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.

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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.

Cheating, Oakland A's, Pine Tar

Give a Man Some Pine Tar and He’ll Cheat for a Day; Show Him How to Cheat and He’ll Cheat for a Lifetime

Cheat to Win

So Dallas Braden says that not only did he use foreign substances while pitching, but the A’s had a full-blown cheating station in spring training, to show guys how it’s done, conveyor-belt style.

Both GM Billy Beane and pitching coach Curt Young denied any knowledge, of course, but those types of denials are part of their job descriptions. Until John Farrell’s call for a universally approved substance comes to fruition, a cheating station might serve the likes of Will Smith and Brian Matusz pretty well.

Cheating, Pine Tar

What’s a Little Pine Tar Between Friends?

Matusz

People talked a lot about subterfuge last week, and how failing to hide one’s foreign substances crosses a pitcher’s line of demarcation between competitive behavior and outright cheating. On Monday, Orioles right-hander Brian Matusz was suspended eight games for “hiding” a foreign substance on his arm two days earlier against the Marlins. (Watch it here.) He was the second guy in a week to be so outed.

In so doing, Marlins manager Dan Jennings went against what has become an avalanche of everybody-does-it opinions, but don’t let his  lack of experience at the position belie the fact that there’s more to this scenario than tacky balls. Tighter grip means more control (which hitters like from a pitcher), but it also means tighter spin on breaking balls, which provides a distinct competitive advantage.

The prevailing theory of acceptability is that a pitcher who’s hidden a substance thoroughly on his body will go to it only when necessary—when he finds a given baseball particularly difficult to grip. When he puts the stuff right out in the open, however, it indicates something far more brazen. At that point, his behavior is a matter of course; instead of merely helping to maintain control, it becomes a prevailing method and a competitive advantage. Under those circumstances it needs to be tamped down. Which seems only reasonable.

Cheating, Pine Tar

Stick With Me, Baby, And I’ll Stick With You

Smith arm

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.

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.

Cheating, Pine Tar

Yankees Somehow Forget to Tell Pineda Not to Be Stupid. Red Sox Help Out

This one’s on the rest of the Yankees.

When Michael Pineda was caught by TV cameras with pine tar on his palm last week in a game against Boston, talk centered around whether use of pine tar is even considered cheating, and why the Red Sox opted not to have him prosecuted for it.

John Farrell seems to be viewing it similarly to the way many in the game approach opponents stealing signs from the basepaths: It’s hardly egregious, and every team does it to some degree—but when you’re caught, you have to stop … or at least make it less obvious.

Pineda failed on both counts.

It was under Farrell’s watch last week that Pineda was first caught, and Farrell was again in the opposing dugout when Pineda tried it again yesterday—this time with the substance on his neck. The manager was right in letting it slide the first time, and he was right in putting a stop to it the second, with the operating theory being, Guy’s dumb enough to get caught twice, he deserves whatever he gets. (Watch it play out here.)

(Farrell himself said in his pregame presser, “I expect that if it’s used, it’s more discreet than the last time.” Can’t be much more clear—or accommodating—than that.)

Where were the rest of the Yankees after the first incident? Who took the youngster aside and tutored him in the high art of pitch doctoring, or at least the lesser art of simply laying low?

The Captain could have said something, but Jeter’s not a pitcher. C.C. Sabathia has certainly been around long enough, but either kept to himself or did not promote sufficient urgency in his tutoring. The team’s next two most prominent starters are from Japan, and may have either little experience with pine tar, or little enough comfort with either the language or their standing in the clubhouse to lecture on the subject.

This is where a leadership void comes at a cost. (Joe Girardi, we’re looking at you.) Pineda faces a 10-game suspension, minimum. It’s difficult to picture things playing out like this on Yankees teams of recent vintage featuring the likes of Pettitte, Cone, Wells and Clemens. Some of them may have lectured Pineda about knocking it off, while others whispered hints about how to do it right.

It’s rare to see such a clear example of the importance of team leadership. The Yankees dropped the ball on this one.

Exactly.