TAMPA — MLB is trying to avoid a sticky mess in the future.
Chris Young, recently elevated by MLB to a senior VP to oversee on-field operations and umpire development, has been touring camps in Arizona and Florida to deliver the message that Rule 8.02 is going to be enforced this year, The Post has learned. That is the edict that deals with pitchers taking foreign substances to the mound and applying them to the ball.
Over the years a gentlemen’s agreement has evolved throughout MLB in which teams don’t challenge each other about sticky substances that pitchers deploy — such as pine tar or thick sunscreens — because so many pitchers are using something beyond the legal rosin bag. The stated reason is that the balls are slick, especially in cold weather or dry environments such as Coors Field, plus they are inconsistently rubbed down in the pre-game with approved mud designed to take the sheen off the balls. Even hitters are generally comfortable with the substances that pitchers use since they want especially the hard throwers to control their pitches to lessen the dangers in the batter’s box.
However, the analytics revolution has brought increased awareness of the benefit of spin on velocity and movement, and tacky substances bring the fringe benefit of making it easier to increase revolutions per minute on the ball. To try to combat this, MLB wants Rule 8.02 enforced. This is beginning with Young’s tour of camps in which he is meeting with GMs and managers about a variety of rules, but emphasizing that he expects them to enforce Rule 8.02. This is scheduled to be followed by a memorandum sent to each organization before the season focusing on Rule 8.02.
“MLB is looking to get consistency and teams following the rules and making sure throughout the league that executives, coaches and players are aware of the rules, know them and follow them,” Young told The Post.
Young, a former pitcher himself, said a goal before next season is to come up with a baseball or a substance that could be rubbed on the baseballs that provides desired grip without allowing a huge advantage in spin. MLB has toyed with a prototype of the baseballs used in the Japanese Leagues that are tackier, but some pitchers have complained the balls do not retain that tack.
As for the current mud, pitchers have complained it is not only inconsistently applied, but in warm weather, in particular, turns dusty, exacerbating the grip problem.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone said he knew MLB was putting an emphasis on Rule 8.02 but wanted to refrain from commenting until he was fully aware of what is going to be permitted and how the uptick in enforcement would work.
This is because the rule is not going to be easy to legislate, which is why despite being in the rulebook, only the most blatant abuses — such as former Yankees righty Michael Pineda being caught with a blob of unmistakable pine tar on his neck and suspended in 2014 — are ever enforced.
An example of the difficulty of enforcement is pitchers have had the plausible deniability, particularly in day games, to say they were wearing sunscreen — thus, how would umpires know if that mixed with rosin by accident to form a sticky substance on an arm from which to dab? Since the penalty detailed in a subsection of Rule 8.02 calls for “immediate ejection from the game” if an illegal foreign substance is found on a pitcher, the umpires have to play split-second judge and jury. And the boldness to enforce will likely differ from crew to crew and ump to ump.
In addition, most players on the field — particularly infielders — are keeping some kind of sticky substance on their person, often on their gloves, to help with grip when they have to make a throw.
Lastly, many hitters have learned to not only apply a sticky substance such as pine tar to their bat handles for grip but a touch to their barrel as well. The principle is the same as why a pitcher would want tack — the longer the ball stays on the bat or fingers the more backspin that can be created (and in the case of hitters, the farther a batted ball will travel).
So will pitchers abandon their concoctions and risk changes in performance? Will managers — even with extra emphasis — challenge an opponent and put their own pitchers in line to be checked? Will we see a manager wait until, say, a late bases-loaded situation, undo the gentlemen’s agreement by checking a key reliever before Pitch 1, get an ejection and open a tactic that promises to elevate tensions within the game?
Actually, matters could still get stickier.