Michael Pineda had pine tar on his hand for the first half of the New York Yankees’ tilt with the Boston Red Sox Thursday night. Baseball Twitter noticed, flooding everyone with screenshots pulled from the broadcast. Like this one!
The online conversation over that discovery has devolved, predictably, into some people shouting “CHEETOR!” and some waving or shrugging it off as utterly unimportant. This is the way things went last summer, when sunscreen on the forearm of Clay Buchholz created a similar stir.
Neither is the proper reaction. This blog from David Schoenfield, however, sounded precisely the right notes.
I don’t know to what extent Schoenfield was seriously ascribing the recent drop in run-scoring to the phenomenon of pitchers using foreign substances and grip enhancers. I’m not ready to say that that’s a significant cause, especially because I tend to think that pitchers were doing a lot of the same things during the era of very high offensive levels that preceded this.
Still, the fact that pitchers apply these substances to themselves and to the ball does matter. It increases the confidence with which hurlers can throw their secondary pitches, and even allows them to throw harder, since they need not worry about hanging onto the ball in the course of ramping up their arm speed.
Pitchers and pundits on their side defend the practice by saying that, were it not for these grip-enhancing substances, we would see many more players hit, dangerously, by errant pitches. That’s a flimsy (not to mention deceitful) argument. To whatever extent control would be diminished if grip enhancers were more stridently outlawed, we shouldn’t assume that any disproportionate number of pitches missing their spots would head straight for the batter’s head. What those people are doing is pointing out a special, fearful case, hoping to distract the listener from the overall competitive advantage pitchers derive from using these things.
One argument to which I would have been more open is that pitchers might be more prone to injury if they try to throw especially nasty sliders, for instance, with a compromised grip. Not only did no one advance that argument, though, but when I asked sports-injury guru Will Carroll about it on Twitter, he was unaware of any significant health benefit to having a better grip.
The rules don’t even need to be changed here. Applying foreign substances to the ball has always been illegal. Some substances, like saliva and Vaseline, have been used to alter the natural flight path of a ball, almost allowing pitchers to throw fastball-speed knuckleballs. Pine tar and sunscreen don’t have quite the same effect. They’re more about letting a pitcher apply as much force and tilt to the ball as they’re able. Still, that’s an artificial advantage, not one drawn from the pitcher’s real ability.
Enforcement is the problem, and in today’s game, enforcement should be easy. Cameras will catch the crooks every time, even if umpires (who should be instructed to be more vigilant) can’t. Pitchers who apply foreign substances are supposed to be subject to automatic suspension. Baseball simply needs to make it clear that even pitchers caught on video, or after the fact, will be suspended, and be ready to suspend guys even when they claim to have just had “a little dirt” on their hands, glove or forearm.
Some portion of responsibility for putting an end to this does rest with teams themselves. The Red Sox shrugged off the Pineda incident, which shouldn’t surprise you, since both Buchholz and Jon Lester have been caught using similar substances within the past year. Too often, when rules violations become prevalent league-wide, teams are unwilling to call out opponents on it, lest their own gravy train stop rolling. That fraternity mentality has to go. It’s surprising, really, that some team hasn’t already figured this out: Be the clean team, and one by one, get a half-dozen scofflaw opponents suspended for a week apiece. Your batters might get hit a time or two, but sooner or later, teams will simply stop cheating against you, and in the meantime, you’ll be laying waste to opponents’ seasons by sidelining important pitchers.
Whether grip enhancement is part of the reason or not, teams are scoring too few runs these days. Baseball is more fun when a 2-1 lead is fragile, and the action intense. Right now, those leads too often prove insurmountable. Since the rule book is on my side and the defenders of grip culture haven’t offered any compelling arguments for changing that, I don’t need to go any further. I won’t moralize against those pitchers, because they live in a moral safehouse, and most of them probably don’t consider what they do to be cheating at all. Still, it is cheating, and it’s time to stop it.
It’s time to force pitchers to live without grip enhancers, punish those who try to work around the rules and feel no remorse for those who can’t make the adjustment and wash out of the league. Baseball is excruciatingly difficult. An inability to maintain a consistent grip would be no crueler a reason to lose your place in the league than, for instance, an inability to see the spin on a good breaking ball. Sink or swim, but from now on, no sunscreen (or pine tar) in the pool.Next post: One-Hop Rockets: Replay, the Transfer Rule, Legislating Roster Construction
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