As we get into its second full week, I can see the baseball season starting to settle in its natural rhythm. Before the season I mentioned I would be curious to see who would be the first person to find their way onto the radar of MLB’s pine tar police, now we have an answer in the person of Trevor Bauer. Now, I will freely admit I have complicated thoughts about him for multiple reasons, but I won’t focus on those reasons here, but I do think they have something to do with the league deciding they want to examine baseballs from his start in Oakland last Wednesday. Bauer has been the loudest voice among the players when questioning the use of foreign substances on baseballs. Does this have something to do with his longstanding feud with Gerrit Cole, now of the New York Yankees? Quite possibly. However, it doesn’t mean he is out of bounds in bringing the issue forward.
I have seen (and smelled) firsthand pitchers using pine tar in major league games. Official Rule 6.02(c) covers pitching prohibitions. In subsection 4 it expressly states the pitcher is not to place foreign substances on the baseball. The use of pine tar, sunblock, and other concoctions by pitchers is common practice at all levels of baseball. At this point it is a gentlemen’s agreement between the managers not to check the pitchers from the other team be checked for the use of foreign substances, lest his own players come under the same scrutiny. The old clip of Luis Severino getting tossed from a game for being too obvious with the pine tar on his neck will be a lasting memory for me. This brings me back to Trevor Bauer calling out guys magically increasing the spin rate on their pitches when they joined the Houston Astros (This was a thinly veiled shot at his nemesis Gerrit Cole). More spin means more movement on their pitches.
Paradoxically, the hitters don’t complain about the pitchers loading up baseballs with their mix of substances in order to find a better grip. Conventional wisdom being they would rather combat the added movement, rather than be in the box against a guy who really doesn’t have a good feel for the baseball.
It has been a one of my sources of entertainment within a game to try to figure out where pitchers are hiding their stuff. I have seen the old standbys of rosin and sunblock on the wrist of the glove hand, and pine tar on the cap still being liberally employed. I saw a pitcher for Baltimore with pine tar on the tip of his glove. There was a Blue Jays pitcher with his supply on the back of his neck. Catchers have been known to keep the pine tar on their gear to help the pitcher along (The home plate umpire not making it an issue proves this is widespread). It is pretty obvious to see them going for some grip if you are watching the pitchers closely enough when you are watching a game.
The league deciding to attempt to make an example of Trevor Bauer by letting it be known baseballs from his start are being examined is not subtle. I have real doubts if MLB will be able to come down on any player due to chain of custody concerns, not to mention it is difficult to discern how the substance got on the ball in the first place. For example, does the pitcher take the hit if the shortstop had pine tar on his hands from batting bare handed?
It will be a different game if the pitchers have to play it straight. The league is looking at the baseballs from Japan which come out of the wrapper tacky. I have doubts if this will slow the practice down as pitchers may be too used to it at this point. We might have to go back to the way the league handled it when spitballs were outlawed in 1920. Back then the spitballers were grandfathered in, but the new guys could not throw it. MLB is making an issue out of something that really isn’t a safety or competitive issue; maybe they are going to come after pitchers putting stuff on the ball every 100 years.