Sticky Baseballs: The Physics of Major League Baseball’s Latest Scandal

Close-up of a baseball mitt and ball

Cheating in baseball is as old as the game itself, and pitchers’ modifying the ball’s surface is part of that long history. Adding to the lore of cheating is a new scandal involving pitchers who may be applying sticky substances – what players refer to as “sticky stuff” – to baseballs.

Major League hitters are striking out this season nearly one in every four times they step to the plate, compared with one in six times in 2005.

As a sports physicist and longtime baseball fan, I’ve been intrigued by news reports that applying sticky substances to balls can make pitches spin faster. And if pitchers can throw their fastballs, curveballs and sliders with more spin than in previous years, their pitches will be tougher to hit. How does science explain all this?

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Commentary: A Presidential Wild Pitch?

Biden and the All-Star Game

The president loves baseball, and has said the earliest memories he has are of the sport: a glove under his pillow the night before his first game and a too-big Little League jersey that hung past his knees. Given a chance to pick between an inning on the mound in the majors or the vice presidency, a much younger Joe Biden wouldn’t hesitate.

“I would have pitched!” the then-vice president told a crowd gathered for the final game of the 2009 Little League World Series, before following through with his trademark addendum, “By the way, I’m not kidding.”

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Whitmer Allows Stadiums at 20 Percent Capacity; Still Mum on Former Health Director’s Resignation

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration issued a new order requiring COVID-19 testing for all 13-19-year-old athletes before each game and practice.

In her first news conference after Whitmer and former state health director Robert Gordon waived their confidentiality clause in Gordon’s $155,506 taxpayer funded separation package, Whitmer still dodged two direct questions.

Whitmer insisted she has “nothing to hide” but gave no new details about the resignation.

“I have said all I am going to say about Director Gordon’s departure,” she said.

Whitmer’s new order will allow outdoor stadiums to open at 20% capacity if the venue follows certain protocols. The order comes less than two weeks ahead of the April 1 Detroit Tigers opening day at Comerica Park.

For Comerica Park, that means it can allow roughly 8,200 fans if it:

Establishes an infection control plan that complies with the the state health department’s Enhanced Outdoor Stadium and Arena Guidance
Posts the mitigation plan publicly
Sends infection control plans to the local health department and MDHHS at least seven days before scheduled events.
Administers a testing program following the Guidance for Athletics
“We truly appreciate the ongoing partnership with the Governor’s office and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. We are thrilled to safely welcome back the best fans in baseball to Comerica Park for Opening Day and beyond,” Illitch Holdings Group President of Sports and Entertainment Chris Granger said in a statement. “As the season progresses, we look forward to continued coordination with public health and medical experts, government officials and Major League Baseball to ensure a safe and enjoyable environment for all Detroit Tigers fans.”

The loosened restrictions follow as more Michiganders get vaccinated. Michigan has injected over 3 million vaccines, continuing to reach for its goal of vaccinating 70% of Michigander’s ages 16 and older.

“Last week’s numbers are a reality check that COVID-19 is not yet behind us,” Whitmer said in a Friday morning news conference. “We may be seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still in the tunnel.”

The push to ramp up vaccinations aims to stem the spread of multiple COVID-19 variants and depress rising COVID-19 case numbers.

About 756 cases of the U.K COVID-19 variant have been reported in Michigan, while seven of the South African variant have been reported.

“You’ll have a summer of fun ahead if we can all get vaccinated,” Whitmer said of small July 4 celebrations.

Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun warned Michigan is headed in the “wrong direction” in COVID-19 data after four weeks of case increases. The COVID-19 positivity rate has increased to 6.2%, an increase from mid-February but down from the December high of 19.4%.

Hospital capacity dedicated to COVID-19 is now at 4.9%, down from a December high of  19.6%.

Under the new epidemic order, Michiganders ages 13-19 can’t practice or compete in sports unless they participate in a stringent testing program starting April 2.

The order aims to battle 315 reported outbreaks associated with high school sports, officials said.

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Commentary: Baseball Season, Our Distorted View of COVID-19, and What the Facts Tell Us

If you’re not convinced that Americans have been sold a distorted view of COVID-19 risk, consider Major League Baseball.

Most of the league’s players are among the 46 million Americans between ages 25 and 34. A total of 992 people in this age group have died with COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a mortality rate of 2 per 100,000.

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Commentary: New Evidence Shows Key Fans Unhappy with Sports Leagues Kowtowing to Black Lives Matter

If anyone was hoping that the return of the long-awaited Major League season would lift our spirits and bring us together, they had to be disappointed to learn that we are more divided than ever over the National Anthem kneeling debate. And although President Trump has not chosen to join the burgeoning #BoycottMLB movement on Twitter, the president has joined a growing number of disheartened baseball fans who are unhappy that their favorite teams are taking the knee. Even before the start of the season, President Trump tweeted that he was “looking forward to live sports, but any time I witness a player kneeling during the National Anthem, a sign of great disrespect for our Country and our Flag, the game is over for me!”

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