While the lockout has dominated the conversation for the past few months, we cannot forget that over the summer, we experienced one of the biggest scandals in recent baseball history: a pitcher’s use of foreign substances. Back in June, Spider Tack, Pelican Grip, and sunscreen/rosin were just about the only things the baseball world was discussing. Now unfortunately, we’ve got bigger issues on our hands, like the fate of baseball itself this season. But, that’s beside the point. Though the repercussions of the lockout will loom large this season, we cannot forget about how the aftermath of the sticky substance ban last summer will affect this season.
Before I get into the essence of this article, which is the discussion of certain players’ performances after the substance ban, I think it makes sense to describe the timeline of events in the lead-up to the enforcement. On June 3, MLB announced that it would address the issue of pitchers using sticky substances to alter the spin on their pitches. On June 15, the crackdown was put into motion. The league announced it would check pitchers multiple times a game and enact 10-day suspensions without pay if a player was found to be using foreign substances. Thus, the “Before Sticky Substances” and “After Sticky Substances” time periods came to light, and the differences in pitchers’ performances became stark.
Prior to the foreign substance crackdown, the 2021 season was shaping up to be the Year of the Pitcher. Six pitchers had thrown a no-hitter, the league-wide batting average was just .239, and K% across the league was up to 24% (all stats before June 21). Many called the crackdown on pitchers a rash reaction to the poor offensive numbers across the league, and pitchers made their dissatisfaction about the new rules very known. Nevertheless, MLB gave the players notice before the inspections would begin, and inspections began on June 21. Exactly one month after the crackdown began, the same offensive metrics showed that the crackdown was working, at least in part. Batting average was up .009 points, slugging percentage was up .017 points and batters were striking out at a slightly lesser clip. However, the pitching numbers tell a much clearer story. Here is a list of five pitchers’ stats that changed over the course of the 2021 season:
1. Gerrit Cole
I think it is only logical to start with Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, who incidentally became the poster boy for foreign substance use due to his comments on the situation. In the week-long lead-up to the penalty enforcement, Cole was asked in an interview whether he had ever used Spider Tack, to which he paused for about 20 seconds and gave the media a very reassuring answer of, “I don’t quite know how to answer that, to be honest.”
Pre: 70 ⅔ IP, 14 ER, 5 HR, 36.9% K%, 3.4% BB%, 7.1% Barrel%, 15.2% SwStr%
Post: 110 ⅔ IP, 51 ER, 19 HR, 31.5% K%, 6.9% BB%, 11.3% Barrel%, 14.1% SwStr%
In Cole’s 11 starts in the months of April and May, he let up more than two ER just once and logged double-digit strikeout totals five times. In his start on June 3, he got lit up for five runs in five innings. Over the rest of the season, things only went further downhill. While Cole continued to strike out hitters at a high clip, his contact numbers were astronomic. He gave up more than triple the number of home runs post-ban and much harder contact than in the first two months of the season.
The New York Times created a tool to measure how a pitcher’s spin rate changed over the course of the season. The only requirement was that a pitcher had to have thrown 150 fastballs prior to June 3 and 150 fastballs since June 15. Cole’s fastball lost 275 rpm in the 2021 season, ranking within the top nine of most movement lost among pitchers league-wide. You can play around with the tool here.
2. Garrett Richards
Garrett Richards was a very vocal member of the crowd of pitchers affected by the sticky substance crackdown. The Red Sox signed Richards as a starting pitcher, but after a string of poor performances and the emergence of Tanner Houck, transitioned him to the bullpen in August. As a starter, Richards went 6-7 with a 5.15 FIP in 22 starts. He was brutally honest with the media about how the crackdown affected his pitching, even telling reporters “I feel like I need to be a different pitcher than I have been the last nine-and-a-half years.” While his honesty was refreshing, his stats were not.
Pre: 60 IP, 25 ER, 5 HR, 20.2% K%, 11.6% BB%, 6.3 Barrel%, 9.8% SwStr%
Post: 76 ⅔ IP, 49 ER, 14 HRs, 17.5% K%, 8.4% BB%, 9.9% Barrel%, 9.9% SwStr
The numbers that stick out to me the most from Richard’s pre and post stat lines are the hard contact stats and the use of his new pitch, a changeup. While his control got better over the course of the season, leading to fewer walks, Richards had a harder time striking out batters and limiting hard contact, giving up more than double the amount of home runs and a significantly higher barrel percentage post-ban. Another significant change to Richards’ pitch arsenal was his inclusion of the changeup. After June, Richards threw his changeup 11.9% of the time, limiting the use of his curveball significantly. Using the New York Times’ spin rate tool, Richards’ spin rate dropped 206 rpm.
