Gamesmanship, Sticky stuff

Gamesmanship In Baseball’s New Age And The Reality Of Unintended Consequences

Gamesmanship has always had a role in baseball. With a sport so deliberate, psychological ploys can find space to breathe, and those that work go down in lore. I devoted an entire chapter to the topic in The Baseball Codes, covering everything from deking runners to the hidden-ball trick.

A favorite story that didn’t make the book involved Pete Rose showing up to the 1978 All-Star Game with a batch of Japanese baseballs provided by his sponsor, Mizuno. The foreign balls were slightly smaller and more tightly wound than their North American counterparts, and traveled farther when hit. Rose convinced his NL teammates to use them during batting practice, and to keep it a secret. He then talked a number of American League players into watching their opponents take some cuts.

Using the smaller balls, the National Leaguers put on a show, blasting drive after drive over the spacious outfield in San Diego. When they were done, they took care to collect all the balls and return them to their clubhouse. Using standard major league baseballs for their own batting practice, the American Leaguers had a much rougher go of things.

How much impact the psyche job had is unknown, but one thing is definite: Rose and his NL teammates won their seventh All-Star Game in a row, 7-3.

***

Today, we are in a new era of gamesmanship based around baseball’s recent obsession with sticky stuff. Not long ago—like, even a week—managers hewed strongly to a tradition that prevented them from asking umpires to inspect the opposing pitcher for hidden substances like pine tar. Because umps did not possess the power to initiate such examinations on their own, this was the only way that pitchers could be checked.

Because every team had players who utilized similar tactics, checking the opponent was a surefire way to have your own pitcher tossed from the game at some point in the future. Restraint from the practice was a matter of self-preservation.

No longer.

Now that umpires are required to examine every pitcher, sometimes at multiple points during a game, managers seem to have eased up when it comes to their own approach to the issue. At least Phillies skipper Joe Girardi has.

On Tuesday, after Washington’s Max Scherzer had already been checked twice by umpires, per league mandate, Girardi stepped up the attention in the fourth inning after he noticed the pitcher run his hand through his hair while on the mound. The manager’s postgame explanation involved the suspicion that Scherzer was hiding some sort of substance there, based in part on Girardi never having noticed Scherzer self-toussle like that.

In many corners, however, people suggested that Girardi was merely trying to rattle the pitcher, who had been visibly annoyed during his previous searches.

Gamesmanship.

***

Grover Cleveland Alexander’s strikeout of Tony Lazzeri to snuff out a bases-loaded rally in Game 7 of the 1926 World Series is an iconic baseball moment. Less remembered is the detail that when Alexander—39 years old and having pitched a complete-game victory over the Yankees only a day earlier—was called in from the bullpen, he took his time getting to the mound. Like, he really took his time.

By that point in his career, Alexander was unflappable. He also knew that Lazzeri, while coming off of an excellent season, was a 22-year-old rookie who had never before faced such pressure. As Les Bell said in Peter Golenbock’s Spirit of St. Louis, “At that moment, [Lazzeri] was a youngster up against a master.”

Alexander’s extra-languorous stroll to the mound very intentionally gave Lazzeri extra time to think. And as we all learned from Bull Durham, thinking is not a ballplayer’s ally. It was pure gamesmanship, intended to get an opponent off of his mark, and it worked. Lazzeri fanned, rally snuffed and lead maintained, Alexander pitched two more shutout innings to clinch the title for St. Louis.

***

For Scherzer, the reality was that he had just inadvertently thrown a 1-2 pitch toward the head of Nationals hitter Alec Bohm, which Bohm had only narrowly managed to avoid, and was desperate to find some extra tack to help him grip the ball. Rosin is legal on a big league mound, but without a mixing agent Scherzer was stuck. It was a cool night, and the right-hander wasn’t sweating much. In fact, the only place he could find some accumulated moisture was under his cap. So he ran his hand through his hair.

After the right-hander threw two straight strikes to whiff Bohm, Girardi pounced.

Here’s the thing about gamesmanship: It works best when an opponent has a weakness to exploit. For Scherzer, it was twofold. One is that he’s an avowed supporter of tack, and has already been named in an ongoing drama that involves Angeles clubhouse man Bubba Harkins providing sticky substances for players around the league. The other part has to do with a groin injury that cost the pitcher nearly two weeks, during which time MLB announced its no-tolerance policy. Monday’s start was Scherzer’s first since June 11, and he’d had only one bullpen session to prepare for his new, tack-free reality.

