Two trains of thought here. One is that foreign substances—particularly of the tacky (as opposed to viscous) variety—are commonplace among the ranks of pitchers, used to increase grip on the baseball. It can help slightly with performance (more tightly spun breaking pitches), but also helps prevent balls from slipping out of the hand, which in turn means fewer inadvertently hit batters. Most hitters are willing to take that trade-off. With all that in mind, there is protocol for those who take exception to such practices. Verbal warnings are a start.
On the other hand, a pitcher so stupid as to wear the stuff right out in the open deserves whatever the hell he gets.
Debate is open whether Brewers reliever Will Smith deserved it on Thursday, but he certainly got it.
Smith entered the game in the seventh, with his team trailing Atlanta, 2-1, and promptly hit the first batter he faced, Pedro Ciriaco. Against his second batter, Jace Peterson, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez requested the pitcher be checked. Smith was subsequently ejected. (Watch it here.)
Was Gonzalez correct? He said that he had been aware of the substance from the start, but waited until he saw Smith go to it before alerting the umpires. Any history of Smith and/or the Brewers cheating against Atlanta has so far gone unreported; if it exists, Gonzalez had every right to do what he did. Otherwise, however, he’d have been better served to utilize less formal methods. The reality is that there are pitchers on Gonzalez’s own staff who turn to the tack (because there are pitchers on every staff who use the stuff), who now must exercise undue caution when playing Milwaukee.
This is hardly the first time this topic has come up over recent years.
- When then-Nationals manager Davey Johnson had Rays reliever Joel Peralta ejected for similar reasons in 2012, the reaction was similar (and carried the added intrigue of Perralta having once played for the Nationals, who presumably knew all his secrets).
- When Boston’s Clay Buchholz was spotted with the stuff by a TV crew in 2013, it caused a stir, but his opponents that day, the Blue Jays, opted to say nothing. Being outed on TV is punishment enough; Buchholz had little choice but to dial back that vein of proclivities.
- Michael Pineda was caught with pine tar last season, and then caught again. Michael Pineda is stupid.
The best example comes from the 2006 World Series, in which Cardinals manager Tony La Russa had the umpires request that Tigers starter Kenny Rogers clean an obvious patch of pine tar from his palm, but did not request that they check—and subsequently eject—the pitcher. In that case, a warning sufficed. Rogers cleaned his hand and everybody moved right along.
Not so in Atlanta. Smith insisted that the substance on his arm was a combination of rosin and sunscreen,a fairly typical concoction for pitchers. (The part where he said that he forgot to clean it off before entering the game holds less water.) Brewers manager Craig Counsell said on MLB.com that he couldn’t imagine a scenario in which he would call out an opponent in such a matter. “It happens everywhere in the league,” he said. “And it happens on his team, too.”
Ulitmately for Gonzalez—who himself admitted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “every pitcher does it”—it came down to conspicuousness. “Just hide it better next time,” he said.
Despite a pissed-off Smith, who left the field screaming curses at the Atlanta dugout, this incident does not merit retaliation in any way beyond possible eye-for-an-eye gamesmanship. Knowing that, Braves pitchers better make sure that for the six games remaining against Atlanta this season they’re on their best, and least tacky, behavior.