If you’re a baseball fan wondering why Major League Baseball (MLB) has a sudden interest in monitoring whether pitchers are cheating by doctoring the ball this season, Illinois State University head baseball coach Steve Holm has some thoughts on the issue. But it’s complicated. It’s a combination of the ball, ambition, and technology.

In the old days, just a few years ago, a radar gun was about all the technology baseball had. The gun said a guy threw 90 mph, for example, and that was that. Now indoor facilities have popped up around the country where technology—like TrackMan and others—measures the spin and angle of the baseball while offering immediate feedback.

“What you see is the development of pitching labs,” Holm said. “Guys are able to put a little bit of this (a foreign substance) on the ball, and they get an instant measurement on velocity and movement. So, they’re working at it. You can look at videos on Twitter accounts where the ball is moving all over and makes a right turn like it’s in a tornado.”

Illinois State Professor of Physics and Department Chair Dr. Dan Holland can speak to the science of what happens to a baseball when a foreign substance is added.

“Any change in the surface properties of the ball will change the air flow around it and enable a skilled pitcher to put more motion on the ball,” Holland said of velocity.

And, if the ball is stickier it gives the pitcher another advantage, he said.

“That would obviously change the grip properties when throwing a pitch,” Holland said. “This could allow the pitcher to put more spin on the ball to allow more curve.”

Pitchers doctoring baseballs is nothing new. In fact, it was almost celebrated or at least seen as somewhat quaint—think Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, whose spitball was the biggest open secret in baseball—but that’s not so this season. MLB Rule 3.01 states: “No player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sandpaper, emery-paper or other foreign substance.”

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said that new, tackier foreign substances (one called Spider Tack, a combination of rosin and sunscreen) have created “an unfair competitive advantage that is creating a lack of action and an uneven playing field.’’ As a result, MLB’s new policy went into effect June 21 and relies on umpires performing between-innings checks of pitchers’ uniforms, caps, and gloves for evidence of doctoring the ball with offenders facing a 10-game suspension. What caused MLB to go from looking the other way to bringing the hammer down?

headshot of man
Steve Holm, Redbird baseball head coach

“We got here because pitchers now use an iPad next to the bullpen mound,” Holm said. “They know when they drop their elbow that they lose some spin. They’ve gotten better by scuffing the ball or using some sticky stuff. They know what works for each guy through trial and error.”

Holm, who was an MLB catcher as recent as 2011, said the league found a line that was crossed and decided to take action. He compared it to the methamphetamine problem of another era.

“I think MLB thought this baseball is moving way too much now,” he said. “It’s just like back in the 1990s when players were using steroids and MLB said, ‘Hey, you guys are starting to look like WWE wrestlers.’”

To complicate things further, Holm believes that MLB is no innocent bystander since it made an equipment change that has contributed to today’s problem.

“MLB wanted to bring people to the gate,” Holm said. “They were chasing home runs to increase attendance and interest in our sport—it had gotten to be a boring game—so they lowered the seams.”

Lower seam height on the ball made for less drag, which resulted in home runs that traveled farther. It also took away some of the game’s strategy thus contributing to less excitement, the very thing the league was trying to build.  

“Popups now go out of the park,” Holm said. “It used to be that you’d see the hit and run, a bunt, a single up the middle. What didn’t happen much in our game, except for a handful of really big guys, was the opposite-field home run, but now small guys are hitting opposite-field, no-doubter home runs.” 

There’s an awful lot of money at stake for power players, which includes hitters and pitchers. Having success in either role translates to big dollars. Some pitchers, in an effort to get guys out, have found ways to gain an edge. That means scuffing baseballs or adding sticky stuff.

So, is it happening in the college ranks? Holm has the ability to watch enough video to isolate what a pitcher is doing on specific counts during a game.

“I can zero in on one of our pitchers, say only when he has 2-2 counts,” Holm said. “I can check if he’s grabbing his glove before he throws it, stuff like that.”

He said cheating is not as rampant in college baseball but added the caveat that it would be naïve to think it’s not happening at all on this level.

“These guys aren’t getting paid millions to play,” Holm said. “But, when you get paid a lot of money, things get dirty. Just look at politics.”