MLB's foreign substance rule enforcement causing 'rift' on teams?
A general view of a baseball and rosin on the mound before the game between the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium.  Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball’s announcement of imminent plans to crack down on pitchers’ use of foreign substances on the baseball has drawn a wide range of responses from those around the league. 

Rays ace Tyler Glasnow, who suffered a partial UCL tear during his most recent start, hypothesized that MLB’s midseason enforcement of a blanket prohibition on all substances- from a sunscreen/rosin combination to industrial glue- contributed to his injury. As one might expect, plenty of others have since weighed in with varying opinions.

Jeff Passan of ESPN characterizes the reaction of those around the league as a “rift … dividing organizations, friends and people who otherwise are ideologically aligned” in a fantastic column. It’s not as simple as hitters vs. pitchers. Passan notes that some position players, who would seemingly be anxious to get offense-depressing grip enhancers out of the game, have expressed support for its use. Some pitchers, meanwhile, are happy with MLB’s uptick in enforcement.

Phillies reliever Archie Bradley and Pirates starter Steven Brault, for instance, each expressed support for the rule in recent interviews with Chris Rose of Jomboy Media (Twitter link). Bradley noted that MLB’s treating foreign substances as an on-field rules violation- therefore preventing teams from replacing a suspended player on the active roster- could stress other members of a pitching staff but suggested the onus just falls on pitchers to cease their use. Brault was “surprised” MLB decided to enforce the rule midseason but added he “can’t really blame (the league)” and concluded that “if you needed stick to pitch, then maybe you’re just not good enough.”

Midseason enforcement seems to be a bigger issue for other players, though. Glasnow called it “insane” and “ridiculous.” Red Sox starter Garrett Richards told reporters (including Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald) he “(couldn’t) think of a worse time” to enforce the rule. Richards said he previously used a sunscreen/rosin combination but now has to grip the ball harder and agreed with Glasnow that could threaten pitchers’ health. Another pitcher echoed to Passan that he’s “worried” about the rule, noting that he has to “squeeze the [expletive] out of the ball, and that can’t be a good thing.” (Dodgers starter Trevor Bauer also criticized the league’s decision to crack down in the middle of the year- rather than during an offseason- as part of a comprehensive video breakdown of the situation). On the other hand, Richards’ teammate J.D. Martinez pointed to sticky stuff’s contribution to the downturn in league-wide offense and praised MLB for “finally (noticing) the issue and making the adjustment to stop it” (via Chris Cotillo of MassLive).

There’s also broader labor implications to consider with the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire on Dec. 1. Passan notes that some players believe MLB is enforcing the rule now in an attempt to divide players with collective bargaining on the horizon. Britt Ghiroli of the Athletic reports there was little to no collaboration between MLB and the MLB Players Association on the enforcement. MLB “drew a hard line” on the issue, Ghiroli writes, although she hears from a league source who says the MLBPA was given ample opportunity to give input before the plan was finalized but chose not to do so. Regardless, Ghiroli questions whether the league’s efforts to legislate sticky stuff - while “commendable” - were worthwhile given that they “alienated a significant percentage of players who contribute to (the) on-field product.” Her excellent piece is well worth a full perusal.

Perhaps the best encapsulation of the player-management discord was a bizarre spat between Diamondbacks starter Zac Gallen and MLB senior vice president of on-field operations Michael Hill, chronicled by Zach Buchanan of the Athletic. In an MLB memo to teams outlining the enforcement, Hill wrote that the league’s early-season research showed “that the use of foreign substances by pitchers is more prevalent than we anticipated” (via Ronald Blum of the Associated Press). That didn’t seem to sit well with Gallen, who played for the Marlins while Hill was Miami’s general manager.

“He was in charge of an organization that was definitely at one point saying, ‘Hey, you’re going to need these things to help you,” Gallen said. 

Hill’s job as Marlins GM was obviously quite different than his current role at MLB, so there’d be nothing inherently inconsistent about him allegedly promoting sticky substances to help Miami pitchers at the time but now hoping to get them out of the game as a league executive. Hill, though, called Gallen’s claims “completely false” and suggested the pitcher’s comments were influenced by his agent, Scott Boras. Prior to the Gallen-Hill spat, Boras had released a statement to reporters (including Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic) excoriating the league’s enforcement efforts. In particular, Boras took issue with the implication that players were to blame for using substances many around the league agree have been encouraged by teams for performance-enhancing reasons.

The disparate opinions reflect larger debates about player health, the state of the on-field product, and the generally antagonistic relationship between MLB and the MLBPA and others on the players’ side. We’ve certainly not heard the last of these, particularly with the CBA expiring in a little more than five months.

This article first appeared on MLB Trade Rumors and was syndicated with permission.

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