The art of subtlety is obviously lost on Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda.
In his last two starts against the Red Sox, he has come to the mound in the second inning with a glistening, brown goop on his body.
10 days ago, it was on his hand, Pineda had cleaned it off by the third inning and no one from Boston raised a big stink about it. When questioned after that game, Pineda had claimed that the brown smear was merely dirt – an insult to all of our intelligences.
Last night, it was on his neck, and so prominent that Red Sox manager John Farrell had no choice but to call him to the carpet for it. Upon inspection, home plate umpire Gerry Davis can be seen touching the substance, feeling its tackiness, mouthing “it’s pine tar”, and gently running Pineda as the rules require.
Here’s a closer view.
This time, caught red handed and brown necked, Pineda had to swallow his embarrassment and own his cheating to the media (though he claimed he had used it because he didn’t want to hit anybody).
And yes, the use of pine tar by a pitcher is cheating. Rule 8.02(b) clearly provides that pitchers can neither have any foreign substance on their person nor can they apply any foreign substance to the baseball. Pine tar is a foreign substance. Plain and simple.
From last night and into this morning, droves of columns have been penned seemingly justifying Pineda’s use of pine tar in the first place, but chastising him for being so blatantly obvious about it. There is a complacency about the “foreign substance” rule that I simply do not get.
The consensus seems to shrug its shoulders about it.
“Hey, it’s cold and the pitchers are only trying to get a better grip on the baseball. Everyone does it, anyway. The only real crime is being so obvious about it.”
First, there are means within the rules by which a pitcher can improve his grip in cold weather. There’s that rosin bag out there behind the mound, filled with a tacky powder that pitchers can load up on whenever they want and as often as they want. Pitchers are allowed to go to their mouths for moisture so long as they are not on the mound when they do. And if both managers agree, pitchers are allowed to blow on their hands while on the mound, all for the sake of getting a better feel and a better grip.
Second, if it’s true that everyone uses pine tar or something similar, that IS part of the problem; not a justification.
Craig Calcaterra over at NBC Sports’ Hardball Talk made a brilliant comparison in this morning’s article, one that I’m jealous I didn’t think of myself. He writes:
Imagine if we applied that standard to other forms of cheating. Most players who use PEDs claim with a straight face that they do so for totally legitimate reasons, separate and apart from gaining an advantage on the competition. Now, picture a guy getting busted for HGH and being met with the same sort of response the Pineda thing is getting: “Hey, a lot of guys use this stuff because they just wanna get off the disabled list more quickly, and if you do it we’re not going to care all that much. But you can’t go getting caught by George Mitchell, dummy. Jeez, what an idiot.”
I don’t think that dynamic would fly too well. So forgive me if I don’t think the conventional wisdom forming around the pine tar issue this morning is all that great.
Specifically, I don’t understand why, after a decade’s worth of hand-wringing over the moral depravity of rule-breakers, people are accepting of a situation where breaking the rule is totally fine as long as no one is being obvious about and no one is doing things to cause it to make big, controversial news. This was baseball’s original m.o. regarding PEDs, after all. Steroid use was widely known and acknowledged as something that was happening and something that was wrong, but it only became a big issue once Jose Conseco and Ken Caminiti decided to start talking about it in 2002. That approach has been soundly rejected as shameful and willful blindness on baseball’s part, and everything that has happened with PEDs since then has been a reaction to it or a correction of it.
Yet here we are again. When it comes to pine tar or other foreign substances used by pitchers, baseball seems content to look the other way until someone as indiscreet as Pineda literally forces them to acknowledge it. And fans and commentators, it seems, are content to go along with that. To mock and punish the guys who openly flaunt the rules, while not thinking too terribly hard about the rules or their inconsistent application in the first place.
There’s another camp that argues that, because hitters are allowed to use pine tar to improve their grip on the bat, pitchers should be allowed to use it to improve their grip on the baseball. But there’s a huge difference between how a hitter uses his grip and how a pitcher uses his. Pitching success and failure hinges on inches – centimeters even. How finely can you paintbrush a corner of the plate? How much extra movement can you generate on your pitches? How much extra spin can you put on the ball?
It’s naïve to think a substance like pine tar doesn’t vie a pitcher an unfair advantage over the hitter. It’s even more naïve to think that enhanced grip on the handle of the bat is equivalent to enhanced grip of the fingers on the baseball.
Being able to firmly grip the handle of the bat changes nothing about a hitter’s swing. It doesn’t improve bat speed, it doesn’t alter the plane of the swing and it doesn’t affect timing. For hitters, it’s the barrel that does all the work, which is why the rules prohibit pine tar from being applied too far up the bat.
The fingers are an integral part of pitching, on the other hand. Grip affects the spin that is put on the baseball and affects the pitcher’s release point. That’s why substances like pine tar are banned on the mound.
So why doesn’t anybody seem to care about this method of cheating? Is it because they truly believe that the use of foreign substances is all about grip and doesn’t give a pitcher an unfair advantage over a hitter? Or is it because no one wants their own pitchers to get caught and lose the ability to get that unfair advantage?
Players have come out in defense of pine tar, claiming they want pitchers to have better control because they don’t want pitches flying all over the place – potentially near their heads.
When was the last time you saw a pitcher not named Rick Ankiel be unable to get the ball at least near the strike zone? When was the last time you saw a Major League pitcher, even in the coldest of weather, be so out of control as to pose a noticeable danger to hitters? It hasn’t happened. It will never happen. These are the best pitchers in the entire world, capable of throwing strikes even if their hands are a little stiff and dry from frigid temperatures.
It’s worth noting that it wasn’t until AFTER Pineda was knocked around in the first inning that the pine tar showed up. So was it a case of him being unable to grip the baseball, or a case of him thinking he needed to get a little extra something on his pitches to stop the bleeding and right the Yankees’ ship?
I know my answer to these questions.
But to some, there’s will always be “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.”