We officially have our first pine-tar incident of the young season. Less of an incident, actually, than a series of suppositions borne by conspiracy theorists who are parsing two seconds’ worth of potentially incriminating tape like it’s the Zapruder film. Starring Thor.
That’s because on Monday night in Philadelphia, Noah Syndergaard appeared to dab the first two fingers of his pitching hand into the heel of his glove while on the mound, the reason for doing so—at least according to the Internet—being to apply a foreign substance to his fingertips.
It makes sense. On cold or wet nights, pine tar is a pitcher’s best friend—not to lend an advantage per se, but simply to restore whatever grip may have been lost to the conditions. Monday night in Philly saw 50-degree weather and 24-mph winds at first pitch. Things only got colder from there.
Generally speaking, hitters don’t mind a bit of pine tar around a pitcher’s mound now and again. Giving a guy who throws as hard as Syndergaard—whose four-seamer averaged almost 99 mph on Monday—an extra measure of control certainly has merit. (Then again, it can also lend snap to breaking balls, and Syndergaard’s were working nicely on Monday, to the tune of nine strikeouts in five innings—four of which came on sliders and one on a curveball.)
The issue, as pertains to Syndergaard, seems largely to be … well, let’s leave it to Philadelphia first baseman Rhys Hoskins, who explained things about as clearly as they can be explained.
“As a hitter, with a guy that throws as hard as he does, I would rather him be able to feel the ball than not,” Hoskins said in a Delco Times report. “But I think there’s some unwritten rules. Just don’t make it so obvious. Obviously that was what [Michael] Pineda did a couple of years ago, that was quite obvious. But as long as it’s not obvious … I guess? I don’t know. It makes you wonder.”
Pineda, of course, is remembered for getting caught using pine tar while with the New York Yankees in 2014, and then, only two weeks later, getting caught using it again, this time in far more spectacular fashion.
Hoskins’ confusion about the subject is understandable given the nebulous nature of enforcement. Pitchers across baseball use foreign substances, particularly pine tar, especially early and late in the season during inclement weather. Opponents almost inevitably look the other way, at least partly because they likely have pitchers on their own staffs doing similar things, with the expectation that bad behavior will be curtailed at least temporarily as a matter of goodwill should a perpetrator get caught. “Most pitchers are using it,” said an anonymous Mets player in defense of Syndergaard, in the New York Post. “Check every reliever that comes in there and you will find it.”
That’s hyperbole, but probably not by much. When Detroit’s Mike Fiers tossed a no-hitter against Los Angeles in 2015, he did so with a shiny substance that many took for pine tar adhered to his glove. Dodgers players knew all about it and didn’t say a thing. When Kenny Rogers was caught with pine tar on his hand during the 2006 World Series, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa didn’t even have him ejected, wanting only to make sure that the pitcher’s hands were clean (literally and figuratively) and that the cheating stopped. When Clay Bucholz was caught with slick stuff loaded onto his arm in 2014, his opponents—despite what seemed like the entire mediasphere piling on—refused to indict him. Bucholz was never checked, and everything proceeded more or less apace. Even the instances in which players are called out tend to back up this mindset. After Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez had Brewers reliever Will Smith tossed from a game in 2015, all he said afterward was, “Every pitcher does it—just hide it better next time.”
Hell, Pineda himself was outed by the Red Sox only after they’d carefully warned him via public comments about being so obvious about it, before he went out and did it again anyway.
This all might be why nobody on the Phillies called out Syndergaard in an official capacity during the game, leaving comments by Hoskins and manager Gabe Kapler (“Everybody becomes more aware,” he said afterward. “You just pay closer attention to it, that’s all”) to serve notice that Thor will have to play it straighter the next time around.
For a fuller look at what various substances can do, and how various pitchers feel about them, see the piece I wrote a few years back for SportsIllustrated.com, or Dirk Hayhurst’s compendium at Deadspin.