‘Absolutely … I’m All for It’: MLB’s Stars Debate Pitchers Using Pine Tar

‘Absolutely … I’m All for It’: MLB’s Stars Debate Pitchers Using Pine Tar

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Houston Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole works against the Oakland Athletics during the first inning of a baseball game Wednesday, May 9, 2018, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

B/R

If the Houston Astros have a sense of humor, manager AJ Hinch will call timeout after Cleveland’s Mike Clevinger throws his first pitch Friday and ask the umpires to check the baseball in full view of Indians teammate Trevor Bauer.

It was only two weeks ago Bauer lobbed a volley over Twitter insinuating Gerrit Cole and his fellow Astros pitchers are using foreign substances to enhance their grips and, thus, enjoying increased spin rates as a result.

A handful of Cole’s teammates sprang to his defense in what might be the first player-generated controversy to go viral in MLB history. At the very least, let’s just say that this swirling mix of social media, spin rates and doctored baseballs is something Nolan Ryan and Robin Ventura would have found impossible to fight over because two of those three items did not exist in their time.

Ah, but pitchers using pine tar, rosin, sunscreen, good old-fashioned sweat and anything else available to help them grip the baseball and, possibly, to help make it move?

Now that’s been happening since the game was invented.

So the important takeaway of this Bauer-Astros dustup isn’t the forum in which it was argued; it’s that it again has sparked a serious conversation on the subject.

“I use pine tar on my bat so the bat doesn’t slip out of my hands,” Baltimore outfielder Adam Jones says. “So a pitcher can use pine tar on the ball so it doesn’t hit me in the face.”

Washington Nationals slugger Bryce Harper concurs.

“Absolutely,” Harper says. “I’m all in favor of it. If there’s a guy out there that needs it, I’m all for it. I don’t want to get hit in the head or the face. So whatever they need out there, I’ll let them have it.”

It’s true, in an era in which the average MLB fastball is well up into the 90s, many hitters support the notion that it is time for the league to approve and regulate a substance beyond rosin that is legal for pitchers to use.

“Obviously, you want a pitcher to have control of the ball,” the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout says. “You don’t want a ball up and in when everybody’s throwing 100 nowadays. There’s mixed feelings, obviously, throughout the clubhouse and throughout baseball with this.

“For me, it’s a different feeling when you’re in the box and you know the pitcher doesn’t know where [the ball] is going, as opposed to if a guy knows where it’s going.”

Speculation on social media that the increased spin rate on Gerrit Cole's fastball was fueled by the use of pine tar drew the attention, and criticism, of Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer.

Speculation on social media that the increased spin rate on Gerrit Cole’s fastball was fueled by the use of pine tar drew the attention, and criticism, of Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer.Ben Margot/Associated Press/Associated Press

Since MLB outlawed the spitball in 1920, pitchers from Gaylord Perry to Joe Niekro have gone to great creative lengths to work the angles. The game’s dirty (and sticky) little secret is that there are pitchers on every staff who use some type of substance to aid in their grips. It’s why you rarely see a manager complain to an umpire during a game about the opposing pitcher. For example, despite his reputation for being uber-competitive, former manager Tony La Russa was noticeably quiet on the topic during the 2006 World Series when television cameras caught Detroit pitcher Kenny Rogers with what looked like pine tar on his left hand while pitching against La Russa’s Cardinals. 

There is a fine line between using a substance such as Vaseline, which is designed to make the ball move (the “spitball” category of pitch) and say, pine tar or sunscreen, which helps with grip but can produce tighter breaking balls. It is only when it becomes obvious, such as when the Yankees’ Michael Pineda practically covered the entire side of his neck in pine tar in a 2014 game or when the Orioles’ Brian Matusz was caught with a foreign substance on his arm in Miami in 2015, that MLB acts.

“Why is he getting penalized when we know that 90 percent of guys are probably using it, anyways?” asks Nationals catcher Matt Wieters, a teammate of Matusz’s in 2015 and now in his 10th season as an MLB catcher.

Wieters would like the league to endorse “something where [pitchers] aren’t putting it all over the place. Something that would be minimal but also where you don’t have to worry about guys having the excuse of the ball ‘slipped.’ You take that excuse out. The ball shouldn’t be slipping now: I know it was 3-and-0 and the ball somehow slipped into my back, but you’ve got pine tar right there so it shouldn’t.”

This spring, the league quietly experimented with a baseball with more tack, according to B/R sources. It wasn’t done in exhibition games, and those with knowledge of the experiment say one of the myriad issues that arose was the darker color of the balls, making them more difficult for hitters to see.

Baseballs used in Japan are universally acknowledged to have more tack than MLB balls, which can be trickier at times to handle, especially in cold weather, not only because the MLB balls are more slippery, but also because the seams are lower. St. Louis manager Mike Matheny, a member of MLB’s Competition Committee, says Japanese studies on tackier baseballs are producing data pointing to fewer arm injuries.

That, says Matheny, might be the best reason of all to change.

“[MLB] understands the need for it,” he says.

But baseball officials know any changes to the baseball itself will be scrutinized more carefully than the A-Rod and J-Lo romance.

