Hoornstra: Checking in on MLB’s foreign substance check

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If you’ve watched any amount of baseball over the last month, the scene has become routine: The pitcher walks off the mound, an umpire greets the pitcher before he reaches the dugout, and we wait.

Hat? Check.

Glove? Check.

Belt? Check.

Thanks for coming. Have a nice day.

Of all the implications of MLB’s decision to crack down on pitchers using foreign substances, slowing down the game hasn’t been an issue. Other than a couple of early speed bumps (thank you, Max Scherzer, Joe Girardi and Sergio Romo), and one suspension (sorry, Hector Santiago), the umpire-pitcher-manager dynamics have been an entirely ignorable sideshow.

Still, plenty has changed since umpires began inspecting pitchers a month ago. Pitchers Tyler Glasnow and Garrett Richards have been frank about what the enhanced monitoring procedures meant to their craft. Glasnow has a serious elbow injury. Richards has a 7.43 earned-run average in his last six games.

They’re the exceptions to the rule. Other pitchers have been mostly silent, and we know the foreign substance checks are affecting more than two of them.

Take Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers’ three-time Cy Young Award winner made three starts after the enhanced monitoring procedures went into effect, beginning with his June 22 start against the San Diego Padres. In that game, the spin rate on his fastball, curveball and slider fell below his season averages. Kershaw also introduced a changeup on June 22 and threw a couple in each start thereafter. He hadn’t thrown a changeup since August of last year.

More importantly, Kershaw reported a sore elbow after his last outing, July 3 against the Washington Nationals, and hasn’t pitched since. From a raw-numbers standpoint, Kershaw’s last three starts (18 innings, four walks, 23 strikeouts, 3.50 ERA) were indistinguishable from his first 15. But it’s fair to ask if, like Glasnow, Kershaw began using an unsustainably tight grip on the baseball. What kind of a pitcher will he be when he returns from the injured list?

Pitchers who relied on foreign substances before the inspections went into effect do have some choices. They can simply throw fewer fastballs, as Trevor Bauer did in his final start for the Dodgers before he was placed on administrative leave by MLB. (Only 14 percent of the pitches Bauer threw against the San Francisco Giants on June 28 were four-seamers, according to Statcast; he had never thrown so few four-seamers in a game since Aug. 2017.) They can learn a new (or semi-new) pitch, as Kershaw seemed to try with the changeup.

Of course, there are many reasons why a pitcher will alter his repertoire. Maybe he loses command of a pitch for reasons entirely unrelated to his grip on the baseball. Maybe he’s facing an opponent that happens to hit one of his pitches well. Cause and effect are difficult to discern from a distance.

Unfortunately for fans, pitchers are often reluctant to share the thought process behind their pitch selection because it gives away too much strategy. Even the catchers I’ve talked to have been reticent to say game-planning has been different since enhanced monitoring went into effect. Statcast might be our most useful reporting mechanism going forward.

With that in mind, I looked at some telltale signs that reveal just how pitching has changed in the first month of MLB’s “enhanced” monitoring procedures.

Anecdotally, substances as simple as sunscreen and rosin can improve a pitcher’s control. Before June 22, an early fear was that batters would be hit by pitches more frequently. From Opening Day until June 21, the day before the enhanced enforcement protocols went into effect, 1.15 percent of all plate appearances ended in a hit batter. Since then, the rate has risen slightly, to 1.27 percent.

But then, what if pitchers who stopped using foreign substances knew they were at increased risk of hitting batters whenever they threw inside? We might expect to see them throw fewer inside pitches in the first place.

Indeed, that’s what happened – a little. From Opening Day until June 21, 32.6 percent of all pitches were thrown “inside” as defined by Statcast. Since then, 32.4 percent of all pitches have been thrown inside. In effect, more batters are getting hit despite having slightly fewer pitches to get hit with. Hmm.

What about pitcher injuries? Has tighter monitoring led to more elbow and forearm problems?

The answer is a solid “Maybe.”

I used a June 21 cutoff date to do a before-and-after comparison of the number of elbow- and forearm-related IL stints for pitchers around the league. I ran the same comparison for the last four 162-game seasons as well. Each of these seasons began on a different day, but the control groups form a baseline for how injury frequency varies within and among seasons.

A few caveats. The injured list isn’t a perfect proxy for health. It’s a roster management tool. Two pitchers can have a sore elbow of the same severity, but because they play on different teams, one might go on the IL while the other does not.

One pitcher, Peter Moylan, went on the disabled list twice in July 2018 for forearm injuries. Rather than assuming the same injury re-appeared in the exact same place, I counted him twice. Another pitcher, Zac Gallen, was placed on the IL with a forearm injury when the 2021 season began. We know his injury was a fracture caused by a baseball hitting his arm, not by throwing, so he was excluded from the data. No other forearm/elbow injuries in the data set explicitly absolved throwing as the primary culprit.

OK. Onward.

To this point in 2021, elbow/forearm IL stints have been concentrated in the post-monitoring era unlike anything in the last five years. Of the 68 elbow/forearm IL stints listed on MLB.com since the regular season began, 17 occurred in the month since June 21 – exactly 25 percent of the total. Here’s how that looks next to the same date range in seasons past:

2021: 17 of 68, 25 percent

2019: 8 of 65, 12 percent

2018: 15 of 65, 23 percent

2017: 5 of 32, 16 percent

2016: 7 of 32, 22 percent

We’ll never have an airtight explanation (such as “no more foreign substances”) for why this data looks as it does, but there it is.

If all these bad things are happening to pitchers all of a sudden, are hitters benefiting at all? The Washington Post and Baseball Prospectus analyzed similar time frames within this season and independently concluded that contact rates are up in a way that rising temperatures (and other factors) would not predict. The New York Times noted an uncharacteristic increase in league-wide on-base percentage too.

Taken together, these phenomena are relatively minor. Glasnow and Richards might disagree, but MLB’s attempt to eliminate foreign substances hasn’t effected changes as conspicuous as, say, its attempt to eliminate illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

One month into the era of hat checks and glove pat-downs, the inspections are doing their best to resist hot takes. In theory, some competitive integrity has been restored. In practice, baseball looks remarkably similar to its pre-inspection incarnation.

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