'Sticky Substance' Crackdown Hasn't Reached College Baseball — At Least Not Yet
Like the rest of the baseball world, people around college baseball are closely watching Major League Baseball’s crackdown on pitchers using foreign substances. Even with the College World Series in full swing in Omaha, it’s been impossible to ignore the nightly scenes of umpires checking pitchers for Spider Tack, pine tar or whatever other sticky substance might be hidden in a hat, belt or glove.
While the drama unfolds on big league diamonds, nothing of the sort can be found in college baseball. There was one incident in March when Tulane pitcher Braden Olthoff was checked by the umpires during his start against Mississippi State. Nothing was found, however, and Olthoff and the Green Wave went on to a 7-3 victory.
“That has never happened to me,” Olthoff told reporters at the time. “I’ve never been one to use any pine tar or any other substance. The umpire said, ‘We gotta check your glove.’ I loved it. That fired me up even more and it fired up our dugout. I took that as a compliment. Obviously, they thought I was cheating, so I took that energy the rest of the way.”
Multiple college coaches told Baseball America that they did not think the practice of using sticky substances to get a better grip on the ball was as widespread in the college game as it is in MLB, where some estimates have suggested 70 percent of pitchers use something. But multiple coaches also said it would be naïve to think such a widespread practice in professional baseball doesn’t occur in college baseball.
Just how many college pitchers might be using sticky substances is unknown and estimates vary widely. Some coaches suggested the practice is uncommon, some believed half of pitchers use something. The upper ends of those estimates are likely to be truer in major conferences, where college pitchers more commonly mix with professional ones. Learning how to use sticky substances properly isn’t easily picked up in a quick online tutorial, but requires a lot of trial and error.
Most coaches believe the use of the strongest sticky stuff – like Spider Tack – is not particularly prevalent in college baseball and that pitchers are more likely to use the much less powerful combination of sunscreen and rosin.
Before the major league drama exploded, college baseball had already strengthened its rules against the use of foreign substances. Previously, the rule required a pitcher to be caught using a foreign substance to be punished – not just being in possession of it on the mound – and the first violation only resulted in a warning before a second violation was penalized by ejection. Now, a player that is found to be in possession of a foreign substance will be ejected.
In the major leagues, the possession of a foreign substance leads to not only an ejection but an automatic 10-game suspension. College baseball’s rule does not call for a suspension.
Now, with the foreign substance rule at the center of attention in MLB, college baseball expects its own debate to follow. The NCAA’s baseball rules committee will hold its annual meeting the first week of July and it is expected to hold discussions on the foreign substance rule.
But as MLB has found, enforcement is a sticky subject. Not everyone can agree on what should and shouldn’t be allowed and checking every pitcher for foreign substances has caused significant headaches for MLB just two days into its new enforcement period. Asking college umpires across three divisions and dozens of conferences to learn how to spot the various sticky substances used by pitchers would be a significant challenge.
Still, expect the sticky substance debate to come to college baseball in the coming months as it continues to rage in MLB.