Sticky substances, take two. After June 3rd, when MLB rolled out a ban on substances that aid pitchers with grip on a baseball and spin by virtue of their stickiness, there was an identifiable drop in spin rates of pitches, and a seeming one in pitcher effectiveness, too. The Washington Post reported a leaguewide drop of 2-3% in fastball spin rates, with aces like Gerrit Cole seeing a drop of 6% and Trevor Bauer 5.5%. Is that a lot? Seemingly enough for the two aces to see their stats worsen significantly: Cole’s ERA more than doubled from 2.18 to 4.65, and Bauer’s leapt from 1.98 to 3.45. Leaguewide, pitcher ERA increased from 4.08 to 4.44 over the month.
Now, was there a corresponding improvement in MLB offense? That’s a lot harder to say. At the time of the ban, the league’s batting average was .239, the lowest since 1968, the year MLB decided hitters needed a leg up against dominant pitching and lowered the pitcher’s mound. Since the ban, however, league average has risen only to .246, which is nothing to write home about. Meanwhile, total bases, runs scored, RBI have barely moved. Walks actually dropped by 6%, which doesn’t make sense, except as the result of statistical noise. About the only categories showing significant changes are home runs, which increased about 9% from May to June, and strikeouts, which dropped by 8%, especially swings-and-misses with two strikes.
Did the Orioles offense reflect these changes?
The answer appears to be no. To recap, across the league, there were small, if any, offensive improvements after the sticky substances ban, and if they were anywhere, it was in batting average, home runs, and strikeouts. The Orioles made strides in June as a team—their .370 winning percentage isn’t going to win any postseason hardware, but it’s better than their .179 mark in May–but their improvements at the plate don’t track league patterns: their batting average increase is simply too high and they showed almost no improvements in home runs or strikeouts.
Prior to the June 3rd ban, Baltimore ranked 23rd in MLB in batting average (.234) and 27th in runs scored (a measly 3.74 per game). A month later, their average was all the way up to .255, 14th-best in MLB, within the better half of teams, and runs per game were up to 4.15, a 10% increase. But their isolated power didn’t move. Neither did team walks. Neither did strikeouts. Home runs increased by a decent amount (37 to 30), but it’s fair to say this could be noise, given the flatlining isolated power stats. In short, as a team the Orioles outhit the rest of the league’s presumed “ban effect,” but showed no discernible effect in terms of striking out less or homering more.
Instead, you had players like Pedro Severino, whose slashline in June (.218/.302/.364) more closely mirrors his career totals (.226/.303/.356) as compared to a poor May performance (.210/.319/.258). Severino, like several other Orioles, had a “resurgent” June (bear with me here) not so much from pitchers deteriorating, so much as regression to his own mean after a slow start. Another example is Pat Valaika, who had an awful start to the season, hitting .087 in eight games in April and .200 in 23 games in May. But he started to look more like his usual self in June, hitting .234 with a .619 OPS, comparable to a career .223 average and .652 OPS. Maikel Franco, same story: his .269/.306/.462 line in June looks similar to his career numbers (.249/.300/.427), making his awful May (.157/.187/.275 (!!)) a random exception. Moreover, Franco’s June boost doesn’t fit the MLB pattern, either, because his strikeouts jumped in June, notwithstanding the overall improvements.
One other Oriole who put up big June numbers, but has a problematic fit with the MLB pattern is Freddy Galvis. Galvis made a lot more contact in June but defies the ban’s predicted effects because he saw a huge drop in power. Galvis’ .253 average in June was a big improvement over a .234 one in May, but he went from 11 extra-base hits to just two in about the same number of games.
Then there were Orioles who actually got worse at the plate, defying the substance ban’s predicted effects: Trey Mancini, who had a sizzling May (.320/.405/.588) but fizzled in June (.208/.286/.327), Austin Hays, whose average was about 20 points lower in June and struck out more, and Anthony Santander, whose injuries this season have really prevented a fair evaluation, but who presents the same pattern: a torrid May and a cold June.
In fact, the only Orioles who showed anything resembling a boost from the ban were Cedric Mullins and Ryan Mountcastle. Both showed improvements in average, home runs, and strikeouts. The problem, though, is that the effects are too great to be fully explained by the ban.
Mullins (May): .255 average, .732 OPS, 2 home runs, and 22 strikeouts.
Mullins (June): .380 average, 1.172 OPS, 8 home runs, and 20 strikeouts.
Mountcastle (May): .256 average, .748 OPS, 4 home runs, and 31 strikeouts
Mountcastle (June): .327 average, 1.015 OPS, 9 home runs, and 26 strikeouts.
As a collective, out of the substance ban, Baltimore appears to have gotten more hits and runs, but no more power, no more walks, and no fewer strikeouts. This suggests a very weak effect to the ban, if there’s any. And that seems right with analyses finding a weak effect to it overall. One interesting possibility, suggested by the article I just linked to, is that it’s the best pitchers who have suffered the strongest decline—so maybe, correspondingly, it’s only the best hitters (e.g. Mountcastle and Mullins, out of this set) who are taking advantage of the spin rates being down? We’d need to know a lot more to answer that question.
For now, let’s hope that the Orioles’ June at the plate wasn’t a fluke. Because if the rotation continues to pitch the way it did pre-All Star Break, we’re going to need a lot more runs.