Was Girardi pointedly trying to exploit these details? He vehemently denied it, but the Nationals don’t seem to believe him.

***

On May 29, 1974, Minnesota’s Jerry Terrell came to the plate at Fenway Park with runners at the corners and one out in the top of the 13th inning. The score was 4-4. As Red Sox pitcher Diego Segui went into his windup, Terrell bent down to grab some dirt from the batter’s box—a trick he’d learned as an amateur to lure a pitcher into halting his delivery. Such a tactic isn’t legal in the big leagues, with rule 4.06(a)—falling under the Unsportsmanlike Conduct category—specifically prohibiting the calling of time while a ball is in play “for the obvious purpose of trying to make the pitcher commit a balk.”

On that day, umpires didn’t catch it. Segui paused, the balk was called, and what would be the winning run crossed the plate.

Gamesmanship won again.

***

As Scherzer finished the inning, Nationals coaches—clearly unimpressed with Girardi’s strategy, be it gamesmanship or a genuine suspicion that Scherzer was cheating—unloaded on the manager. So too did Scherzer, who stared daggers into the Phillies dugout as he walked off of the field. Upon reaching his bench, he repeatedly showed Girardi his cap and glove, shouting, “They’re clean! They’re clean!” as he mockingly ran his hand through his hair.

When Washington hitting coach Kevin Long—formerly on Girardi’s staff with the Yankees—continued the verbal assault, Girardi stormed the field ready to fight, and ended up ejected. Later, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo called Girardi “a con artist.”

There is an old story from the early part of the 20th century involving a fastball pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals who was giving the Pirates fits. Pittsburgh shortstop Honus Wagner’s solution was, while batting, to catch one of those fastballs barehanded and insouciantly toss it back to the mound. With two strikes in the count the umpire called Wagner out, but the tactic worked. According to legend, anyway, the pitcher walked the next five hitters.

Girardi’s ploy, whatever its motivations, did not have a similar effect. Scherzer walked the next batter following his mound inspection, but retired five straight after that to earn his sixth win of the year in a 3-2 Nationals victory.

The main question we’re faced with now is whether Girardi’s con (if it actually was a con) will take root. Max Scherzer is too stout a pitcher, both mentally and physically, to be trapped by such shenanigans (if they actually were shenanigans), but other pitchers—especially in a league dominated by 20-something-year-old relievers—are more suspect.

Just as MLB rules prohibit a hitter from calling time in order to discombobulate a pitcher, so too do they prohibit a manager from executing a substance check for similar reasons. The umpire’s in Tuesday’s game, in fact, conferred before checking Scherzer, to confirm the validity of Girardi’s point.

That alone is an endorsement for the purity of the manager’s motivation. Whether he should have done what he did is a different story, however, as is the fact that such a tactic has now been inexorably planted into the heads of every coaching staff in baseball. If Billy Martin can wait until the right moment to have the umpires check George Brett’s bat, you can bet that there’s somebody out there right now anticipating a key spot in an upcoming pennant race to pull this particular card from his back pocket.

We can only sit back and watch the fireworks explode when he does.

Cheating, Pine Tar

As Pine Tar Enforcement Comes To The Fore, (Alleged) Pine Tar Pitchers Struggle

Trevor Bauer seemed to have it all figured out. He spent years haranguing Major League Baseball about its substance-abuse problem—the substance in question being pine tar and other, more powerful tack—that enables pitchers to increase spin rate to astronomical degrees. He went so far as to write about it in the Players’ Tribune.

When baseball effectively ignored him, Bauer announced publicly that he would try the tactic himself, for an inning in April 2018, and found immediate success.

When baseball continued to not give a shit, the right-hander adopted the practice whole hog last year, winning a Cy Young Award and $100 million over three seasons from the Dodgers.

Bauer’s stated plan: Continue to tack up for as long as baseball ignores it, and stop once effective policing begins. Which is what he wanted in the first place.

Accordingly, details came down over the weekend about MLB’s new stance toward pitcher tack, and the policy, if reports are accurate, seems to have teeth.

According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, proposals include eight-to-10 random checks of pitchers per game, with starters being checked at least twice as they depart the field so as to minimize disruption. Position players might also be checked, though not in so prevalent a fashion. Current penalties involve 10-game suspensions, which are still on the table.

