As the outrage builds from pitchers around Major League Baseball concerning the rule change announced a week ago that banned the usage of foreign substances by pitchers, leave it to James Paxton and his impossibly dry sense of humor to provide a response that would make his fellow Canadians proud.
“Well, it’s a sticky situation,” the Mariners starting pitcher said in an unflinching deadpan before turning a grin.
A little levity isn’t a bad thing considering the growing emotions surrounding the rule.
The Mariners were off Monday, so they will wait until the game Tuesday against the visiting Rockies to work under Rule 3.01 and 6.02(c) and (d). It prohibits applying foreign substances to the ball. Umpires will do regular checks of pitchers for those substances, and examining gloves and uniforms can be done without a request from an opposing manager.
The rule also says: “Any pitcher who possesses or applies foreign substances in violation of the playing rules will be ejected from the game and will be automatically suspended in accordance with the rules and past precedent. Suspensions under Rule 3.01 are 10 games. Repeat offenders will be subject to progressive discipline. Clubs and Club personnel will also be subject to discipline for failure to ensure compliance with these rules.”
These suspensions are without pay. And teams may not add a pitcher to the roster to replace the suspended pitcher.
The collective eye roll felt across baseball could have registered on the Richter scale as a seismic event.
After not being able to answer questions about using Spider Tack, Yankees ace Gerrit Cole lashed out at MLB about changing the rule midseason. Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow said the rule change and trying to pitch without the use of a gripping substance in his last start was a reason he tore the ulnar-collateral ligament in his elbow and needs Tommy John surgery.
Mariners pitchers have had similar reactions. Some have ordered new gloves, knowing they have pine-tar stains in their regular game gloves, and others have tried to pitch without using pine tar or a mixture of sun block and resin.
MLB sources indicated Mariners pitchers are not big users of “Spider Tack,” which some pitchers used to increase the spin rate on fastballs and breaking balls. But as most pitchers, several use pine tar (remember Yusei Kikuchi’s controversial outing in New York in 2019?) or the sunscreen/resin mix to provide grip on MLB baseballs they feel can be slippery.
Mariners pitching coach Pete Woodworth and manager Scott Servais met with the pitchers following the announcement of the rule.
Woodworth equated the meeting to the first meetings about COVID-19 guidelines.
“But it was basically like, ‘Hey, these are the rules, and this is what we’re going to do. You have to wear a mask. You may not like to wear a mask, but you have to wear a mask,’ ” Woodworth said.
He has a level of sympathy for his pitchers, but they can’t dwell on it.
“Change is tough on anybody, but these guys are 15 of the best 300 baseball throwers in the world,” Woodworth said. “And they haven’t got here because of sticky substances. They got here because they’re really talented. They probably had to make adjustments on the way up here, or even when they’re here. I know no matter what, these guys could make an adjustment, and very quickly.”
Many pitchers feel commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB reacted to reduced offensive numbers and criticism of pitchers’ use of foreign substances by Dodgers ace Trevor Bauer and others.
“I think it is somewhat reactionary,” Mariners starter and MLB union representative Marco Gonzales said. “This has turned into quite the deal. From a player standpoint I would hope something that is this drastic of a change would have come in the offseason, giving players time to adjust. It’s unfortunate that we have a structure change, something that’s going to impact pitching so drastically for sure.”
Gonzales loathed the decision-making process.
“I wish pitchers around the league and established guys would have had the chance to voice their opinions before the season, certainly with the ball change,” he said. “I think that anybody who’s not throwing the baseball currently in the games, it’s just not up to them right now. If we’re going to make a change to the game midseason, then the guys who are on the mound, throwing the ball now, they need to be the ones at the front of this.”
The use of pine tar and sunscreen/resin have been accepted forms of bending the rules for years. Many hitters would prefer pitchers to have a better grip on the ball so they don’t unleash wayward pitches.
“They are throwing harder than ever,” one Mariners hitter said. “I don’t want to get hit in the face. There’s a difference between using it for grip and using it for an advantage.”
Though some fans might not understand how a change such as this can lead to injury, pitchers rely on repetition and muscle memory with their mechanics. The slightest disruption can lead to issues.
“We spend a lot of time preparing to throw the baseball a certain way,” Paxton said. “When you disrupt that, it can lead to all sorts of things.”
So what’s the solution?
Well, a better baseball is a start.
There has been much discussion and analysis about the changes made to the ball by MLB the past few years.
“I think that the changes to the baseball should be more of a focus,” Paxton said. “The ‘sticky situation’ hasn’t changed. But what’s been going on with the ball has, and that’s the thing that is new.”
The baseball used by MLB is different than the ball used in the minor leagues or other professional leagues. It has been likened to a cue ball used in pool.
“They’re pretty tight, and the seams are pretty low on the ball,” M’s starter Logan Gilbert said.
Because he had heard the horror stories about going from the baseball used in Class AAA to the MLB ball, Gilbert took a few boxes of MLB balls home for the offseason.
“I tried to grab as many as possible,” he said. “I didn’t know where I was going to start, but at some point I figured I’d get to the big leagues. I spent the whole offseason throwing with big-league balls trying to prepare myself.”
Instead of having to take MLB baseballs for the offseason, the use of a universal baseball for all levels seems logical.
“That’s a conversation I’ve had with some of my teammates,” Gonzales said. “You grow up playing in high school, college, the minor leagues, and you get to the big leagues and not only do you have the adrenaline, the pressure facing a big-league lineup, but the ball is the hardest ball that you’ve ever thrown in your life — certainly texture-wise and seam-wise. There’s a lot of difficulty that comes with that.”
Gonzales offered a logical comparison for a universal baseball.
“There shouldn’t be a big difference,” he said. “You wouldn’t see it any other sport, right? If the NFL had a minor-league system, they probably wouldn’t use a different football. The NBA wouldn’t use a different kind of basketball in the G League. It just doesn’t make sense that we use different balls.”