MLB Working to Combat Cheating After Sticky Baseballs Become a Concern

Gerrit Cole pitching against the Chicago White Sox.
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  • MLB officials plan to empower umpires to enforce rules about players using sticky substances on baseballs, and the league could explore increasing suspensions.

It's the last thing Major League Baseball needs right now – another cheating situation.

MLB has been in the headlines over the past few weeks surrounding sticky baseballs. It's a long-time practice that benefits pitchers. Foreign substances are applied to baseballs and can help spin rate and ball control during games. But it's against the rules.

After collecting data and warning teams about the matter, MLB officials are planning to crack down on sticky baseballs.

Legendary players like Nolan Ryan have spoken about the issue, and current pitchers like New York Yankees' Gerrit Cole have been pressed about using sticky substances, too.

Although using any foreign substance on baseballs is illegal, MLB hasn't enforced its own rules and could be harming offensive production, leading to a staggering amount of no-hitters.

But that's about to change.

The league wants to enforce rules against applying stick substances to baseballs. It will ask umpires to check players and monitor baseballs, and will continue to use ball-tracking surveillance in hopes it will deter players from cheating.

The league also sent warning shots to big league players by suspending numerous minor league pitchers for sticky baseballs in an effort to combat the issue among younger players. But how can MLB truly police rules some believe it never cared about? And will the players union help? 

MLB should be highly cautious about players cheating now more than ever, especially as it navigates the sports gambling space. Consumers could lose tons of money betting on games if players are cheating.

"We're talking about preventing big dollars from coming into the game," said former MLB executive Marty Conway. "At that point, you have to take action because now it's crossed the rubicon into the general discussion in public. That's usually not good for a sport."

Longer suspensions could help

Behind the scenes, the league and MLB Players Association (MLBPA) are acknowledging the issue. The fear of public shaming will help matters, said officials who asked to remain anonymous. Baseball players don't want to be seen as cheaters. It will surely ruin their legacy and prevent Hall of Fame entry.

Should fear of public embarrassment not work, players caught usually face a fine and suspension of up to 10 games. One of the individuals said MLB will explore increasing suspensions to 20 games. MLB plans to unveil its enforcement plan in the next few weeks.

So far, it appears to be working.

When discussing the matter on Tuesday, Cole, the Yankees pitcher, was asked if he's used any foreign substances on baseballs. He didn't confess but he didn't deny it either. Cole pointed to "customs and practices" that have transitioned from "older players to younger players." He said he's open to dialogue that would prevent using sticky baseballs.  

"This is important to a lot of people that love the game," Cole told reporters. He added if the league "wants to legislate some more stuff, that's a conversation that we can have because ultimately we should all be pointing in the same direction on this."

Conway, who served as a special assistant under former MLB commissioner Peter Ueberroth, said umpires could only do so much to help address the problem.

"Ultimately, it's up to the leadership to establish and re-establish the integrity of the game," Conway said. "There cameras in every ballpark. I don't think it's just up to the umpires to watch the dugouts, bullpens, and everything else. Baseball can police this just as they police sign stealing and other things."

"It's up to baseball to penalize it because I think we're already seeing some of the data on spin rates of certain pitchers decline," he added. "The enforcement of the rules will probably eliminate not all but much of what's going on."

Trevor Bauer #27 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the San Francisco Giants in the first inning at Oracle Park on May 21, 2021 in San Francisco, California.
Thearon W. Henderson | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images
Trevor Bauer #27 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the San Francisco Giants in the first inning at Oracle Park on May 21, 2021 in San Francisco, California.

Are sticky balls hurting the game?

In baseball circles, some point to sticky balls as a reason team offenses have suffered this season.

There have already been six no-hitters thrown, and that could break the record of eight set in 1884. Hitters are also suffering at the plate with a league-wide .237 batting average after 1,798 games this season. The last time MLB's season batting average finished that low was in 1968.

With less action from pitchers dominating batters, fans end up with a boring product, something MLB doesn't need. But having umpires frequently check for sticky balls or suspicious players would delay games, making outcomes take longer. And MLB is already trying to increase game speed to make its product more exciting.

Speaking to CNBC about pitchers dominating this season, MLB Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. pointed out that batters need to adjust at the plate, too. He said players are looking to mainly get home runs and not aiming to get on base. And defensive shifts have made it challenging as well.

Still, the last thing MLB needs right now is more signs teams and players are cheating, especially after the Houston Astros sign-stealing debacle.

"That situation caused lead headline stories in non-sports publications about what was happening in baseball," Conway said. "That prevents commercial sponsorship from activating. I would say to someone running an organization, 'There is some risk here, so be careful.' And until they clear this up, [corporations] may not get involved."

The situation remains sticky, but MLB needs to wipe it clean quickly. Commissioner Rob Manfred needs to get back to more significant matters like preventing another lockout, which could ruin his baseball legacy.

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