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'You're going to see a better version of game; more action': As MLB's crackdown begins, Cardinals need their offense unstuck

'You're going to see a better version of game; more action': As MLB's crackdown begins, Cardinals need their offense unstuck

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Usually a break in the schedule, even on the road, is a chance for some ballplayers to loosen the grip the game has on their days and find some alternative programming or maybe some golf, of course. Not so Monday, as several Cardinals, during an off day in Detroit, expected the curiosity to be too much to keep them away from tuning in to a ballgame.

They were eager to observe the practices and potential spectacle of Major League Baseball’s first official day of “enhanced enforcement” and policing of adhesive substances on the gear, forearms, wrists, and fingers of pitchers.

“Maybe I’ll watch more baseball than I ever planned on my off day,” said Cardinals lefty Andrew Miller, a member of the union’s executive committee.

What many want to see is a familiar game, finally unstuck.

To break the hold pitchers have on the game and slow the spin-rate revolution of pitches that has contributed to a historically high strikeout rates and a ruinously low number of baseballs in play, the commissioner’s office started Monday a strict interpretation of Rule 3.01. That bans all foreign substances from use on the mound. There will be public, in-game inspections of every pitcher, and if any player is found with the sticky stuff he’ll be ejected and face a 10-game suspension. The team cannot replace him on the roster.

After several years of pitchers taking advantage of looking the other way, baseball has put teeth in a longstanding rule — in hopes it puts the bite back in offense.

“An example — there are guys you face and you’re like, 'I don’t remember you throwing anything like this before,'” Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado said Sunday at Atlanta’s Truist Park. “There are some guys that are good who are now elite, elite, and you’re like, ‘You’re getting older, how did you get this?’ There are guys who are really good because they’re really good. I think the elite will still be elite. And there are certain guys — well, the other ones might come down a little bit.”

Said Cardinals manager Mike Shildt: “You’re going to see a regression, potentially — no, not even potentially — you’re going to see a regression in certain guys from a pitching standpoint.”

The crackdown arrives, coincidentally, at a pivotal time for the Cardinals. A split doubleheader Sunday lost the four-game series in Atlanta and returned the Cardinals to .500, at 36-36. Their division rivals have obliged the Cardinals’ spiral from first place by not pulling away in the NL Central standings, and in swoops the schedule with an assist. Starting with this week’s two-game interleague series in Detroit, the Cardinals’ next 13 games are against four teams with a winning percentage of .365 (105-183) and are a combined 70 games out of first place.

Key point in season

The start of MLB’s “enhanced enforcement” offers a line of demarcation for the Cardinals. They have been a middling team pulled out of first place by confounding forces of hitters having the lowest average in the NL and pitchers leading the majors in walks and hit batters. If those numbers start to normalize or improve at rates quicker than their peers, the Cardinals can point to the date — and not leave gooey fingerprints.

“I think you’re going to see (fewer) strikeouts,” Shildt said. “I think you’re going to see a more offensive game. I don’t know what you’re going to see relative to walks and hit batters. I think that’s going to ebb and flow. I think you’re going to see a better version of game relative to what we’re used to seeing. I think you’re going to see a more traditional game, what we grew up with — more about balls in play, more action. You’re going to see that guys are able to put the ball in play.”

In the past six seasons, the strikeout rate per nine innings has skyrocketed from 8.10 in 2016 to 9.16 this season. The jump this year threatened to be the steepest in generations before a memo went out recently about cleaning up what Shildt called “baseball’s dirty little secret.”

Batters bounce back?

There already is superficial evidence that scraping at the surface of the issue has increased offense.

The game’s .239 batting average in May was the lowest for the month since 1972, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The league-wide season average entering June was .236, the lowest it had been at that point since .229 in 1968, the season Bob Gibson changed the game and forced a lower mound. Some of the decrease in average stems from the game devaluing batting average and hitters getting paid for damage — that is, slugging percentage. But even that has been on a decline, and because of advanced technology the art of pitchcrafting has been identified as a leading culprit for what killed offense.

Pitches are “revolving faster than at any previous point in the Statcast era,” wrote Robert Arthur at Baseball Prospectus in a recent article titled, “Spin Rate is Higher than Ever.”

Pitchers, most infamously Trevor Bauer, the NL’s reigning Cy Young Award winner, have chased higher and higher and higher spin rates for their pitches for the obvious reason.

They work.

A higher spin rate on a four-seam fastball, for example, allows it to maintain its lift longer, longer than a hitter expects gravity to let it, in the same way a Frisbee flies truer with more spin. It's physics. Breaking pitches have fiercer movement. Cutters are sharper and lead to meek contact, if any contact at all.

The batting average since 2019 on four-seam fastballs with an rpm between 2,250 and 2,350 is .267, according to Baseball Savant. The average drops to .224 when the rpm revs to 2,500 or greater. The average rpm on a four-seam fastball is around 2,300.

Bauer’s fastball averages 2,795 this season.

Corbin Burnes’ cutter averages 2,817.

Both are elite, top-shelf spinners.

The difference for a hitter is striking. Since 2019, the slugging percentage on a fastball spinning between 2,250 and 2,350 is .487, for a cutter it’s .443. When those pitches reach that 100th percentile rpm level, greater than 2,750, slugging drops to .415 on the fastball and .346 on the cutter, per Savant.

That’s the mark spin rate has put on offense, and through a study this year Major League Baseball concluded that pitchers have left a mark on baseballs in the quest for it. The crackdown is an attempted correction.

“Absolutely, yeah, it’s welcomed,” Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux said. “The game is always going for more offense. Every change the game makes is to go for more offense. Everything. Lower the mound. Add a designated hitter. Making the strike zone smaller. Every change has been for more offense. So we’ll see.”

Other than the rubberneck appeal of watching games Monday, the Cardinals had the benefit of an undress rehearsal by watching game.

Enforcement mechanics

Managers and officials had a conference call last week to discuss the logistics of the on-field, in-game inspections. Starters will be searched multiple times, and it will be at the umpire’s discretion if he observes the pitcher going to an area of his gear or uniform habitually. Relievers will be reviewed as they leave the game, likely in foul territory, right outside the dugout, and in front of the crowd. Closers may be inspected before throwing a pitch. Catchers no longer are allowed to carry anything sticky on their pads, including their chest protector. They are also subject to ejection and suspension for any violation.

Sunscreen, a widely used ingredient mixed with pine tar and legal rosin to create some traction, will be prohibited in night games and under roofs. What is permissible? Rosin and sweat — that’s it.

“I’m not necessarily curious to see anything, (but) my hope is that people will have eliminated the stuff they’re using,” Shildt said Sunday. “I have said there is going to be some solution. We’re enforcing a black and white rule with some gray area. The grey area — I mean, some substance that doesn’t elicit a higher spin rate — a little bit of sunscreen and rosin. A little bit of pine tar. But it’s the letter of the law. It’s illegal.”

And a change in the game is inevitable.

That much is as clear as pine tar is opaque.

How much, how soon, and how dramatic — well, players are stuck waiting to find out.

“It’s definitely going to change,” Arenado said. “The second half (of the season) you’re going to see it more. I think for sure in the second half you’ll see something different.”

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