Those who pay attention to such things could see this coming. Earlier this season MLB confiscated a number of balls from one of Bauer’s starts. In May, umpire Joe West took Giovanny Gallegos’ cap due to a discoloration on the brim. This week, Sports Illustrated published a cover story calling sticky stuff “The new steroids,” and hitters across the league have been speaking out on the topic.

Are pitchers paying attention? Let’s turn back to Bauer, who yesterday faced Atlanta with what we can assume to be a diminished supply of sticky stuff on his person. The tell: Entering the game, the average spin rate of Bauer’s four-seam fastball was 2,835 RPM; yesterday he averaged only 2,612 RPM.

Between 2017 and 2019—the seasons prior to what appears to be to be Bauer’s headfirst dive into stickiness—his spin rate climbed from 2,227 to 2,410. Yesterday’s diminished numbers were still significantly higher than that. Does this indicate the right-hander is still using tack, only not as heavily or as frequently as before? Could be. Also noteworthy: Since 2019, Bauer has all but abandoned his changeup, which spins the least of any of his pitches, and which he once considered a useful tool against left-handed batters.

This was all in evidence yesterday, when Bauer yielded three runs on six hits over six innings. It was the most hits he’s allowed this year, and tied for the most earned runs. Notably, Bauer also issued four walks, double his season average, while striking out seven, less than his season average. Opponents had hit .150 against him on the year; yesterday, Atlanta batters hit .250.

Also, Bauer had at least occasional trouble finding the zone.

Afterward, reporters brought up the topic of sticky stuff with the pitcher. “I’ve made a lot of public comments,” Bauer replied. “If you want to go research it and make your own decision, go for it.” When asked about the cause for the RPM drop, the pitcher was cagey in his response: “I don’t know. Hot, humid day in Atlanta.”

This is the reason most pitchers give for adding illegal tack. In humidity, as well as in cold weather, gripping a baseball becomes more difficult, and pitchers—those who admit to it, anyway—say that an extra dollop of pine tar or the like can help bring them back to normal. For a guy like Bauer, it can help transform a 4.48 ERA in 2019 to a 1.73 ERA in 2020.

Bauer’s hardly alone. On Thursday, Gerritt Cole—who appears to be a personal target of Bauer, and who has been named in court about this stuff—allowed five runs over five innings against the Rays. His spin rate was down across the board, especially on his fastball, which dropped from 2,552 RPM on the season to 2,436. (In 2017, Cole’s last year in Pittsburgh, his four-seam spin averaged 2,164. His first season with Houston he improved that by about 200 RPM. The following year he improved it again by a similar amount.)

Bauer and Cole, of course, are merely two prominent representatives of a widespread practice that has driven offense into a hole. This season, major leaguers are hitting a collective .237, a development that nobody apart from active pitchers can fully embrace.

“I just want to compete on a fair playing field,” Bauer said yesterday, in an Orange County Register report that contains a host of vibrant quotes. “I’ll say it again. That’s been the point this entire time.”

Should Trevor Bauer become human again, that’d be just fine—so long as the rest of baseball’s superman pitchers do, too.

Cheating, Pine Tar

Cards Cap Controversy Causes Shildt to Decry Crooked Criteria

The stain was right there for all to see, on television no less, an outlawed substance used by pitchers to help them grip—and spin—baseballs. The pitcher in question had been dominant of late, and Tony La Russa had seen enough. He asked the umpires to do something about it.

Sound familiar?

La Russa was in the opposite dugout yesterday when St. Louis reliever Giovanny Gallegos was stopped by umpire Joe West before he could throw a pitch after entering the game against the White Sox in the seventh inning. At issue was the right-hander’s cap, which bore a visible smudge atop the brim—pine tar, to judge by the educated guesses to follow. West took the cap, Gallegos got a new one and the game continued apace.

That’s not what we were talking about in the first paragraph, though. What we were talking about in the first paragraph happened in 2006, during the second game of the World Series. La Russa was managing the Cardinals at the time, and his opponent—Detroit Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers—had some literally shady things going on.

The tell—a brown-hued discoloration on Rogers’ palm—was so obvious that Joe Buck and Tim McCarver discussed it at length on the telecast. It wasn’t long before La Russa got involved.

