Numlock Sunday: Stephanie Apstein on the biggest scandal in sports
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Stephanie Apstein who wrote “‘This Should Be the Biggest Scandal in Sports'” for Sports Illustrated with her colleague Alex Prewitt.
Here's what I wrote about it:
The league-wide Major League Baseball batting average has fallen to .236 this season, which is historically bad. Fueling this offensive fiasco is sticky stuff, once a mixture of sunscreen and rosin but now sometimes even glue, used by what reports indicate is the vast majority of pitchers to increase spin on pitches. In 2021, hitters have batted .330 against fastballs thrown at 2,499 revolutions per minute or fewer, but only .285 against those going 2,500 rpms or more. The percentage of those high-spin fast balls is now three times higher now than it was in 2015.
This story is fascinating because it’s the latest in what seems to be an endless sequence of baseball scandals where a team or a player will do something that fundamentally alters the structure of the game and breaks it, and then the league needs to scramble to fix it to the consternation of fans, players and all involved.
The reason, it turns out, has to do with bigger forces about how money works in baseball, a breakdown in the relationship between players and league management and the forthcoming collective bargaining agreement.
Stephanie, you wrote a really great piece last week about what's going on in baseball when it comes to pitchers potentially putting an adulterant on the ball. Can you just kind of take a step back real quick and talk a little bit about what work you do in general and what drew you to this story?
I am a writer at Sports Illustrated, I mostly do baseball, but I also do some other stuff. I've done a little bit of golf, I'm going to the Olympics this summer, I bounce around a little bit. A colleague, Alex Prewitt, actually suggested it. We started because we were looking into an Angel's clubhouse manager who was fired at the beginning 2020 for allegedly making and distributing foreign substances to pitchers. Alex, in maybe January or February, suggested that we try to talk to him and see what his side of the story was. He covers hockey for us more often since he doesn't have that much baseball background, so he asked if I wanted to work with him on it. And I did!
We started off focusing just on this guy, his story. But as we reported, it became clear that there was a lot more to it. We actually ended up splitting it into two stories, the one you mentioned and then one that came out Monday about the clubhouse manager himself. As I talked to people, I realized this is the only thing anyone in baseball is talking about right now, so that felt like something we should probably write about.
I feel like you guys just hit at the perfect time in terms of how much research clearly went into it and just bringing the stats to bear with you. What has been happening with pitchers and putting stuff on balls?
Well, a lot. Over the past, basically the history of baseball is also the history of pitch doctoring. They've all always been trying to do something to get an edge. Part of that is because the baseballs themselves are pretty slick when they come out of the package. A brand new baseball actually has to be rubbed up with mud because it's so slick and ungrippable when you first get it, it feels like a cue ball. Pitchers, sometimes, they really do just want a grip. They want their hands to be a little sticky so that they can hold the baseball. Over the years that has taken many forms. Probably the most common one is you get rosin. The league distributes rosin to pitchers, which is like fir tree sap that's available behind the mound.
Pitchers will spray their arms with sunscreen, and then they can mix rosin and the sunscreen on their arms, and that's a fairly tacky substance. A lot of them just use that. But as technology has developed, they've gotten a more clear sense of what works and what doesn't. Because now instead of trial and error, you can apply something, throw a pitch and see immediately what all of the data tell you. Now they're starting to use stickier stuff. Over the years, pine tar, which hitters use so that they don't fling their bats out of their hands, that’s another one, and then recently there's been more industrial glues. This thing called Spider Tack is the big one, which was actually developed as part of world's strongest man competitions. The idea is to help those competitors lift those gigantic Atlas stones.
So that is really sticky stuff. You can coat your hand with it and touch a cinder block, and you could lift a cinder block with just your palm using Spider Tack, that's how sticky we're talking.
When you wrote the piece — at the time and it's probably not changed too much since — it was a league-wide batting average of .236, and somebody that you spoke to said that 80 to 90 percent of pitchers are using it in some capacity. The title of the piece is, again, “This Should Be the Biggest Scandal in Sports.” This is super pervasive. The question is, what happens when you put sticky stuff on a ball?
A couple of things. One is that it sticks to your hands a little bit, obviously. That helps you, it doesn't slip out of your hands. You can throw basically as hard as you can because you're not afraid that the ball is going to slip out. Ordinarily the way that you command the baseball is you take something off it, you don't throw as hard as you possibly can, so that you can control where it's going. If you have sticky stuff on your hand, that allows you to gain a little bit of velocity. That's the smaller component.
The bigger component is that it makes the ball spin faster and harder. And so, that makes it move more, and that makes it much harder to hit, mostly because hitters have been sensing thousands of pitches, millions of pinches in their careers. And so, you can't track a pitch with your eye the whole way. So, what they do is, at a certain point, they say, "Okay, the pitch is here. From every pitch I've seen in my whole life, I expect it to end up there."
So, they swing to there. But because of the foreign substances making the ball move differently, the pitch doesn't end up there. It ends up in a different place. And so, hitters are unprepared to swing. They're afraid to hit it because it's going to a different place than they're expecting it to.
And this has had really considerable effects on offense in baseball in general. League-wide offense is down. There's this question of, are things just walks, outs and hits now? How has this exacerbated some of the existing issues in baseball?
We don't know exactly the degree of the problem. That's actually one of the things that I think the league is hoping to find out by starting to crack down. We don't know to what extent it's affecting offense. We're pretty sure that it is. The hope is that if they removed the sticky stuff from the game, offense would go up because pitches would be easier to hit. Pitchers wouldn't be able to throw as hard. And all of a sudden, the hitters are having a better time. But we don't know exactly how much of a problem it is.
