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Sticky Fingers: The Rolling Stones, MLB and the Toronto Blue Jays

MLB recently announced a new policy concerning pitchers’ use of foreign substances on baseballs. Commissioner Rob Manfred stated that new enforcement is needed to address the use of sticky substances that have produced much higher spin rates. What, if any, are the implications for the Toronto Blue Jays?


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In the days of yore, music companies released albums on vinyl that people played on a turntable, which rotated at 33 1/3 RPMs. So what is the connection between MLB, spin rates and the Rolling Stones? Yep, the Stones released an album in 1971 entitled Sticky Fingers.

 

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?

On June 15, MLB issued a statement from Rob Manfred that contained his conclusion that “new enforcement of foreign substances is needed to level the playing field.” He proclaimed that using these materials “has generally morphed from trying to get a better grip on the ball into something else,” namely increasing the spin rates of pitches. As a result, pitchers have utilized these substances and gained “an unfair competitive advantage that is creating a lack of action and an uneven playing field.” The revised policy will take effect on June 21 and includes ten-game suspensions for pitchers caught with a foreign substance. For more details, please refer to this MLB article.

 

Before the noted press release, MLB let it be known on June 3 that stricter enforcement of Rules 3.01 and Rule 6.02 (c), which prohibits the use of foreign substances, was on the horizon. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but there was a notable reduction in spin rates starting with games after June 2. Closer to home, Statcast data showed that some Blue Jays pitchers experienced a considerable decrease in spin rates post-June 2. Let’s get into the story.

 

You Gotta Move

Travis Sawchik has written many excellent articles on the spin rate subject. In 2018, he wrote a piece for Five Thirty-Eight that contains a concise summary of the physics of pitches.

 

“When a thrown ball departs from a straight path, it’s because the speed of its spin creates a pressure differential. The ball moves toward the direction of lower pressure. In baseball, this phenomenon — known as the Magnus Effect — combines with the orientation of the ball’s spin axis to force a curveball to break downward and a slider to move more laterally. More spin equals more movement. The Magnus Effect forces a four-seam fastball in another direction: up.”

 

Sawchik featured Trevor Bauer in the 2018 article. Bauer observed that “to increase spin on four-seam fastballs, the pitcher’s fingers must maintain contact longer to form a more acute tangential angle with the ball.” Thus, the purpose of applying a sticky substance helps the fingers “adhere to the ball for a fraction of a second longer,” which increases the spin rate and thereby creates more movement.

 

Driveline Baseball, according to Sawchik, concluded that it “was nearly impossible to increase rpm/mph ratios for fastballs without more velocity or sticky stuff. They determined pitchers have natural rpm/mph fastball signatures that are constant with velocity change.” Driveline named the rpm/mph ratio the “Bauer Unit” after Bauer, Driveline’s first MLB client.

 

According to University of Illinois physics professor Alan Nathan, an MLB consultant, “it’s probably pretty hard to change that [fastball spin] ratio for an individual.” Nathan did say that a pitcher could naturally change a curveball’s spin rate. However, to do so requires finesse; a fastball needs much less finesse.

 

Sway

Sawchik experimented to determine the impact of various substances on spin rates. With the assistance of Spencer Curran, a college pitcher from Seton Hall, Sawchik recorded the results below. The impact that different materials had upon spin rates and Bauer Units is striking. Thus, one can see why MLB is concerned about foreign substances, particularly Firm Grip and Spider Tack.

Wild Horses

According to those in the know, there are two ways to significantly increase a fastball’s spin rate: velocity and a foreign substance. Hence, the Bauer Unit is a valuable metric because it normalizes spin rates and speed. Furthermore, a Bauer Unit should remain pretty stable for a pitcher. At the league level, the average Bauer Unit was 24.0 in 2015, 24.3 in 2018 and 24.8 in this campaign. Sawchik opined that the listed spin-rate increase “shouldn’t happen unless players are better at utilizing sticky stuff.”

 

Sawchik reported that 207 of 327 (63.3%) pitchers experienced a reduction in their rpm/mph ratio on four-seam fastballs during the June 3-11 period. One hundred twelve (34.3%) had their rpm/mph ratio drop by half a point, and 45 (13.8%) had at least a drop of one whole Bauer Unit. These are considerable Bauer Unit reductions that occurred after MLB sent the warning shot about the foreign substance crackdown across the bow of MLB pitchers.

 

I Got the Blues

I calculated the Bauer Units for a selection of Blue Jays pitchers. Those pitchers are listed alphabetically by surname: Anthony Castro, Tyler Chatwood, Rafael Dolis, Alek Manoah, Steven Matz, Robbie Ray, Jordan Romano, Hyun Jin Ryu and Ross Stripling.

 

For purposes of the analysis, I divided the 2021 season into two periods: (1) pre-June 3 and (2) June 3 to June 16. The post-June 2 timeframe is when MLB issued the June 3 warning to MLB teams and pitchers. I then calculated the Bauer Units for the listed pitchers for the following pitches: four-seam fastballs, sinkers (fastballs), breaking pitches and off-speed pitches. The data presented below include only pitchers who met the following criteria:  (a) a Bauer Unit decline of 0.5 or more. (b) a spin rate decline of 75 RPMs or more, and (c) for each pitch, the number of pitches thrown was at least ten.

 

It cannot be stressed enough that a Bauer Unit reduction may or may not be due to the pitcher ceasing to use a sticky substance. Such a reduction is consistent with the absence of a sticky material but not necessarily determinative. Also, as a wise sage once said, “spin is not the be-all and end-all, so a genuinely good pitcher can still dominate with lesser spin.” Therefore, interpret the presented data with the noted provisos.

 

Table 1 reflects the four-seam fastball data.

 

Concerning Manoah’s sinker, his pre-June 3 spin rate was 2,260 RPMs, and his Bauer Units were 24.1. After June 2, Manoah recorded an average spin rate of 2,145 RPMs and a 23.0 Bauer Unit. The result is a 1.1 Bauer Unit decline.

 

Table 2 is a summary of the breaking pitch information.

 

For the post-June 2 time frame, some pitchers of the Toronto Blue Jays experienced noticeable Bauer Unit declines, consistent with those of other pitchers during the June 3-11 period. Concerning spin rates for the Blue Jays pitching staff members, it will be interesting to see if their future spin rates and Bauer Units resemble those of the 2021 season before June 3. Or will their spin rates be more in line with those of the June 2-16 period?

 

The Last Word

On June 21, MLB will implement a new policy regarding pitchers applying foreign substances to baseballs. The publicly stated reason for the policy change is that MLB believes pitchers have gained an unfair competitive edge over hitters due to excessively sticky substances. These foreign materials have allowed pitchers to increase the spin rates of pitches, thereby creating more movement. The result is more strikeouts and lower batting metrics (batting average, slugging percentage, etc.).

 

Currently, we do not know the ultimate impact of the new policy. While there is evidence that the threat of a new approach has already reduced spin rates, one cannot state with certainty that spin rates will remain at this level. Baseball fans will have to stick around to find out.

 

 

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Bob Ritchie

Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.