3. Aroldis Chapman
Though Aroldis Chapman did not throw enough fastballs in order to qualify for the NYT’s spin rate tool, I believe it is prudent to examine a closer – especially one who was among the most effective in the game to begin the season . Chatter surrounded Chapman all year long regarding his performance, so let’s take a deeper look.
Pre: 22 IP, 0.41 HR/9, 51.9% K%, 13.6% BB%, 17.9% Barrel%, 19.6% SwStr%
Post: 34 ⅓ IP, 2.1 HR/9, 34% K%, 16.7% BB%, 15.6% Barrel%, 15.5% SwStr%
Not too hard to see why so many people were talking. The strikeout and walk percentage numbers are certainly skewed as a closer, but the narrative seems pretty stark. Chapman had much less command of his pitches and those pitches were taken out of the ballpark at a much higher rate post sticky substance ban. Chapman’s season was disjointed with injuries, but his numbers do not lie. He was significantly less effective after the crackdown was enforced.
4. Trevor Bauer
Trevor Bauer’s situation is very different from the rest of the players on this list given that he did not play in the final 81 games of the 2021 season after being put on administrative leave following sexual assault charges. However, despite the small sample size, it is impossible to ignore the difference in Bauer’s numbers pre and post-ban.
Pre: 76 ⅓ IP, 19 ER, 13 HR, 32.7% K%, 7.8% BB%, 10.5% Barrel%, 12.2% SwStr%
Post: 31 ⅓ IP, 12 ER, 6 HR, 29.7 K%, 10.1% BB%, 10.8% Barrel%, 13.7% SwStr%
Though it was a significantly smaller number of innings pitched, it is quite obvious how Bauer’s performance dipped after the substance crackdown commenced. His command wavered leading to a rise in walks, which was very similar to the league-wide rise in walks post-ban. Batters just made more contact against Bauer post-ban than pre-ban, and it was reflected in the number of runs scored against him.
For years, Bauer has made opinions known on the issue of using sticky substances to improve spin rate in baseball. He claimed it was a moral issue for the league, claiming nothing would ever be done about it since so many pitchers were using external factors to create more spin. Despite adamantly saying he did not and would never use substances, Bauer’s spin rate dropped 243 rpm over the course of the 2021 season.
5. Jacob deGrom
Prior to deGrom’s season-ending injury, he was putting together potentially the best single-season numbers for a starting pitcher in MLB history. Another easy target for sticky substance use due to his stunning numbers, deGrom makes for an interesting case study. While we have a case of another small sample size, it does not seem like deGrom’s stats are drastically different post-ban.
Pre: 51 IP, 4 ER, 3 HR, 45.8% K%, 3.9% BB%, 7.8% Barrel%, 21.1% SwStr%
Post: 41 IP, 7 ER, 3 HR, 44.1% K%, 0.77% BB%, 5.3% Barrel%, 22.3% SwStr%
Yes, those strikeout numbers are not a typo. You could argue that deGrom’s inclusion on this list is not a fair or comprehensive picture given that his season was cut short, and you might be right. But I wanted to end on a generational pitcher whose performance stayed the same even after the crackdown began. Most of deGrom’s numbers got even better than they were in the first two months of the season. He walked even fewer batters post-ban and it was even harder to generate barrels off of him. Using NYT’s spin rate tool, you can see that deGrom’s spin rate dropped just 46 rpm after the month of June.
While none of the players from this list were ever caught or punished for using sticky substances, the numbers are drastic enough to demonstrate that changes were made in between the league’s announcement that rules were going to be enforced and when the rules were enforced on June 21. While the pitcher still had an excellent season in 2021, it certainly did not end as it started, with six no-hitters over the course of two months. However, following pitcher’s performances, and following how the league enforces the foreign substance ban, will be fascinating to watch in 2022. Thanks for reading!