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MLB needs to change its sticky stuff regulation

The league has created an arbitrary line that players are expected to follow and umpires unfairly have to enforce.

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New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

In a sport attempting to limit or outright eliminate human error (instant replay, the impending use of an automated strike zone, etc.), suspensions are being handed down to pitchers using an arbitrary process aimed at removing the use of illegal sticky substances in baseball. The first sticky stuff crackdown of 2021 has culminated in the bizarre “got ya” exercise that we have seen played out throughout the 2023 season.

The sticky line that players are banned from crossing has never been defined by MLB because it appears the league don’t have a clear designation. It is an imaginary threshold that is determined that day by a crew of umpires who can only regulate with so much certainty what qualifies as “too sticky.” Players’ reputations, and having a team play a man down for 10 games, should not be determined in this fashion. But is there a logical solution to this problem? On the heels of yet another sticky stuff ejection — this time, Drew Smith of the Mets against the Yankees on Tuesday — let’s run through some logical solutions to this problem.

Spin rate is a perfect place to start, given that this metric was a driving factor in the first initial crackdown. In a game driven by analytics, it feels natural to use a real-time indicator to detect that a player may be using a foreign substance. A hard line on spin rate would be just as arbitrary as simply checking a player’s hand, as natural fluctuations of spin rate do occur from game to game. One proposed scenario would be that an MLB official monitoring the game could signal in real time that a player needs to be checked if there is an indication that his spin rate is abnormally elevated. For this to happen, a true spin rate baseline for each pitcher would need to be established. The rebuttal for this approach would be that if a player were a serial cheater, then his spin rate would always be elevated, thus if he was using a foreign substance, spin rate would not be an indicator. That is true, and something MLB would have to work on establishing for each player.

I think the answer lies somewhere in between the current umpire checks and data to back it up. An increased spin rate paired with a sticky hand would be a better indicator, rather than exclusively one or the other. If a player’s hand is sticky on a given night but previous checks throughout the season have not indicated any stickiness, then only a bump up in spin rate would indicate an advantage. If there is no advantage to be gained then just having a tacky hand should not be a problem.

Ejected players this season like Max Scherzer and Domingo Germán have indicated that their tackiness has come from sweat and rosin. It appears that MLB umpires give the same statement after an ejection, that the hand was the stickiest they have felt all season. But just because it is the stickiest they have felt all season, does that mean it is illegal? MLB has put its umpires in an incredibly difficult position.

There is one tedious solution to this mess. Every pitcher must enter the game with a clean hand, no rosin. In this proposition, a player would be checked every time before entering a game for a clean hand, and can only use the MLB-issued rosin bag already on the mound. There would be subsequent random checks following an inning, in the event that a player is using a foreign substance from somewhere on their person. Starting pitchers would also be required to enter each inning with a clean hand. Is MLB willing to go to these measures to eliminate the use of sticky substances? My guess is probably not, but ensuring that a player is only using the mound rosin following a clean hand would eliminate the gray area that may come from “too much rosin” being applied in the bullpen or in-between innings.

There have been other science-driven suggestions regarding the enforcement of this rule highlighted in Eno Sarris’s article in The Athletic. They include using a machine called the D6195, which measures the force it takes to remove fabric from a sticky surface. The idea sounds reasonable but the practicality is questionable. A simpler solution highlighted in the article aims at using a “light ball,” such as an underweight baseball. The umpire would bring the light ball out to the mound, apply it to the pitcher’s palm-down facing hand, and if the ball remains stuck to the pitcher’s hand then he is tossed from the game. The same ball could be applied to a pitcher’s fingers as well. It is a simple approach, one that MLB would likely favor due to its efficiency. It also would allow players to test themselves before taking the mound.

The question remains of what denotes too much stickiness, even if it is just from rosin. Throwing out a player due to stickiness from rosin (or so they claim), without a clear advantage due to an elevated spin rate, still seems questionable. MLB needs to find a more objective way to regulate this situation.