The consequences were enormous. At age 41, Rogers had dominated opponents throughout those playoffs despite an All-Star career that had come to be defined by postseason failure. From The Baseball Codes:

“In five wretched playoff starts prior to 2006, Rogers was 0-2, with a 10.26 ERA (plus another loss pitch­ing in relief for the Mets in 1999, when he walked in the winning run of the NLCS), not once making it out of the fifth inning. So it was some­thing of a surprise when, in 2006’s earlier rounds, Rogers ran off fourteen consecutive scoreless frames against the Yankees and Athletics. When footage from those starts was reviewed, the same brown smudge showed up on the same spot on his palm. What else could it be?”

The Rogers controversy begins at the 6:47 mark.

Only two seasons earlier, La Russa’s own pitcher, Julian Tavarez, had been suspended 10 games for having pine tar on his cap. The manager, clearly willing to accept a certain level of cheating, was unwilling to turn those particular tables. Rather than have Rogers checked—which could have led to ejection and suspension—La Russa, decrying what he later termed “bullshit baseball,” merely requested that umpires have the pitcher clean his hands. Which he did.

At that point, Rogers did the only thing he could reasonably do—15 postseason shutout innings with an obvi­ous foreign substance were followed by seven shutout innings without it. After washing up he allowed only two hits over eight shutout innings in a Tigers victory, evening the Series at a game apiece.

Maybe we’d remember it better if that hadn’t been Rogers’ only appearance of the Series—the Cardinals won the next three to take the title in five—but the core components are similar to those spurring Wednesday’s controversy. Pitchers continue to use tacky, illegal substances to increase grip and, subsequently, spin. The primary difference is that they’re doing it more frequently and with less impunity and—this part is key—far more effectively than ever. It has become Trevor Bauer’s league, with artificially induced spin rate leading to an unending stream of 97-mph fastballs with unhittable movement, supplemented by equally unhittable sliders and other breaking stuff.

To Gallegos’ credit, he earned five outs in the span of 16 pitches against Chicago, even without his suspect cap.

This year the commissioner’s office said that it would be cracking down on such things, but apart from pulling a few balls from an early-season Bauer start for examination—about which we have subsequently heard not a peep—Wednesday’s Great Cap Confiscation was pretty much the first sign that anybody in charge is paying attention.

Afterward, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt went off on the discrepancy.

“This is baseball’s dirty little secret,” he told reporters. “And it’s the wrong time and the wrong arena to expose it.”

Shildt spoke for the better part of 10 minutes, all of which are worth watching. His primary points included:

* Pitchers throughout the league use a sunscreen/rosin combination, or something similar, to increase their grip on the baseball. Hitters don’t mind because it helps with control, and nobody wants to get inadvertently drilled. What hitters don’t like, he said, is “the stuff that’s making the ball do wiffle ball stuff.” Based on yesterday’s action, some hitters are themselves starting to speak up.

* Some pitchers are getting away with far more devious things, in far more overt manners and to far greater effect, and haven’t been stymied by the league at all. The manager didn’t call out Bauer by name, but Bauer is clearly who Shildt was talking about.

Some highlights of the manager’s rant:

  • “Gio wears the same hat all year. Hats accrue dirt. Hats accrue substances, stuff. We pitched him in a day game. Did Gio have some sunscreen at some point in his career to make sure he doesn’t get some kind of melanoma? Possibly. Does he use rosin to help? Possibly. Are these things baseball really wants to crack down on? No. It’s not. I know that completely firsthand from the commissioner’s office. That is not anything that is going to affect his ability to compete.”
  • “There are people that are effectively not even trying to hide, essentially flipping the bird at the league with how they’re cheating in this game with concocted substances. There are players that have been monetized for it. There are players that are obviously doing it, going to their glove. There’s clear video of it. You can tell the pitchers that are doing it because they don’t want to go to their mouth, which Gio does off the rubber.”
  • “Major League Baseball is trying their best to [police] this in a manner that doesn’t create any black eyes for the integrity of the game that we love. But speaking of integrity, how about the integrity of the guys that are doing it clean? How about the guys that are pitching their tails off in MLB that are doing it clean and have an unfair competitive advantage for the guys who are clearly loading up concoctions that they actually advertise, don’t do anything to hide, even in plain view? That’s the guys I’m speaking for. I’m speaking the hitters who have a living to make based against stuff that’s already very, very good.”

Ultimately, this is exactly what Bauer wanted. He came out against overt cheating a couple of years back, complained that MLB wasn’t doing anything to curb it, began overtly cheating himself in order to prove his point, and ended up winning a Cy Young Award. If baseball continues to do nothing, Bauer seems content to continue his domination. If baseball cracks down, then the pitcher will have achieved what he asked for in the first place.

