Baseball has found itself in something of a sticky situation yet again, one that has cropped up enough recently to raise the question about whether the sport needs to address the problem going forward, perhaps by changing or even softening the rules.
In the span of about 48 hours this week, two different pitchers on two different teams were caught with and ejected for having a foreign substance on their person.
On Thursday, May 22, Milwaukee Brewers left-handed reliever Will Smith was thrown out after Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez prompted umpires to check his right forearm. Smith, who was suspended for eight games but is appealing, did not appreciate the investigation:
As John Donovan of MLB.com reported:
Smith said he placed a mixture of rosin and sunscreen on his right arm while he was warming up in the bullpen in order to get a firm handle on the ball on a cool and blustery night at Turner Field. He simply forgot to wipe it off, he said, when he was rushed into the game.
Pitchers are trying to get grips on the ball. We’ve had hitters on other teams asking for pitchers to get a grip on the ball. We’ve had [our] hitters hit in the head asking for [opposing] pitchers to get grips on the ball,” Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell said in a surly clubhouse after the Braves’ 10-1. “It’s very common.
“It goes on on the other side, I guarantee you.”
Said Smith: “It helps you be able to throw the ball. That’s it. It’s not going to spin more. You’re not going to throw harder. You’ve got what you got.”
An eerily similar late-game turn of events played out Saturday, May 23, when Miami Marlins manager Dan Jennings requested the Baltimore Orioles’ Brian Matusz, also a lefty reliever, be inspected, which led to his ejection when a foreign substance was discovered on his right forearm:
Matusz left the field a little less heatedly, but after the game, he refused even to go into the event.
“We’re not going to address the issue right now,” Matusz said, per Steve Wilaj of MLB.com. “Obviously I have my own personal opinions about the issue, but right now with emotions running high, we’re going to let this settle and address questions at a later time.”
The reality is that what happened with Will Smith on Thursday and Brian Matusz on Saturday are really just continuations of other recent foreign-substance incidents. Like the one involving New York Yankees right-hander Michael Pineda, who was caught and ejected for having some sort of substance on his neck last April:
…as well as Boston Red Sox righty Clay Buchholz, who reportedly had coated his left forearm in BullFrog suntan lotion in May of 2013:
…and left-hander and then-rotation mate Jon Lester, whose glove was covered in a “goop” during the World Series later that same year:
…and even reliever Joel Peralta, then with the Tampa Bay Rays, who was thrown out of a game in June of 2012 after umpires were alerted to check his glove by the opposing Washington Nationals, for whom Peralta happened to have pitched in 2010:
When Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports looked into the Buchholz controversy (non-troversy?) in 2013, here’s what he found:
Two veteran pitchers and one source close to the Red Sox told Yahoo Sports that about 90 percent of major league pitchers use some form of spray-on sunscreen—almost always BullFrog brand—that when combined with powdered rosin gives them a far superior grip on the ball.
To reiterate: That’s “about 90 percent” of pitchers.
That sentiment was supported by Al Leiter, a longtime big league left-hander who now is a studio analyst with the Yes Network and MLB Network. Leiter, who pitched for 19 seasons in the majors, said on the latter in discussing Smith’s ejection: “Just about every pitcher does something to get a grip.”
So this prevalent “problem” falls under the everybody’s-doing-it umbrella. That doesn’t make it legal or even right, but it does make for a very tricky—and sticky—situation for the sport.
On one hand, managers who call for the opposing pitcher to be checked put their own pitchers at risk, too. Turnabout, after all, is fair play.
On the other hand, it’s not exactly good for baseball to have pitchers carry on what is technically cheating by the rulebook:
The pitcher shall not … Have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance. For infraction of this section (b) the penalty shall be immediate ejection from the game. In addition, the pitcher shall be suspended automatically.
While this isn’t nothing, it’s also not on the same par of cheating as, say, steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs that have plagued baseball for most of the past two-plus decades.
The fact is, players, coaches and managers themselves have acknowledged that this goes on all across the league and that they, in many ways, prefer a pitcher to have a better grip on the ball considering he’s hurling a hard object upward of 95 miles per hour in the direction of the batter.
Counsell indicated as much in his comments above. And Orioles manager Buck Showalter said, per Roch Kubatko of MASNSports.com: “I want [opposing pitchers] to be able to grip the baseball against our hitters, to an extent. Same reason hitters have pine tar. We all understand the crux of the problem is gripping the ball, it’s not trying to (doctor the ball).”
As O’s righty setup man Tommy Hunter said, according to Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun:
If it’s a rule, it’s a rule. If it’s sticky, it’s sticky. They have to enforce it, so you can’t really call fault on the umpires or anything. It’s kind of a petty thing because if you ask any hitter they would rather us have control of a baseball or be able to hold onto it and not let it slip out of your hand—if that’s what you are using sticky stuff for.
There isn’t necessarily an easy fix for this, but there are some possibilities for baseball to consider going forward.
Maybe managers could be forced to treat having a pitcher’s person checked as a replay challenge. That might make them save it for the more egregious incidents for fear of losing their lone challenge if nothing is found.
Or perhaps—and this is really out there for a sport that is so steeped in tradition—there could be some approved substance, such as a specific suntan lotion, that pitchers are allowed to use as long as it’s applied under the observation of the crew chief umpire.
Knowing baseball, though, when it comes to foreign substances, that idea probably is a little too, well, foreign.
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