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Are MLB Draft Pitching Prospects Using Sticky Stuff, Too?

Ump Inspection Jonathandanielgetty
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

When the 2021 draft begins, teams will be looking for pitchers who throw hard. That has been a part of a never-ending quest that was already old hat more than 100 years ago when Walter Johnson was a teenager with a promising arm.

But they will also be looking for pitchers with ideal fastball and breaking ball attributes. In this age of precision, they will be looking for pitchers with elite vertical movement. That is, fastballs with induced vertical break and breaking pitches with high spin rates and spin efficiencies.

Teams will be looking for pitchers who can overpower hitters with fastballs up in the zone and who can spin nasty breaking balls.

Advanced data helps teams recognize which amateur pitchers have those attributes. Trackman, Rapsodo, Hawkeye and other pitch-tracking technologies have the ability to measure fastball life up in the zone and spin rates on breaking balls.

If a trait can be measured, those who aspire to that trait can see how they measure up. Pitchers can get instant feedback on the analytical attributes of their pitches. That has also created the conditions where teams have to worry: are they drafting a pitcher because of his rare natural ability to generate elite spin rates and vertical movement, or are they getting a pitcher who has discovered the right combination of sticky foreign substances?

It’s been an open secret around baseball that pitchers can use grip-enhancing, sticky substances to improve the spin rate of their pitches. Higher spin rates can lead to nastier pitches.

For all the talk about the effects that big league pitchers gain by using sticky help to generate 300 to 500 extra revolutions per minute on their pitches—and getting better movement because of it—the same questions need to be asked at all levels of amateur baseball as well.

There are pitchers who will be drafted because of their elite fastball and breaking ball movement, but if Major League Baseball’s crackdown on foreign substances proves effective, then teams are going to discover in some cases they drafted pitchers who without the extra help are much more ordinary.

Baseball has gone through this before. In the 1990s and early 2000s, teams drafted position players based on their all-fields power and pitchers who had improved their fastballs. In some cases, it was simply hard work in the weight room and physical maturation. In other cases, that work in the weight room was supplemented by illicit chemical help. And teams discovered that those players’ gains began to disappear when performance-enhancing drug testing was implemented in pro ball.

If every college pitcher used extra help to better grip the baseball, it wouldn’t be a significant issue for drafting teams. A crackdown on foreign substances would affect everyone relatively equally, and everyone would lose a similar amount of spin and movement.

But not everyone uses foreign substances, and sussing out which pitcher is naturally gifted and which one has a sticky handshake isn’t all that easy. Stare at a pitcher intently at a game between pitches and you may pick something up. Do they go to a certain spot on their belt, cap, forearm or elsewhere every couple of pitches? Even then, evaluators are left with supposition and conjecture, much as was the case in the pre-testing era of PEDs.

A college coach said he estimates that 40% of draftable or Division I-recruitable high school pitchers have used foreign substances to help improve the quality of their pitches. He said he believes when it comes to college pitchers, the percentage goes up significantly. A different Division I coach said he estimates 80% of D-I pitchers have tried something stickier than sunscreen and rosin, and half or more regularly use a foreign substance to improve the quality of their pitches.

So how did amateur pitchers learn the secrets of sticky fingers? Any pitcher working out at a well-equipped pitching facility will likely at some point get a pitch evaluation. A pitcher’s natural spin rate is something that has repeatedly been proven to be hard to alter. A pitcher’s spin rate will go up as velocity increases, but the ratio of a pitch’s rpms to velocity will remain relatively fixed.

A pitcher can affect how a pitch moves by changing grips, release points or other aspects of their delivery. Changing the spin axis of the ball can turn a poor pitch into an effective one, or vice versa. But if a pitcher is trying to generate more hop on his fastball—the coveted late life up in the zone—the easiest way to do that is by spinning the ball harder. And the best way to do that is to figure out a way to better grip the baseball.

The substances range from sunscreen plus rosin at the low end to homemade concoctions of various mixtures to Gorilla Snot or Spider Tack and other substances at the upper end. Many pitchers began to use something as simple as sunscreen and rosin to simply try to get a better grip on slippery baseballs when they take the mound.

But that pitcher may find that a stickier concoction turns average fastball movement into elite movement or a fringy breaking ball into a plus pitch. The analytical information will make it apparent in as quick as one bullpen session. And then it becomes very alluring to use it as a performance-enhancer. The temptation is even greater when there has been no real enforcement of the rule that prohibits pitchers from using foreign substances.

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Until recently, it wasn’t really treated as a secret. A steroid user may have felt the need to hide his use from teammates. Pitchers in many cases have been quite happy to share the tricks of the trade when it comes to getting an extra grip.

Around professional baseball, using foreign substances has been common knowledge. If there somehow was a college team that didn’t know how to get some extra help, that only remained true until one of their
pro alumni came home to work out in the offseason.

This year’s draft will be filled with pitchers who have impressive fastball movement and high spin rates on their breaking pitches. But sussing out which pitchers will be able to do so in a world where MLB cracks down on foreign substances? Well, that’s one of the biggest challenges of the 2021 draft.

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