Cheating, Jose Valverde

Spit-Gate Underway: Did Valverde Hock? More Importantly: Does it Matter?

Well, it sure looked like Jose Valverde spat onto the ball—or at least into his glove, which contained the ball—in Sunday’s game against Cincinnati. A clip distributed (over and over again via Twitter) by a Reds fan named Justin Tooley shows Valverde, on the mound facing Devin Mesoraco, pursing his lips and doing something that looks an awful lot like spitting into his glove.

Chatter around the Internet concerns the possibility of Major League Baseball taking action against him. The quick response: No chance.

The first reason for this is plausible deniability. Implausible as it might seem, Valverde might simply have been sneezing. There’s also the fact that his ensuing pitch was a high-and-tight four-seam fastball, not the typical diver that pitchers look for from spitters. As Yahoo’s Kevin Kaduk noted, “Valverde is well known for throwing a split-fingered fastball, which makes you wonder why he passed on throwing that pitch if he did indeed spit on the ball.”

Writer/pitcher Dirk Hayhurst (who’s graced these pages before) weighed in on his blog with the notion that spitting on the baseball is, in the pantheon of ball-doctoring methodology, “like trying to kill an antelope with a sharp stick.” He also ran down the assortment of goops found in bullpen bags across the land:

Sun screen combined with rosin make for on the fly finger Fixodent. Firm Grip, found in every training room, makes the ball hang from your finger tips. Well rubbed in shaving gel gives a little extra tack, but no to so much that your hands suck up dirt and dust like chicken getting battered for deep fry.

Vasilene does the opposite. The ball slides out of your hand like a splitter and drops significantly more. If Vaseline is to advanced for you, try Skin Lube, it’s the gunk trainers stick under tape wraps so players don’t chafe while playing. It doesn’t gleam like Vasilene so you can smear it under your hat bill with out worry.

Umps really watching you? Try Kramergesic or Red Hot. Burns a little, but it also leaves a nice slime in it’s wake. If you get asked about it, you can say it’s medicinal. Plus, a mixture of lube and sweat works far better than spit or snot . . . Unless you prefer snot, in which case, rub a little Red Hot in your nose and get it running good. Just don’t get it in your eyes or you’ll leave the game in tears regardless of your performance.

Heck, in the case of Ted Lilly, it wasn’t even about substances he used, but where he (allegedly) stood atop the mound. With all this stuff at his disposal, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for a pitcher to expectorate in obvious ways as the center of attention on a baseball diamond. (Then again, very little about Jose Valverde actually does make sense.)

If you’re wondering whether any of the pitchers who utilize those methods have been caught, the answer is a resounding yes—a lot of them do it, and it’s impossible that they could all avoid detection. Their collective penalty, outside of the rogue moundsman every decade or so whose viscous  pursuits are so obvious as to leave no choice but punishment once they’re discovered : virtually nothing. Baseball has avoided punitive action with far more damning evidence in hand than Valverde just offered up. Take Red Munger, a pitcher for the Cardinals in the 1940s. From The Baseball Codes:

Munger was known by opponents and umpires alike to load up balls with tobacco juice. After umpire Larry Goetz called the second strike of an at-bat on one of Munger’s doctored pitches, the hitter complained that the pitch had been a spitter. “Yes it was,” Cardinals catcher Joe Garagiola recalled Goetz saying. “Strike two.”

A cheating pitcher may simply be a hornets’ nest that most umpires don’t appear inclined to poke. For something more recent, there’s this, also from The Baseball Codes:

In April 1973, Yankees outfielder Bobby Murcer exploded to the press after facing Cleveland’s greaseball king Gaylord Perry in the pitcher’s second start of the season, yelling: “Just about everything he throws is a spitter. . . . The more he knows you’re bothered by him throw­ing it the better he is against you. He’s got the stuff behind his ear and on his arm and on his chest. He puts it on each inning. I picked up the balls and they’re so greasy you can’t throw them.” Murcer went so far as to call commissioner Bowie Kuhn “gutless” for refusing to respond—and this was after the outfielder had recorded a three-hit game against Perry. When the pitcher was confronted with Murcer’s accusations, however, he said that Murcer hit “fastballs and sliders,” not spitballs. It would have been a more credible excuse had Perry been on the same page as his catcher, Dave Duncan, who in a separate contrived denial said that Murcer had hit “off-speed stuff.”

To further the argument, The New York Times hired an unnamed Yan­kees pitcher to chart Perry’s every pitch throughout the game, marking those he thought to be spitballs. When the resulting pitch chart was com­pared with a replay of the game, the Times noted that, before every pitch identified as a spitter by the Yankees operative, Perry tugged at the inside of his left sleeve with his right (pitching) hand—an action he did not take for the rest of his repertoire. Yankees second baseman Horace Clarke, according to the chart, struck out on a spitter that, on replay, was seen to drop at least a foot. In the fourth inning, Thurman Munson asked to see the ball twice during his at-bat—during which, said the chart, Perry threw four spitters. . . .

Partly in reaction to the uproar Perry caused, a rule was implemented in 1974 that removed the mandate for hard proof in an umpire’s spitball warning, saying that peculiar movement on a pitch provided ample evi­dence. It didn’t take long—all of six innings into the season—before Perry earned his first warning under the new rule. Not that it mattered; by the end of the season he had won twenty-one games, was voted onto the All-Star team, finished fourth in the Cy Young balloting, and was thrown out of exactly zero games for doctoring baseballs.

In fact, Perry wasn’t docked for throwing a spitter until 1982, when he was 43 years old and in his 21st big league season—eight years after his autobiography, Me and the Spitter, was published.

Hayhurst made the excellent point that some of the greatest pitchers of all time cheated. Greg Maddux’s name has come up repeatedly during the course of this particular conversation. Nolan Ryan, Don Drysdale and Whitey Ford either admitted to or were regularly accused of scuffing balls or loading them up. When Commissioner Ford Frick lobbied to have the spitball re-legalized in 1955, Pee Wee Reese responded with the classic comment, “Restore the spitter? When did they stop throwing it?”

So even if you don’t afford Valverde the benefit of the doubt; even if you’re outraged that a pitcher would resort to such underhanded tactics; try to get over it. You’ll be receiving no satisfaction from baseball’s response—if baseball responds at all.

Update (7-12-12): Valverde says he was just wiping sweat from his face.

Update (7-13-12): MLB has spoken with the Tigers, with no apparent ramifications.

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