“They get enough grief about the baseball being different each year as it is,” says Baltimore manager Buck Showalter, also a member of the committee. “That’s the only thing I think, as soon as they bring in another baseball that’s tacky, if somebody doesn’t hit 10 home runs in the first month, or if all of a sudden they do, everybody’s going to talk about how the ball is different.”

As they work on that issue, Showalter endorses one simple yet wide-ranging change.

“I think they should have a universal rag that you put instead of the rosin back there on the mound, or with the rosin, and that’s all you can use,” he says. “If you’re caught with anything else, [you’re ejected].

Gaylord Perry won 314 games and was voted into the Hall of Fame after a 22-year career during which he wasn't shy about using foreign substances on his pitching hand.

Gaylord Perry won 314 games and was voted into the Hall of Fame after a 22-year career during which he wasn’t shy about using foreign substances on his pitching hand.Rich Pilling/Getty Images

“Let’s face it, the catchers have it on their shin guards; a lot of people have it on their gloves. You see guys doing this all the time because they throw, and they won’t be able to grip the baseball.”

Not everyone is in agreement, of course.

“I don’t like pitchers to put anything on the ball,” New York Mets third baseman Todd Frazier says. “To be honest with you, I think it helps them out in the long run. That’s why [baseballs] get rubbed up before the game. You don’t know exactly what the pitchers are using. You don’t know where they’re putting it. You’ve seen guys with it on their hat, you’ve seen guys rubbing their arms to get some stickum, you’ve seen guys with it on their cleats.”

Frazier is bottom-line about it: “I consider it cheating. Anything to help somebody out, whether it’s getting grip on the ball or whatever it is. They’ll come out and say, ‘You need grip on your bat.’ Yeah, we do, but the grip part isn’t on the barrel of the bat where we hit. And when it is, you’ll get caught.”

While several pitchers declined to comment for this story, St. Louis’ Michael Wacha didn’t hesitate.

“I’m probably one of the few guys who doesn’t use anything,” Wacha says. “I lose my feel for the pitch if I try anything sticky. So I don’t really have a strong opinion.”

Bauer does, and how much of it stems from the long-standing rivalry with his old UCLA teammate—the antipathy between Bauer and Cole long has been a poorly kept secret in the gameis known only to the Cleveland right-hander, who fired off this tweet May 1:

Which, in short order, Astros players followed with:

And:

Hinch, the Houston manager, addressed it while meeting with reporters before that night’s game with the New York Yankees:

Though Bauer was careful later to explain he never singled out one pitcher or organization, his intended targets were obvious. And in breaking another of the game’s unwritten rulesnot specifically calling out fellow players—one of MLB’s more prickly characters didn’t endear himself to his peers any further.

“Trevor Bauer has a point, although he probably should have left the Astros out of it,” says former Yankees pitcher David Cone, who’s a broadcaster on the club’s games for the YES Network. “Pine tar can help your grip on breaking balls. We know it works. We always knew it. We just hadn’t been able to measure it [with spin rate] before.”

“I think it’s real dangerous to accuse players of using substances when you really don’t have any proof,” Nationals closer Sean Doolittle says. “I think there’s a lot that can be explained about Gerrit Cole’s spin rate just by looking at his pitches. He’s not throwing his two-seamer nearly as much, so if he’s throwing more four-seamers, his spin rate is going to be higher on average.

“Maybe now we get to have a conversation about ways to improve the situation so we don’t have to have pitchers using foreign substances,” Doolittle adds. We can have them using pine tar and sunscreen and rosin and have it be legal. Let’s move on to that portion of the conversation.”

Consider it done.

“I’m a pretty conservative guy,” Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon says. “Let’s let the guys play the game. If we think we need to change things because we feel guys are cheating, let’s change things.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has seen studies that indicate tackier baseballs may reduce the number of arm injuries.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has seen studies that indicate tackier baseballs may reduce the number of arm injuries.Jeff Roberson/Associated Press/Associated Press

“I still think the answer’s not to add more rules. We’ve done a lot to the game. I’m just not in favor of a lot of that stuff. I want the game to be the greatest game on the planet. I’m coming from a good place, and everybody’s entitled to their opinion.”

Says Yankees second baseman Neil Walker: “If I’m a left-handed hitter and I’ve got to face Aroldis [Chapman], I certainly don’t want him to not be able to use something where he doesn’t know where the ball’s going. But it certainly has to be within reason.”

The biggest question from MLB’s Park Avenue offices to the 30 ballparks as the game appears headed for some sort of legalized aid for grips is: What is within reason? As Buster Olney notes via ESPN Stats & Information, the spin rate on Cole’s four-seam fastball has increased this season to 2,332 rotations per minute, up from the consistent readings of his past of 2,163 (2017), 2,178 (2016) and 2,157 (2015).

One truth as the conversation rages, though, is universal.

“Sometimes,” Showalter says, “the Houston pitchers are just good. Everyone wants to find a reason why a pitcher goes from pretty good to real good.

“I don’t know how to tell you this, but Justin Verlander’s been a pretty good pitcher for a while, OK?”

               

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

Bleacher Report’s Danny Knobler contributed to this report.

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May 17, 2018 at 05:38AM

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