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How has MLB’s sticky situation affected Orioles pitching?

Not that Orioles pitchers were good this year to begin with, but the ban has had a noticeable effect on several hurlers.

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Baltimore Orioles v Cleveland Indians
Paul Fry pitches against the Cleveland Indians on June 16, 2021.
Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

As an Orioles fan, you might have heard the June 3rd announcement from MLB that “foreign substances” were now to be banned from the mound and gone, “Oh, so this group is going to get worse now? Cool.”

At one point, the relationship between literal sticky fingers and good pitching was not obvious to most fans, but these days, plenty of former pitchers are willing to pull back the curtain to explain the basic idea. Recently, former Braves relief pitcher Peter Moylan did in a very good segment on MLB Tonight: when the ball sticks to your fingers, he explained, you don’t have to use any pressure to get it to roll off in a way that creates spin. The more spin, the harder to hit.

Of course, pitchers smuggling sticky stuff onto the mound in an effort to alter the surface of the ball is as old as baseball itself. But it’s only recently that those efforts combined with 1) data analytics about spin and ball trajectory, and 2) baseball’s adoption of new sticky substances developed to help weightlifters lift huge balls of concrete. (In this piece, a baseball writer tried throwing against a Rapsodo machine with the aid of Spider Tack and concluded that the results were “something like magic.”)

That lethal combination is what helped produce the rise, for instance, of Gerrit Cole, already a very-good pitcher with Pittsburgh in 2013-17, but unhittable after the Astros shaped him into a spin monster in 2018-20. Cole’s fastball spin went from 2,100 rotations per minute (RPM) with Pittsburgh in 2017 to 2,379 RPM in 2018 (the year of his breakout) and 2,530 in 2019. Same with his sinker: from 2,096 RPM in 2017, and up to 2,508 in 2019.

Post-crackdown, it’s been a different Cole. In six starts totaling 34.2 innings since June 3, Cole has allowed 20 runs, including five runs in five innings against the Yankees’ hated rival Boston on June 27. That day, Cole was still hitting 100 mph, but his fastball spin was down about 62 RPM from his year average and his sinker about 83 RPM. His slider, especially, didn’t break the way it normally does, and suddenly, he was hittable.

What’s happened to Cole has happened all around. Since June 3, MLB offense has ticked up. League ERA is up to 4.44 in June from 4.08 in May. Strikeouts have dropped league-wide, especially swings-and-misses with two strikes. On June 30, 204 runs were scored league-wide for just the first time since 2009. Rob Manfred, take a bow.

Now, if pitchers did have an unfair advantage this year against hitters, the Orioles clearly never got the memo, with the worst team ERA in the majors at 5.53. So what has the substance ban done to this team? Well, they’ve gotten moderately worse across a bunch of categories from May to June, especially walks (i.e. they rose) and strikeouts. Team ERA increased from 5.89 to 6.38; WHIP from 1.492 to 1.590. Strikeouts per nine went from 9.4 to 8.5 and walks rose from 93 to 107. Hits allowed stayed about level (258/265), however, and so, mostly, did average against, slugging, and so forth.

Here are some statistics for individual pitchers, with some interesting results.

Three main regression candidates present themselves: Keegan Akin, Jorge López, and Paul Fry, whose numbers (highlighted in red) worsened in ways you’d expect from the sticky substance ban, i.e. more walks, fewer strikeouts, and generally worse results in turn.

Can we connect these results to drops in spin rate? Yes, mostly. Paul Fry fits the profile perfectly. On May 2, Fry’s sinker reached an average of 2,929 RPM during the game, with a mind-boggling max of 3,002 RPM. However, in his last outing on July 7, the sinker averaged 2,560 rotations per minute, down -213 from his season average. It’s a huge drop, and a possible reason that Fry’s whiff rate on the sinker is down from 2020.

Keegan Akin, too, seems to be suffering a non-stickiness penalty. Prior to the ban, Akin was posting above-average spin, as for instance, during a solid 4.2-inning outing with one run allowed on May 30 against the White Sox. That day, Akin was carrying a fastball +34 RPM higher than his year average, a changeup +39 RPM higher, and a curveball +79 RPM higher. Fast forward to a poor outing on June 21 against Houston (4.0 IP, 5 ER, 4 BB). At the level of spin, everything was down by double digits from his average except his changeup, which was down even further, in triple digits (-101 RPM).

It seems pretty simple: less spin, more hits and runs allowed. And then, as usual, Jorge López is a headscratcher. López’s numbers got worse in June, but if anything, his spin rates seem to have gone up, which makes it hard to blame the ban. On April 11, a disastrous outing (4.0 IP, 7 ER) against the Red Sox, López’s spin was significantly down: about -123 RPM on his sinker, -167 RPM on his knuckle curve, and -70 RPM on his fastball. OK. But on May 10, a good start against Boston (5.2 IP, 1 ER), every pitch had below-average spin except his knuckle curve. Then, during an ineffective June 27 start against Toronto (4.2 IP, 5 ER), all the spin rates were up! It doesn’t actually make sense.

For what it’s worth, every Orioles pitcher is experiencing drops in spin (with two exceptions, López and César Valdez, another oddity as well), but only some are getting hit up. For instance, Adam Plutko has seemingly lost 100-200 RPM on all of his pitches, not too different from Paul Fry, but Plutko’s June wasn’t much worse than his May. This may be specific to the types of pitches each throws, or reflect pitch sequencing. Fry, a two-pitch pitcher, relies more heavily on his sinker than Plutko, who has four pitches, does, so knocking Fry’s sinker out of commission hurts him more.

Besides, there were several Orioles who showed little-to-no “Sticky Tax”: Tanner Scott, Cole Sulser, and Tyler Wells. The three had suffered from control problems early on in May, then defied predictions and improved in June. Especially the rookie Wells: his 0.63 WHIP and 0 walks in June may be my favorite cells in the chart. For pitchers struggling with mechanical problems, it seems getting over these outweighed whatever advantage they would have lost from not using the tack.

One Oriole who also merits a mention is Travis Lakins Sr. It’d be easy to say the foreign-substances ban had an insignificant effect on him because his numbers got better from May to June. Unfortunately, that seems wrong now, given the stress fracture in his elbow that landed him on the 60-day IL on June 29.

Indeed, the real cost of MLB’s ban is probably pitcher health. Former MLB pitcher Brandon Webb made the point during a broadcast that, with something as sticky as Spider Tack, there is no way pitchers picked it up themselves, or casually started throwing it into their routines. No, this involved an entire offseason of training. For this reason, whatever your position on the ban, MLB’s midseason rollout of it was a poorly thought-out disaster. By rolling back unwritten rules pitchers had been relying on for months, even years, in a panicked reaction to a restless public tired of strikeouts, MLB forced pitchers to change their grip—even their windup—in the middle of the season, probably sacrificing a few arms along the way. We definitely haven’t seen the full fallout of that decision yet.