The secret trick that led to accusations of Boston Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz throwing a spitball has an ancillary benefit: It prevents skin cancer, too.
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.
"Sunscreen and rosin could be used as foundation for houses," one American League pitcher said. "Produces a tack, glue-like substance that engineers would be jealous of."
During Buchholz's May 1 start against Toronto, Blue Jays color commentator Dirk Hayhurst said on Twitter the right-hander was "loading the ball" with "slick'em painted up his left forearm." When shown video of Buchholz, Jack Morris, also a commentator for Sportsnet, said, "He's throwing a spitter."
The umpires did not check. Blue Jays players said nothing. Buchholz, who threw seven shutout innings that lowered his ERA to 1.01, denied doctoring the ball in any way.
All almost certainly knew the truth: BullFrog is as prevalent across baseball as chewing tobacco and sunflower seeds. Major League Baseball can't exactly ban sunscreen. And players accept it as part of the game because they don't believe it leads to crazy movement on pitches like spitters of yore.
While Buchholz declined comment through a Red Sox spokesman Wednesday, one source close to the Red Sox confirmed the team's pitchers almost all rely on sunscreen for better grip on finicky balls, particularly in cold, bad weather.
Its use dates back years, when an intrepid pitcher – patient zero is unknown – stumbled upon the most wonderful of accidents, the penicillin of pitching: pine tar for the mound.
The beauty of BullFrog is its inconspicuousness. Because it goes on clear, it can easily be mistaken for sweat. Of course, the subterfuge tends to vanish when one applies sunscreen for a game played in a domed stadium, as Buchholz did at Rogers Centre.
"Most guys are a tad more discreet about it," one National League pitcher said, "rather than put the rosin on your arm 10 times over the course of an outing."
Buchholz's right hand danced all over his body in Toronto. In the first inning alone, he put it to his mouth and wet hair close to a dozen times. Before Jose Bautista stepped to the plate, Buchholz was particularly egregious, twice tapping his non-pitching forearm, the most frequent location of BullFrog application. Controversy chased Buchholz to his next start Monday, when he allowed a season-high four runs in six innings. After the game, Buchholz told reporters: "I did the same thing I've done in all seven starts this year." A review of the TV broadcast showed him going to his mouth and hair far less frequently and not once visibly grabbing his left arm, but photos showed otherwise.
He is far from the only one who has lacked prudence. The AL pitcher noted Texas Rangers starter Yu Darvish's propensity to reach for his left arm in his near-perfect game against the Houston Astros and said almost every pitcher, if one looks close enough, is guilty of the same.
The typical procedure for a starting pitcher is simple: In between innings, take a fresh hit of BullFrog, grab the rosin bag when on the mound and covertly swipe at least one finger from the right hand across the sunscreen, creating the substance that can be spread to other fingers inside the safety of the glove. Pitchers consider the BullFrog-rosin combination safer than using plain pine tar, particularly after Tampa Bay Rays reliever Joel Peralta was suspended eight games last season when umpires found a dollop on his glove.
"I just don't get the difference between BullFrog and hitters using pine tar," the NL pitcher said. "No difference whatsoever. Pitcher needs better grip so he knows somewhat where it's going and doesn't hit the batter in the head.
"I've never heard of it affecting movement. Scuffs on the ball are the only thing that can do that."
Though the BullFrog concoction may not foster unnatural movement, the pitchers admitted that once they mastered its whims – balls that are too sticky end up bouncing 5 feet in front of the plate, so it can take time to tame – it unquestionably helped their stuff. The better grip a pitcher has, the more confident he is in unleashing his pitches. The longer a ball stays on his fingers, the better finish he gets on the pitch.
And with pitchers griping about the balls this season, the impetus to wear sunscreen in 40-degree weather has grown stronger. The source close to the Red Sox said pitchers "have to use something because the balls are rubbed up very differently this year."
MLB says the balls, dirtied up with Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, are the same as ever.
"There have been no changes to our procedures for the preparation of baseballs," MLB spokesman Pat Courtney said, adding that "we would look into any foreign substance that's being used to doctor a ball."
Seeing as sunscreen is neither foreign nor changing the properties of a ball, BullFrog users look to be safe for now. And good thing.
May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month.
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