after his usual one had a suspicious substance on the brim. And while Gallegos was not fined or suspended, the incident did put pitchers on notice. This has led to some interesting discoveries in recent weeks. 


With pitching numbers skyrocketing, fans and players have accused certain pitchers of using pine tar. The most well-known of these pitchers is New York Yankees ace, Gerrit Cole. Cole has established himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past couple of seasons and is known for his scorching fastball and extremely effective knuckle-curve and slider pitches. Cole has been accused of using substances to improve his pitches going back to his days with the Houston Astros in 2018 and 2019. But his start on June 3rd may have confirmed suspicions to some. His four-seam fastball during that start against the Tampa Bay Rays had the lowest spin-rate on it since September 21st, 2018. Many people pointed to the fact that he likely was not using foreign substances due to the league’s memo. But Cole is hardly the only pitcher who has been accused. Some of the best pitchers in the league, like James Karinchak, Yu Darvish, and Jacob deGrom, have been accused as well. In fact, Minnesota Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson said he has an “entire catalog” of pitchers using pine tar. 


This image shows San Diego Padres pitcher Yu Darvish appearing to rub his finger on something in his glove. Speculation is that he is using a foreign substance, and many other videos of various pitchers like this have circulated in recent weeks.

One of the more interesting pitchers involved in this situation is the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Trevor Bauer. Bauer has long been involved in talks relating to foreign substances. In 2018, he stated that he believed about 70% of MLB pitchers were using foreign substances to help them pitch better. Bauer’s company’s website even sells a shirt reading “Legalize Pine Tar.” He has since called out the MLB’s refusal to address the problem, whether that be through legalizing it or making it illegal in any capacity. Like Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer’s spin rates on his pitches have come into question a lot during this situation. While there is no hard evidence that Bauer is using foreign substances, it would make sense that he is doing so. 


With all of this in mind, it still begs the question: Are foreign substances the reason why hitting is down across the league? The truth is, it very well could be. But it is likely not the only reason. However, that does not mean that it isn’t a widespread issue that is affecting the game of baseball dramatically. No matter what happens with foreign substances, there is no doubt that Major League Baseball has quite the sticky situation on its hands (no pun intended, obviously).