Amid widespread suspicions that use of foreign substances among pitchers is booming, MLB may be poised to take action. According to ESPN's Buster Olney, the league will soon instruct umpires to begin enforcing the rules against the use of foreign substances -- rules that have long been on the books but have rarely been wielded.
Olney further reports that, as part of the enforcement initiative, all MLB pitchers "will be checked repeatedly and randomly for foreign substances by umpires." The new enforcement mandate could be in place within the next two weeks. The potential penalty for offenders includes a 10-day suspension without pay, Olney notes.
Given the increasing spin rates across the league -- and given that the use of foreign substances is the surest way to increase spin on pitches -- there's building pressure within the game to crack down. A related problem is how dominant pitchers have become and the lack of on-field action that flows from unprecedented strikeout rates. Right now, the league batting average of .236 is the lowest in history.
The current league strikeout rate is the highest ever, and pitchers' current hits-per-nine figure is the lowest since 1968. MLB has undertaken various measures to improve pace of play and to inject more action into the game, but nothing would achieve all that quite so efficiently as reversing the strikeout trend. Obviously, cracking down on foreign substances is a major step to that end.
Earlier this season, veteran umpire Joe West confiscated the hat of St. Louis Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos so it could be inspected for foreign substances. After the game, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, who was ejected shortly after the hat was confiscated, made some illuminating remarks.
"This is baseball's dirty little secret, and this is the wrong time and the wrong arena to expose it," Shildt said in a lengthy postgame press conference. "You want to police some sunscreen and rosin? Go ahead. Get every single person in this league. ... Why don't you start with the guys that are cheating with some stuff that's really impacting the game?"
Widespread use of substances is indeed an open secret within the game, but the increasing perception is that the practice is so out of control that it's helping mangle the game. MLB would seem to agree with that, at least in general terms, which is why it's reportedly taking these steps. How well umpires can enforce those rules in practice and how much of a difference it makes remains to be seen.