Yesterday, Tony La Russa had nothing to do with Gallegos’s cap being confiscated. That was all Joe West, with an assist from second-base umpire Dan Bellino, who initially spotted the discoloration. In fact, La Russa’s position seems to be entirely consistent with where he stood 15 years ago regarding Kenny Rogers. He is an old-school manager, and the old school says that there’s nothing wrong with a little pine tar on a baseball.

What we still don’t know, based on this season’s withering response, is whether MLB agrees.

Cheating, Pine Tar

Pine-Tar-In-The-Clubhouse Lawsuit Means That We Might Get To Hear Some Juicy Secrets Soon

http://www.imagecreator.co.uk

Pitchers and catchers are still a month away from reporting (assuming that spring training comes off as planned), and we’re already talking about pine tar and other banned substances in meaningful ways.

For that we can thank Brian Harkins, the former visiting clubhouse manager for the Los Angeles Angels, who’d been on the job since 1990 but was fired back on March 3 for providing pine tar and other sordid material to opposing pitchers, “as a courtesy,” he said. Now, he’s suing.

This is just starting to unroll, and already it’s juicy. Harkins is claiming to have been scapegoated in violation of labor laws, and that the substances he provided have been tacitly approved by Major League Baseball inasmuch as there has never been a focused crackdown on their usage. There is something to the idea that team employees should know better than to help the opposition in that kind of way, but on Harkins’ latter point he is unequivocally correct. Pine tar can be found in every dugout in the league, and unless a pitcher has blatantly ignored the simple courtesy of trying to be subtle about using it, the commissioner’s office hasn’t done a damn thing about it, pretty much ever.

When MLB moved to dismiss the suit, Harkins ratcheted up the heat, claiming that a veritable All-Star roster of pitchers—including Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber and Justin Verlander—use the type of stuff he was canned for providing. Harkins said that he was taught to mix rosin and pine tar into a potent concoction back in 2005 by a pitcher believed to be Troy Percival. The smoking-gun piece of evidence he provided for his larger claims was a text from Gerrit Cole in 2019 in which the then-Astro asked about getting hooked up:

“Hey Bubba, it’s Gerrit Cole, I was wondering if you could help me out with this sticky situation. We don’t see you until May, but we have some road games in April that are in cold weather places. The stuff I had last year seizes up when it gets cold.”

Harkins’ point is the same one that I made in The Baseball Codes back in 2010, which was true long before I wrote it and which has been true ever since: tacky substances like pine tar help pitchers grip the ball in cold or wet conditions, which is essential in their line of work. As guys like Trevor Bauer have recently pointed out, pine tar also helps spin rate, which helps movement, which helps pitchers succeed.

And they will do it with or without the likes of Brian Harkins.

The real story here is the timing, which leads to an easy conclusion of hypocrisy. Last spring, in the wake of the Astros sign-stealing scandal, MLB announced that it would be strictly enforcing (maybe for the first time) rule 8.02, prohibiting pitchers from loading up baseballs with any kind of foreign substance. Sign stealing had been going on for decades, but it took the Astros breaking the system for the league to crack down on it. Apparently cheating is cheating, and substances are banned, and MLB has an image to maintain.

One week after that announcement, Harkins was fired. Now he’s in court, demanding a jury trial.

It is clearly in MLB’s best interest to settle this thing (something the Angels should have considered, perhaps, before firing the guy), because if it does go to court we’ll get to see how much more of the iceberg is submerged beneath Harkins’ claims.

Cheating

More Pine Tar Found In New York. It Continues To Not Be Much Of An Issue

We have the season’s second incident of a pitcher being too brazen for his own good. In April, it was Noah Syndergaard. On Wednesday it was Seattle left-hander Yusei Kikuchi. Their problem: not hiding pine tar well enough.

For Kikuchi, there was so much stuff slathered beneath the bill of his cap that fans in the second deck of Yankee Stadium were screaming for the umpire to check him. Fans, however, don’t have the power to make that request. Yankees manager Aaron Boone did, and opted against it.

Meanwhile, Kikuchi had a no-hitter through five innings and pitched into the eighth as the Mariners won, 10-1.

Pine tar, of course, adds grip for a pitcher. Where a slippery substance like Vaseline lends movement by removing spin from the baseball, pine tar can help (to lesser degrees) by increasing snapability. For somebody like Kikuchi, whose success depends on placement of breaking pitches, it can make a difference. The result of Wednesday’s game is evidence. (Whereas somebody like Syndergaard may have been tempted to use it during a frigid game in April, the Seattle Times informs us that Kikuchi might use it because he sweats a lot.)

