Sarris: There must be a better way of checking pitchers for sticky stuff. Let's find it (2023)

This is where we are now: The umpire, holding the pitcher’s hand, is trying to decide what is on that hand — and if that substance is too sticky, and perhaps even what the definition of “too sticky” actually is.

We’ve traded selectivity for subjectivity in an effort to get sticky stuff out of the game. Clearly, there are still faults with the way MLB is policing the ban on using foreign substances, even as the league tries to ramp that enforcement up.


Before, the rules were selectively enforced. The sport basically ignored the use of sticky substances most of the time, maybe because the idea was pitchers were trying to gain command of the baseball and didn’t want to hit the batter. So only the most egregious offenders — pine tar splotches on the neck, maybe? — were singled out for punishment, and the rest of baseball looked the other way every other day.

But then it became obvious that there was a performance benefit that came from the added spin that stickier stuff could give a pitcher. Pitchers could get as much as 500 RPM, and change the shape of their fastball enough to impact their results on the field. Over the last few years, baseball has tried several avenues of policing in order to get the tackier substances out of the game (with up and down results), but in the end, even today’s more stringent Sticky Stuff Policy comes down to a very subjective moment: the umpire, feeling the hands of the pitcher, has to decide what is sticky enough to demand a hand-washing, and what is sticky enough to eject the player.

The same pitcher, ostensibly doing the same things in both cases, has fallen on both sides of this precarious decision so far already.

The current situation doesn’t seem fair to players who must figure out how much rosin is too much rosin, or to the umpires, who have to go with their gut to find that line themselves.

Is there a way Major League Baseball could develop an objective on-the-field test that would give results almost immediately and eliminate this guessing game for the umpires, pitchers, and baseball fans? MLB declined to comment on whether they are pursuing anything in that vein. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to find a solution ourselves.

It doesn’t seem like trying to test for substances on the mound is the way to go. There might be a CSI-type solution there — swab the hand, put it in a solution, and if it turns a certain color you’re busted — but the unintended consequences would be comic. Imagine the arms race this would kick off. “Sugar has been added to the banned substance list,” comes the announcement on a Friday. By Saturday, all the pitchers have switched to Stevia.


But scientifically testing for stickiness has some legs, since there are industrial solutions to tackiness testing problems. Dr. Dan Adams runs Wyoming Test Fixtures, and they’ve worked with two tackiness tests that might be relevant. One measures how far a ball rolls along a sticky substance, though that seems hard to replicate on the field.

Another test, however — the ASTM D6195 Adhesive Loop Tack — shows some promise for baseball’s needs.

“You push a fabric against the finger and then pull it back and see how much force it takes to pull off,” said Adams of the D6195. “Basically you could call it a tack test.”

Watch the D6195 in action!


“The grip is connected to a load cell, and that’s measuring the force it’s applying,” Adams explained. “As it peels, you have to apply a small force.”

That force is what we are concerned with. Baseball could define a level of tack that it’s fine with, set that number in the machine, and umpires would just have to read the machine. For them, it would be as simple as observing that if the pitcher went over six pounds per square inch, that’s a red line, and they’re out of the game.

The machine costs as much as $5,000 per, so that’s one obstacle. It’s also quite large, so the umpire won’t be lugging it to the mound. Could this thing be modified for baseball, made smaller, or housed in the dugout? Possibly.

“It’s going to take some thinking,” agreed Adams. “You have to put the loop on the place they put the goop on their finger, for one. Maybe you could put it along the entire length of their finger. You could calibrate the size of the tape. You get a concept in mind, and you play around with it.”

What about a simpler approach? Any measure of adhesion is just the amount of force required to separate two surfaces, and the trouble with using many established testing technologies is measuring that force. What if gravity were used as the force? That’s constant in every park, with minimal differences even between parks at widely disparate altitudes. Gravity plus whatever weight baseball thinks is appropriate could create a test that was consistent and objective.


“It strikes me as pretty straightforward,” said Dr. Meredith Wills, who has experience testing the differences in the MLB ball from year to year. “All you need is a standard-weight object (lighter than a baseball) and gravity. Have the pitcher put it on his hand and turn it over. If the thing just hangs there and doesn’t fall, his hand is too sticky. For consistency, it would be best for the object to have the same size/shape as a baseball and a similar leather cover — the substance may not stick the same to, say, plastic — but that should do it.”

We know that Spider Tack delivered too much stick. Pitchers could apply that substance, touch a ball, and the ball would just stick to their hand without falling. That’s too much tackiness. Perhaps we can allow pitchers enough stickiness that a flat sheet of paper would stick to their hand without falling. That’s too low of a bar for these purposes.

But somewhere in between is a perfect test. Maybe a leather-bound Wiffle Ball, or just an underweight baseball like the ones used in weighted ball programs, would do the trick. The umpire brings the tester ball to the pitcher, attaches it to their hand, and if it doesn’t fall due to gravity … the pitcher is busted.

“The one thing is, if the person has a bigger finger, bigger area, the amount of actual tack is not being measured by that test, but the total force,” pointed out Adams. “There’s something to be said for the machine controlling the amount of area stuck to the finger.”

Does baseball want a quicker, easier test like the light ball would offer? Or a more precise version that might be harder to game but would be more cumbersome to implement? It seems past decisions might indicate the ball test would be more likely, just because it’s easier. Another advantage of the light ball test is that it doesn’t need machinery, so it can be administered at any time, on the mound or not — and that seems important because the threat of surprise reduces the chances that pitchers find a way to be clean in time for the machine. Teams could also keep a light ball in the dugout so pitchers could test themselves before they run to the mound.

Either way, there are two paths here for baseball’s rules committee to find a better sticky stuff test than the one currently in place. The best test might be as easy as attaching a ball of known weight to a hand covered in some unknown substance, and waiting for it to drop.

(Photo of Justin Verlander and umpire Lance Barksdale: Mike Stobe / Getty Images)

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