foreign substance

And the pine tar debate continues with Will Smith…

As it has in recent years the pitchers and pine tar debate is back. This year it starts with Milwaukee … 

So, with Brewers pitcher Will Smith (insert “Fresh Prince” joke here), Major League Baseball moved quickly. Smith was ejected from the game last night for having a foreign substance on his arm during the game.

MLB moved so quickly that Smith has already been handed an eight-game suspension, one he intends to appeal.  

With the Braves up, the bases loaded and one out in the seventh inning, Braves’ manager Fredi Gonzalez emerged from the dugout and asked the umpires to check Smith’s arm for pine tar.

“It was about as plain as it could be,” Gonzalez said. “It’s pretty blatant, really. It’s glistening through the lights. You could see it in the dugout.”

A cold and windy night in Atlanta, Smith maintains he used a combination of pine tar and sunscreen to better grip the ball while he was warming up and that he simply “forgot” to wipe it off prior to entering the game that inning.

Freddie Freeman. Getty Images.

Although you could see the substance showing clearly and shining on the tv screens Gonzalez said that he didn’t say anything until after Smith had already bounced one ball that hit pinch hitter Pedro Ciriaco. Smith had a 1-0 count on the next hitter, Jace Peterson, when he went and touched the substance on his arm.

That was when Gonzalez called time and went to the umpires for clarification. Smith offered his arm openly to the umpires and was immediately ejected from the game. He was visibly upset with Gonzalez as he was leaving the field.

Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman had a different take on Smith using the substance, despite being on the opposing team telling reporters,

Every pitcher does it. As a hitter, you want them to do it so they’ll have a better grip so we won’t get hit in the head.”

Clearly there is an argument for the use of pine tar for pitchers to get a grip on the ball but it is also a clear violation of MLB rules.

Smith’s statement somewhat echoed Freeman’s,

“You want to be able to feel the ball,” Smith said. “That’s it. It’s grip. It’s not going to spin more. You’re not going to throw harder. You’ve got what you got.” 

And Brewers’ new manager Craig Counsell maintained he was sure that Gonzalez has pitchers on his staff that do the same thing, that the practice is not as uncommon as previously believed, despite being illegal. 

It’s an interesting conundrum. How many pitchers are getting away with it? If there are many more, then the suspensions seem somewhat arbitrary. There have been just four, now five including Smith, suspensions for using pine tar in this century. 

MLB rule 8.00 governs the rules for pitchers. Rule 8.02 explicitly says that pitchers may not use any foreign substance on the baseball during a game.

While using up to 18 inches of pine tar on a bat is legal for batters, pitchers may not use it. Most pitchers say that it helps them grip the ball and throw it accordingly.

An alternate argument is that any substance on the ball affects the ball’s flight path as it comes towards the batter. Holding a baseball different ways (along the seams, across the seams, or with the knuckles, etc.) makes the ball move in different directions but directions that are somewhat predictable to the batter.

It is believed that adding a foreign substance alters the flight path of the ball but in unpredictable ways, making it harder for the hitter to track and eventually hit,so it gives that pitchers an unfair advantage.

However pine tar is also known to help a pitcher’s grip in cold weather, like it helps a batter grip his bat. That is a known fact. So using pine tar, while against the rules, if often overlooked unless a player is extremely obvious about it. 

pine tar
Michael Pineda. Getty Images.

 In 2004 St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Julian Tavarez attempted to hide pine tar on his cap. He was suspended 12 games. Brendan Donnelly, of the Los Angeles Angels, or the then Anaheim Angels, served an eight-game suspension when a substance was found on his glove in 2005.  In 2012, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Joel Peralta was caught using pine tar on his glove. He served a 12-game suspension.

The fourth suspension came in April 2014 when New York Yankees’ pitcher Michael Pineda was caught with pine tar on his neck twice. He was not openly punished by the league for the incident on April 10 but when it happened again against the same team (the Boston Red Sox) on April 23rd, Pineda served a 10-game suspension.

So many questions still remain surrounding the substance. How many pitchers are getting away with using it? How many hitters would rather see a pitcher use it than get hit?

Should it still be considered illegal in Major League Baseball or should it be allowed with some regulations? 

The last question leaves the situation open to pitchers potentially abusing the rule, but that’s assuming that it does change the path of the ball while Smith and other ball players like Freeman and even David Ortiz seem to think it’s not a big deal. 

When Pineda was accused of using pine tar the first time Ortiz said,

Everybody uses pine tar. No big deal.”

I’ve never pitched in the Major Leagues (obviously! lol!) and never used pine tar. There is no way I can say for sure if it simply helps with grip (that’s fairly logical) or whether it does or doesn’t change the spin or movement on the ball (that seems like a fairly logical conclusion as well, but you never know).

However, if more pitchers are actually using foreign substances if only for a better grip or to cheat, it is a rule that should be looked into by MLB and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA). 

If it is in fact not of actual assistance to the pitcher and would keep the ball from injuring batters (just think about Giancarlo Stanton) then the rule should be looked at and revised for the safety of the players.

Personally I think it gives the pitchers a very slight advantage but that if the rule is being enforced arbitrarily then it should be revised in some way. I’ll leave you with your opinions and Major League Baseball along with the MLBPA to theirs. Still some common ground needs to be found on this issue.

In 2014 when Pineda was reprimanded Nick Carfardo of the Boston Globe wrote about the hypocrisy of the rule. In his column he wrote,

“Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley and pregame host Tom Caron agreed that pine tar applied to a rag, similar to a rosin bag, would be a good way to allow pitchers to improve their grip. Eckersley said he sometimes used pine tar to improve his grip, but not very often. Pitchers’ use of a pine tar rag could be monitored by umpires and allowed only in cold weather conditions. It’s a potential solution to an issue that MLB would like to be rid of.”

That sounds like a sensible solution, however, MLB just needs to go ahead and deal with it.


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