So why didn’t the Yankees make a stink? Because, as we know by now, pitchers on virtually every team use pine tar—if not more nefarious substances—and rare is the manager who wants to get into an escalating battle of if-you-check-my-pitcher-then-I’ll-check-yours.

From my post about Syndergaard a few weeks back:

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.”

MLB didn’t even comment on the matter, let alone take action. Yankees outfielder Cameron Maybin may as well have been speaking for everybody when he said after the game (via NJ.com). “Nobody noticed it, nobody said anything. We’ve got a lot bigger worries, trying to manufacture runs, trying to get on base, but I don’t think that had anything to do with it.”

Kikuchi has been in the big leagues for less than two months. He clearly knows how to cheat. Now he just has to learn to be more subtle about it.

Cheating, Pine Tar

Things Getting Grippy In Philly For Thor

Syndergaard

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.

Cheating, Gamesmanship

Baez’s Attempt To Hug It Out Almost Saved Chicago’s Season

Javy hugs

As the game wore through extra innings last night in Chicago, the Cubs grew increasingly desperate to score. They’d left the winning run stranded at third in the eighth, and had another runner in the ninth they could not advance.

Then, with one out in the 11th, with Javy Baez at second and Daniel Murphy at first, Wilson Contreras topped a grounder to Nolan Arenado at third base. It was a great chance for the rocket-armed fielder to double up the gimpy-legged Contreras—who only moments earlier had precipitated a minutes-long delay when his left calf muscle cramped—and end the inning.

Instead, Baez, baseball’s most creative player, wrapped up Arenado in a bear hug as the tag was applied. It was, on the surface, a friendly gesture, Arenado responding with a smile and a hug of his own. The idea of doubling up Contreras was lost, especially to an umpiring crew who detected no hint of malfeasance from the victim.

It made no difference in the end, as the next batter, Victor Caratini, grounded out to end the inning, and the Rockies went on to win in 13. Had Murphy ended up scoring from second, however, Baez’s hug would have gone down as an indelible moment in what would have been a Chicago victory.

I have a book about the 1981 Dodgers, called They Bled Blue, coming out next March. What jumped out to me in relation to Baez’s hug was a moment from the 1978 World Series that I describe in the introduction. The Dodgers led the series two games to one, and were ahead in Game 4, 3-1, in the sixth inning. Then the Yankees put two men on base—Thurman Munson at second and Reggie Jackson at first—against Dodgers starter Tommy John. That brought up Lou Piniella. From They Bled Blue:

Piniella tapped a humpbacked liner up the middle, which Bill Russell, moving to his left, reached in plenty of time for the putout. The shortstop, however—whose nervous glove had long belied his supreme athleticism—was coming off a season in which he’d finished third in the National League in errors. He nearly made another one here, the ball clanking off his mitt, a miscue that looked inconsequential when it rolled directly toward second base, allowing Russell to snatch it up three steps from the bag and race over to force Jackson for the inning’s second out . . . which is where things got interesting.

With Russell having been in position to catch the ball on the fly, both runners had retreated to their bases of origin. Munson, in fact, made such a belated start toward third that had the shortstop thought to reach to his right upon gathering in the loose baseball, he might well have been able to tag him then and there. Russell didn’t, of course, because there was no need: an accurate relay to first base—which the shortstop provided, firing a bullet to Steve Garvey in plenty of time to retire Piniella—would complete an inning-ending double-play. There was, however, an impediment: Jackson, having backtracked, was rooted in the baseline only steps away from first. As the throw rocketed toward its intended target, Reggie did the only thing he could to extend the inning—he leaned ever so slightly toward right field, his hip jutting out just far enough to deflect the throw, which bounced off him and toward the grandstand alongside the Yankees dugout, allowing Munson to score.

The Dodgers screamed interference. Tommy Lasorda speed-waddled onto the field, tobacco juice dribbling onto his chin as he argued at top volume with umpires Frank Pulli and Joe Brinkman. Pulli, stationed at first, later admitted that his view of the base runner had been obstructed and that he had little idea whether Jackson might have intentionally interfered with the ball. Brinkman said that he’d been looking at second base to call the force-out when the ball hit Reggie . . . or, depending on your rooting interests, when Reggie hit the ball.

