Monday is a landmark day in Major League Baseball.
For generations, pitchers have doctored baseballs in their quest to get outs.
Spitballs, greaseballs, Vaseline balls. Balls have been scuffed with belt buckles and sandpaper. Pine tar and other sticky substances have been used to improve grip and spin off the fingertips, thus increasing the sharpness of the break on a curveball and the life with which a fastball sizzles through the hitting zone on its way to a catcher's mitt.
It stops Monday.
Well, at least it's supposed to.
These practices have long been illegal.
Now, they really become illegal.
Responding to a staggering drop in offense that has coincided with rising spin rates and fastball velocities, MLB on Monday will start suspending pitchers who apply foreign substances to baseballs.
The rule has been on the books since the spitball was outlawed in 1920 but infrequently enforced. Unchecked, pitchers have become more brazen in their use of illegal substances, particularly newly developed super-sticky stuff that increases spin, over the last few seasons. MLB began the crackdown with a warning in spring training — so pitchers knew this day was coming — but it was largely ignored.
Pitchers will be subject to random in-game inspection by umpires. Any pitcher found using an illegal substance will receive a 10-game suspension and his club will not be able to replace him on the active roster, meaning the team will have to play short until the suspension is over.
The enforcement of the rule has been met with mixed reaction.
Hitters, like the Phillies' J.T. Realmuto, are in support of it.
"I think the substance issue is real," he said last month at Citizens Bank Park. "I think pitchers are using a lot more substances now than they have in the past. Not just a lot more, but it's been more effective than it has been. Guys are increasing their spin rate. That's why there's so many walks and strikeouts every game because guys are just letting it rip with all the spin. It's harder to control but also harder to hit. I think if they fix that idea that could help a lot."
MLB believes the increased use of super-sticky substances like Spider Tack has contributed to offense plummeting.
Entering Monday, the collective batting average in MLB was .239, the lowest it's been since 1968. Strikeouts were at 8.92 per game, the most all-time.
Realmuto said he often sees opposing pitchers reaching for sticky stuff that has been applied to their gloves.
"They're not doing anything about it," he said of umpires and league officials. "I think if they cracked down on that, that would honestly help the offense a lot, get the ball in play more often, and less swing and miss."
DJ LeMahieu of the New York Yankees is also a supporter of the crackdown. He won the American League batting title with a .364 average during the truncated 2020 season. Entering Monday, he was hitting .259 in 67 games, well off his career average of .302.
"I've seen some pitches this season that I've never seen in my whole career," LeMahieu said during a Zoom news conference last week.
Phillies manager Joe Girardi is in favor of the crackdown because "it's been a rule forever," and he'd like to see "an equal playing field," around the game.
He'd also like to see the offense return to the game. Stopping offense with clean fingertips is fine. Doing it with sticky fingertips is unnatural.
"I think it's a good thing because one of the things we're fighting is nonaction in our game," he said.
There are opinions on the other side.
Larry Andersen, the former Phillies pitcher, minor-league pitching coach and current radio broadcaster, believes pitchers need to be able to use something to improve their grip on the baseball. A little pine tar, a little saliva, a little rosin. They were accepted methods for pitchers to get a grip in his day. Andersen would prefer to see those methods not legislated out of the game. He sees other reasons for why offense is down and puts it on the hitters to make adjustments and improve.
"When I signed in 1971, pitchers were using substances to get a better grip, plain and simple," he said on our Phillies Talk podcast. "Fifty years later, they're doing the same thing. What's the difference? When I used a little sweat and maybe a dab of rosin, it gave me a better grip. I still had to make my pitch. It didn't make me throw harder.
"Baseball wants to fix things. This regime of baseball wants to fix things by changing the rules because one aspect of the game is doing better than the other, instead of making the other guys adjust, making the hitters adjust, making them hit the other way. Don't talk about taking away the shift. Talk about making the hitters hit the other way, and if they don't want to do it then so be it, let them be .220 hitters.
"Stop changing the game. Stop changing the game to balance it out. What if the hitters go off next year if the pitchers can't get anybody out? Are they going to say, 'We need to go back to pine tar and sunscreen?' Seriously, what are they going to do, hollow out the bats so the ball doesn't go as far?
"Let the players dictate what's going to happen. If they want to keep hitting .220, let them it .220. If they want to keep swinging up and changing their swing path and hitting pop up after pop up, so be it. If you don't want to hit for average and just hit home runs ... That's what the game is coming to."
Andersen was also critical of one other aspect of MLB's crackdown on sticky stuff.
A 10-game suspension with pay?
"That's not a suspension," he said. "That's a vacation."
Girardi would not put a number on how many pitchers around baseball he believed were using sticky substances this season, but it's significant in his eyes. He personally inspected balls that are thrown out of games and many are sticky, some more so than others. Girardi would like to see baseball come up with a universally accepted substance that all pitchers can use to improve grip on the baseball.
Until then, it's a whole new ballgame for pitchers. Get a grip without the help of sticky stuff or take a seat.