To that point, since the publication of your story, the league has acted. Can you go into a little bit about what actions they've kind of taken on that front?
The league has spent the year collecting baseballs and analyzing spin rate because, as I mentioned, the sticky stuff makes the ball spin faster. There are some ways, like a curve ball, you can adjust the way you hold it. There are things you can do to change your spin rate on a breaking ball, but on a four-seam fastball, which is basically the purest pitch, it's just backspin. It's just throwing hard. It’s considered like a fingerprint, your spin rate is your spin rate, there’s not that much you can do to improve it. You can improve it maybe a hundred RPMs out of 2500, 2800, but that's a small degree.
So, when you see these jumps of like 500 RPMs, the only way the rest of us have figured out to improve there is sticky stuff. The league has been tracking whose spin rate seems to be jumping, and collecting video evidence reports from players, and then again, they'd be collecting these baseballs.
The baseballs are pretty sticky that they're getting, and they've decided this is, in fact, a huge problem. I think they were a little taken aback, honestly, by how big a problem it is. The plan had been to spend this year in data collection, but I think it's gotten so out of control, it’s broken through into to the public. Hitters are complaining, some pitchers are complaining because they say it's kind of like steroids where if you don't use this thing, you're at a competitive disadvantage. They don't want to do it, but they feel like they're going to cost themselves their careers. There's such outcry, basically, that the league feels we cannot go on for months like this.
They have announced that they're going to start cracking down next week.
They're giving people a lot of lead time. The hope is that people will try and clean up their act on their own. The plan is for umpires to check every starting pitcher a couple of times per game. Relievers are probably once per game, as they come off the mound at various times. It’s going to be sort of like a TSA style pat down. They check your glove. They'll check the inside of your belt. They'll check your cap, all the places that guys tend to put it.
If there's any residue, you're out of the game and you're suspended for 10 games. With pay, but the team that you're on can't replace you on the roster. So, that's actually huge.
That's a good addition, I think. That's a huge deterrent because now your teammates don't want you to do it either because you put the whole team at a disadvantage if you're out. The plan is to start cracking down next week. They will empower umpires to start going after these guys.
It's such a fascinating story just because it seems like every year there's a new thing with baseball, like the juiced ball thing last year. What's driving the sport towards that? Is it just the relentless need to compete against people who are potentially doing the same thing? Or is it just the new technological innovations only now being able to help us detect this? What's driving these seemingly semi-annual tweaks to the game?
I think it's a combination of things. One thing you mentioned is important, the juiced ball. The league has been messing around with the composition of the ball over the past few years, and there's very bad trust between the players and the league as it is.
The players do not have faith in the league. You can tell that because of the conspiracy theories the players will sometimes spout about. Pete Alonso of the Mets had one the other day that the league is actually deadening the ball in anticipation of a free agent class full of hitters to suppress salaries, and they were juicing it in anticipation of a free agent class full of pitchers.
That one doesn't make a lot of sense. There are a lot of reasons that that one probably isn't true, but a lot of players believe it. That tells you something about how much they trust the commissioner and the league. In part, that's because the league does sort of monkey around with the baseball every year and not tell anybody. Meredith Wills is a physicist and she cuts open baseballs to see what's inside of them. She found that the league had actually juiced the ball last year without telling anybody. Half the balls were juiced. Half the balls were deadened. And so, that makes it harder. Pitchers feel like one year, the ball is going to fly, one year, it's not.
I had one player tell me the most consistent thing about the baseball is what we put on our fingers. They can't trust the league to make the same baseball every time.
I think there's definitely something to that. That definitely contributes to why this particular thing has happened. But, in terms of this sort of semi-annual scandal you're referring to, I think it's a couple of things. Mostly, I think it's a sort of a league-wide drive toward efficiency. I think you probably see that in a lot of places, a lot of sports in particular, and then also kind of across the board, that everybody is doing the same math.
Everybody has figured out the most efficient things to do. That’s where we end up with a lot of home runs and a lot of strikeouts. Because the pitchers are all incentivized towards striking a guy out, and they will accept a couple of home runs in the process. The hitters are all incentivized toward hitting home runs, and they'll accept a couple of strikeouts in the process. You have a situation where everybody is incentivized to do this boring thing. That is part of the challenge I think the game faces.
Again, because everybody's doing the same math, you end up believing that you need to do something that brushes up against what's allowed in order to differentiate yourself. You look at the Astros sign stealing. You look at the sticky stuff. Everybody is trying to get an edge, but technology also allows them to be a lot more efficient and effective in doing that.
It's been fascinating to watch the response to this versus the juiced ball. It seemed like there was a lot of, "No, it's not juiced." And it was like, "Well, maybe it kind of is." But then once you start incorporating physicists in things it seems like the trust is broken down in a way that we haven't really seen before.
We’re coming up also on the CBA negotiation. The collective bargaining agreement expires in December. That’s a huge concern of everybody's as this plays out, I think that was part of why the league was hoping to get through this year without having to enforce anything, was to not add an issue to the CBA.
But everything is sort of playing out against the backdrop that the sides know they're really negotiating about something bigger. Every little issue is actually about something bigger, and that's the CBA.
Stephanie, you are going to be covering this deeply interesting time over the course of baseball. Where can folks find you? Where can folks find your work?
I'm at SI.com. If they want to follow me on Twitter, that's @stephapstein. I mostly just tweet my stories. But, if you're looking for those, that's where they are. And I would encourage people to check out si.com, in general. They've got some really good stuff there.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.