It’s valuable, sometimes, to step back and look at broader trends and whispers around baseball. We are extremely Yankee-centric here, but one of the dominant stories throughout MLB is the nebulous sticky stuff, and how much it props up the decisive advantage pitching has over hitting. Trevor Bauer had baseballs from his start pulled for closer “inspection.” Our old friend Giovanny Gallegos was caught with a substance on his hat. Travis Sawchik saw for himself the difference various add-ons can have on a baseball’s performance. Tack is the story of the day.
There are several reasons why you’d want tack on a baseball. It aids grip in cold weather, helps pitchers with their control, and increasingly, adds spin to pitches. Quoting from the excellent The MVP Machine:
So the theory goes, there’s a natural cap on the amount of spin you can impart on a baseball ... until you add sunscreen, or pine tar, or custom blends of various substances to the equation. These are the kind of additions that take a great fastball or hard biting slider and turn them into near-unhittable pitches.
The history of tack is long and varied. Major League baseballs are rubbed down with a rare mud from the Delaware River, which adds “grit,” a sandpapery texture, to what’s otherwise a glossy and unvarnished leather surface. After that, tack is the wild west, with wide latitude of use by pitchers, and generally only enforced when it’s painfully obvious — the Gallegos and Michael Pinedas of the world. This hasn’t just created an unbalanced playing field between hitters and pitchers, but between pitchers, since I’m using a mixture that is better than yours, and all the financial and competitive incentives are for me not to tell you what my mixture is.
This is different than the other highest-level baseball league in the world, Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. Since adopting an official baseball supplied by Mizuno in 2011, NPB baseballs have come pre-tacked with a proprietary polymer substance that adds a layer of “tack” to the ball fresh out of the box. NPB umpires can then bring these balls into play without needing to rub them with some magic Delaware River mud, and critically, enforce crackdowns on foreign substance use. Pitchers already start with an ideal amount of tack on the ball for control, any additional doctoring is not tolerated.
MLB should adopt this kind of system as they try and figure out ways to clamp down on overpowered baseballs. It’s long been true that hitters would prefer some extra grip on the baseball to keep them safe at the plate, but hit-by-pitches have gradually escalated over the past decade:
In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a 38-percent rise in hit-by-pitches, despite what we all assume to be skyrocketing use of foreign substances! MLB is so concerned about uptake of foreign substances in recent years that they’re discussing it at the owner’s level, yet more batters are being beaned. What the hell?
I like this chart a lot, because it goes to show how much the added grip has reared back on itself, a Bullfrog ouroboros. Pitchers have such enhanced grip that the spin on the baseball induces more movement, leading to more hit-by-pitches. Hitters have always wanted a little stickiness on the baseball for their own protection. The concurrent rise in strikeouts and hit-by-pitches are proof that tack has gone too far, and MLB needs a real solution.
A pre-tacked, NPB-style baseball, and much better enforcement of further doctoring is the answer. Pitchers need a little help with the grip to keep batters safe, so give it to them, in a standardized, level way. Once you get your pre-tacked baseball, any further doctoring is grounds for ejection and suspension. Pitchers should be subject to spot-checks on the mound, with umpires able to inspect gloves, hats and hair at their discretion.
This doesn’t completely solve the problem of pitching dominance. It would be really difficult to enforce use of tack in the clubhouse or dugout, where you just have so much less visibility. But there’s never going to be one silver bullet that moves baseball forward — several small rule changes can re-balance the playing field, induce more contact, and keep hitters safer. Taking a page from NPB is one of those changes.