The play might have been dirty, but there’s no denying that it was smart. Had Jackson done nothing, the inning would have been over. The frame would similarly have ended had Reggie been called for interference, as he should have been. As it was, though, he got away with it, allowing Munson to close New York’s deficit to 3–2, The Sporting News later calling it “one of the shrewdest and most significant plays” in World Series history. Had Jackson not done what he did, Tommy John—whose previous two starts were a four-hit shutout over Philadelphia in the National League Championship Series and LA’s victory over the Yankees in the first game of the World Series—would have been in the middle of another four-hitter, trying to protect a two-run lead in the late innings. Instead, with the Dodgers clinging to a one-run advantage, Lasorda pulled the left-hander after Paul Blair’s leadoff single in the eighth. Two batters later, reliever Terry Forster allowed a game-tying double to Munson, and the game went to extra innings. New York won it in the 10th, and the Dodgers, instead of being one win from a Series victory, found things knotted at two games apiece. It wrecked them.

The Yankees, of course, went on to win that World Series. Things didn’t work out so well for Baez, but it is likely that his hug was specifically intended to curtail the possibility of Aranado ending the inning with a double-play. If that’s the case, one could—as with Reggie, 40 years earlier— fault his sense of fair play. Just like Reggie, of course, Baez’s was a winning proposition with no attendant downside, and the possible upside of being a game-winner.

There’s a reason he’s one of the savviest players in baseball.

Cheating

Todd Frazier, Master Magician, Makes Baseballs Appear Out Of Thin Air

Frazer dives

On Monday in Los Angeles, Mets third baseman Todd Frazier barreled into the stands along the third base line to make a spectacular catch of a foul ball. He returned to the field, held it aloft, absorbed the “out” call from umpire Mark Wegner, and tossed the ball into the stands.

It was, of course, a sham. Frazier muffed the catch as he hit the seats, out of view of both Wegner and the TV cameras, but had the wherewithal to grab another ball nearby, made of white rubber, which he subsequently displayed as proof of his catch. Upon returning it to the crowd, Frazier effectively erased all evidence of his malfeasance. Only through the crack reporting of SportsNet New York were we even able to discern that something untoward had taken place.

So: Was Frazier cheating? In baseball, where this kind of ploy has longstanding history, the answer is an unqualified no. George Bamberger summed it up neatly when he said, “A guy who cheats in a friendly game of cards is a cheater. A pro who throws a spitball to support his family is a competitor.”

There is plenty a competitor can do to fool an umpire. Outfielders hold aloft balls they know they’ve trapped. Batters who haven’t been hit by inside pitches jump back in feigned pain. Even Frazier’s tactic of switching baseballs isn’t original.

During the second inning of a spring training game in 1966, San Francisco’s Jim Ray Hart smashed a drive to the wall at Phoenix Municipal Stadium; in trying to chase it down, Cubs center fielder Byron Browne crashed into the wall. Despite the ball having bounced far away from the collapsed fielder, Browne somehow—without moving from his spot—picked it up and threw it to shortstop Don Kessinger, who relayed it to third base ahead of the hard-charging Hart. Umpire Mel Steiner called the runner out.

Players in the Giants dugout found the play to be curious. Willie Mays, paying close attention, quickly identified the problem. “He threw the wrong ball!” he yelled. “The wrong ball!”

In fact, Browne had gathered up a ball that had somehow gone uncollected from the outfield after batting practice, which happened to lie within arm’s reach of where he’d landed. Were it a regular-season game, perhaps he wouldn’t have attempted this. Were it a regular-season game, perhaps his teammates wouldn’t have tried quite so hard to cover it up. As it was, left fielder George Altman, while running over to check on Browne, pocketed the real ball.

At the behest of Giants manager Herman Franks, the umpires began a search of Cubs players. Behind his back, Altman passed the ball to second baseman Glenn Beckert, who in turn shoved it into the pocket of trainer Joe Proski.

When plate ump Stan Landes compared the grass-stained practice ball with which the putout was made with the spotless white one that was eventually confiscated from Proski, he sent Hart back to second with a ground-rule double.

“All I know is that I hit the fence and bounced away and there was a ball right there, so I threw it,” Browne said after the game in an AP report. Altman similarly admitted to his coverup with the real baseball, telling reporters that “I didn’t know what to do with it, so I put it in my pocket.”

As for the current imbroglio, Frazier admitted on Wednesday to his indiscretion, calling it “unbelievable.”

