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Doctored baseballs? MLB’s sticky situation, new rules explained

Across Major League Baseball, batting averages are down, strikeouts are up, and suspicions are high. For decades, pitchers — including some hall of famers — have tried to get a better grip of the ball by using sticky substances. But the league says too many pitchers are doctoring the ball, and plans to crack down on those players. Amna Nawaz has the details on the sticky situation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For decades, Major League pitchers have tried to get a better grip on the baseball by using sticky substances. Some Hall of Famers even admitted to it.

    But Major League Baseball says too many pitchers today are doctoring the ball.

    Amna Nawaz has the details on how the league is cracking down starting today.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, batting averages are down, strikeouts are up, and suspicions are high.

    So, starting today, officials are cracking down on the use of sticky stuff by pitchers. That's the substances that give them better grip, more spin, making pitches harder to hit.

    As of tonight, umpires can start inspecting pitchers' fingers, gloves, even their hats during the game. That goes for relief pitchers too.

    Joining me now explain what's been going on and why Major League Baseball is making this move is Stephanie Apstein. She's a senior writer for "Sports Illustrated."

    Stephanie, welcome to the "NewsHour," and thanks for being here.

    So, this practice of adding sticky stuff to a ball by pitchers, it has been going on for years and years. Why is the MLB cracking down on this now?

    Stephanie Apstein, "Sports Illustrated": Yes, it has.

    It's — the history of baseball is basically also the history of pitch doctoring. But the difference is that now the technology is so advanced that they can get really good at it. So they can apply something to a baseball and then they can immediately see the data on what that did. And so they can really perfect the craft.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, give me some examples.

    When we're talking about these foreign substances, this sticky stuff, what are they using? And how are they using it?

  • Stephanie Apstein:

    It really ranges.

    So, at the lowest end, they're allowed to have rosin, which is basically sap from a tree. And they will often spray sunscreen on their arms and mix that together. And so that's a little bit sticky, but not that bad. And then on the high end is a substance called Spider Tack, which actually is — was designed for people competing in strongest man competitions for them to hold stones together.

    And that is so sticky that you could sort of coat your hand in it and lift a cinder block. We're talking very sticky stuff.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And it's the kind of stuff one or two pitchers or doing or everybody does?

  • Stephanie Apstein:

    A former — a former Major League pitcher, rather, told my co-writer Alex Prewitt and me that he thought 80 to 90 percent of pitchers in the league are using something.

    For a lot of them, that's the sunscreen and rosin we talked about, but there are some using the — really the glue.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    OK, so the new thing now is this crackdown. Umpires can now check to see if they have any of that stuff. What happens if it's found? What are the ramifications?

  • Stephanie Apstein:

    The players are supposed to be suspended for 10 games.

    And the big — the big issue is that they are not allowed to be replaced on the roster. So I think the hope there is that you really put your team at a disadvantage, and then maybe your teammates will encourage you not to do it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    All right, so you mentioned some of the data, right, that people can track, and they're saying, this is why. We have seen the impact of the sticky stuff.

    A lot of people point to what they call a hitting crisis in baseball. Nearly a quarter of all batters have struck out. League-wide batting averages down to .236.

    There's also this argument that hitters are just taking fewer swings, right? So how do we know one leads to the other?

  • Stephanie Apstein:

    Well, I don't think we know for sure. And that's part of what they're hoping we will find out if they crack down on sticky stuff. We will get a sense. We will have some pretty good data, because we will have had the beginning of the season, where, presumably, everybody was using everything.

    And then, hopefully, in the second half of the season, they won't be using it. So we will get more of a sense of how much of the crisis was about sticky stuff. I think that the hitters are really at a disadvantage here. They spend — they spent their whole career watching pitches behave one way.

    And now, with the sticky stuff, they behave a different way. So I think getting the sticky stuff out of the game will probably have a big impact.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about the players? What's been the reaction from them?

  • Stephanie Apstein:

    It's been mixed.

    I think many pitchers are OK with eradicating the sticky stuff. They just wish it weren't happening in the middle of a season. One pitcher, Tyler Glasnow of the Rays, got hurt. And he said that he was hurt because he had pitched with sticky stuff his whole career. It's been sort of tacitly allowed by the league and in many cases encouraged by the teams.

    And so he'd been using it. And now he wasn't, and was using muscles he said he didn't know he had. And he hurt himself. Hitters, I think, for the most part, are pretty happy about it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I guess that makes sense too.

    I did want to ask you, bigger picture, though, when you step back, baseball's got a lot of challenges right now, right? Popularity has been falling. Viewership has been down, especially after the last year. They took a huge financial hit.

    When you look at that, the landscape of all the challenges, is this really the battle that they should be fighting right now?

  • Stephanie Apstein:

    I think it's a bigger deal than people realize.

    I think probably the way that they have handled it is poor. But I do think getting rid of sticky stuff is going to matter. One of the reasons they're struggling so much is that the game is kind of boring to watch. And the way that they're hoping to rejuvenate it is by getting offense up.

    And so, hopefully, eradicating sticky stuff will do that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Stephanie Apstein, senior writer for "Sports Illustrated," thanks so much for joining us tonight.

  • Stephanie Apstein:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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