“I was flabbergasted that I even got away with it,” he told reporters. “It was one of those things where any third baseman—or any player—trying to win, if there’s a ball in front of you, you try to play it out. You do it as a little kid with your dad and mom, or your buddy down the street.”

Or in front of a stadium full of people and TV cameras. Either way, that’s baseball.

Cheating, Pine Tar

Stick Around, Why Don’t You?: Yadi’s Magic Chest Protector Draws Attention in Unwanted Ways

Molina sticky ball

Pee Wee Reese would load up spitballs for Don Drysdale, away from the watchful eye of umpires.

Yankees catcher Elston Howard was said to have sharpened the buckles on his shin guards, which he used to gouge baseballs as he drew back his arm for return throws to the pitcher.

Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills kept an emery board in his glove with which to scuff balls before returning them to the mound. Reds shortstop Davey Concepcion was rumored to have a bent eyelet on his glove’s heel for much the same purpose.

There were first basemen who put tacks in their gloves and third basemen who put Vaseline on their palms to offer assistance in the same, surreptitious vein.

So should we be surprised, really, if Yadier Molina is doing something similar for his pitchers?

That’s the simplest explanation for what happened yesterday, when a pitch from Brett Cecil bounced in front of the plate and ended up adhered to Molina’s chest protector as the increasingly frantic catcher looked around for the lost baseball. Application of pine tar helps pitchers increase the movement of breaking pitches (which Cecil’s offering was), but it also tends to make things … sticky.

(Watch the whole thing here.)

Yadi knows exactly what happened. So does Cecil. So, likely, does Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, himself a former catcher. When asked about it after the game, however, they offered little more than a collective Huh?

Catchers can legally apply pine tar to their shin guards, the better to increase their ability to grip the ball. It’s legal because catchers have no interest in making their own throws do funky things, and on cold or wet nights grip can be vital. Salvador Perez was outed for this very thing during the 2015 World Series, and the news barely made a ripple. Had Molina offered an excuse somewhere along those lines it would have made some sense. Instead, he said this:

“Do I put anything on my chest protector? No. That’s a dumb question.”

Which leads to the clear impression that he’s covering something up on behalf of his pitcher. Cecil didn’t comment, because Cecil took off after the game without speaking to reporters.

Upon being removed from Molina’s chest the ball left a white smudge—a clear indicator for sleuths around the ballpark. But because Cubs manager Joe Maddon never requested that the ball, Molina or Cecil be checked by the umpires, the game continued apace and everybody went on their merry ways.

If Cecil was cheating, he has a rich history of pitchers to emulate. Over just the last two seasons, Mike Fiers was accused of using pine tar during a no-hitter, Brian Matusz was suspended for hiding a foreign substance on his arm and Brewers reliever Will Smith was busted for similar reasons. There was also, of course, the infamous Michael Pineda affair, which came in two parts.

What’s left now, mostly (unless somebody in the know decides to talk) is for Cecil to knock off any extracurricular activities until the heat dies down. Same for Molina. Because, really, nobody around baseball really cares about pitchers using pine tar (there are likely some on every team who do) until the moment that public attention forces them to decry cheaters cheaters and their cheating ways.

Cheating, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, No-Hitter Etiquette, Pine Tar

Did Fiers Cheat? Should Anyone Care?

Fiers glove

Mike Fiers’ no-hitter on Friday was as notable for his opponents’ reactions as for the event itself. Any no-hitter offers a significant degree of intrigue, but this one gained steam when the television broadcast appeared to show a shiny substance on Fiers’ glove in the ninth inning, assumed to be pine tar.

Rather than bemoan their fate at the hands of a possible cheater, however, the Dodgers took the appropriate path, issuing credit where it was due and downplaying any semblance of controversy.

“I don’t want to take anything away from his night,” Carl Crawford told the Los Angeles Times. Don Mattingly said, “I think it sounds like you’re whining if you look at it and talk about it,” and added (without accusation) that pine tar use is more or less accepted unless it’s “blatantly obvious.” (Fiers, for his part, denied everything.)

Regardless of whether Fiers was using a banned substance, those in the Los Angeles clubhouse know that they have pitchers among their own ranks who do that very thing—as does every club in baseball. And if every club does it, it’s not such a catastrophe. And if it’s not such a catastrophe, why paint it as such? Mattingly respected Fiers’ feat for what it was, exactly as he should have done.

Well played, Dodgers.