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The mad scientist cooked his famous concoction with a knob of pine tar, a dollop of Cramer Firm Grip paste and a dash of Coca-Cola, all melted into a harmonious glob with a lighter. Nobody really understood whether the Coke served a purpose or was just a signature flourish to differentiate his pitch-grip goo from others produced by pitchers around Major League Baseball. Whatever the case, he developed a reputation among his teammates – and around baseball – for having some of the best stuff out there, like a baseball Heisenberg.
That this mad scientist happens to be a pitcher for the Houston Astros is material only because of the Twitter tempest that erupted Tuesday afternoon. Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer, who has spent half a decade trying to understand what can impart more spin on a baseball, snarked about the elite spin rates of Astros pitchers and how use of sticky substances was the only correlate he found that consistently increased them. Houston pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. replied: “Jealousy isn’t a good look on you my man.” Then Astros third baseman Alex Bregman called him “Tyler” and the episode more or less ended there – at least until May 18, when the Astros host the Indians.
What it did, as much as anything, is remind that Major League Baseball’s rules on foreign substances deserve a serious review – and that rather than turn a blind eye to the copious use of pine tar, Bullfrog sunscreen mixed with rosin and homebrews like the mad scientist’s, the league could benefit from codifying it as legal.
Because here is the reality: Nearly every pitcher already uses some sort of substance to get a better grip on the ball. None dare admit as much on the record, lest he expose himself to Rule 6.02(c)(7), which states: “The pitcher shall not have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance.” In recent years, MLB has suspended pitchers Michael Pineda, Will Smith and Brian Matusz for use of foreign substances.
As for the other hundreds of pitchers who have used them and continue to more surreptitiously: They’ve skated free. For years, they have said the extra grip gives them better control and helps keep the game safer. And because players estimate 70 to 90 percent use a substance, the sense is that it doesn’t benefit any one team individually, so what’s the harm?
Baseball’s selective enforcement looks accordingly silly. It seems ridiculous that Bauer wasn’t allowed to glue shut the gash on his pinky gnarled by a drone accident during the 2016 postseason even though the glue wasn’t going to touch the ball – especially when pitchers, ever cognizant of the value of high fastball spin rate, use it regularly. Bauer, in fact, claimed in a tweet three weeks ago that he can add 400 revolutions per minute to his fastball simply by using pine tar – and that he is one of the rare pitchers who doesn’t use a foreign substance.
The statistical advantages are obvious. The impetus behind this debate in the first place centered on the significant fastball RPM jump by Gerrit Cole, Bauer’s college teammate, after his offseason trade to Houston. Bauer’s fastball spin is generally consistent, except, as The Athletic’s Eno Sarris pointed out, in the first inning of his last start, when it spiked hundreds of RPMs above average before returning to normal come the second inning. Perhaps it was just coincidence.
All the spin-rate talk inspired some copycatting. Harold Mozingo, a former Kansas City Royals farmhand, ran a test where he measured substance-free pitches against ones thrown after dabbling with sunscreen, baby powder, bug spray and chewing gum. There was a clear winner.
Just a little dab of gum – the same thing done countless times by countless pitchers every season. Foreign substances are so entrenched in the game that they’ve earned citizenship. Hell, the idea of a ball with superior grip is so appealing to the league it tried to create one itself.
MLB has worked with Rawlings, its manufacturer, to produce a ball with a feel tacky enough for pitchers to forgo foreign substances. Maybe it will work. Maybe it won’t. In the meantime, though, implementing a rule that authorizes foreign-substance use but does not allow the integrity of the ball to be imperiled – cutting it, sandpapering it, gouging it against a belt and all other forms of the dark arts, including using an excessive amount of a foreign substance – makes sense.
While MLB may worry about the unintended consequences of allowing pitchers to use grip products, this is no Pandora’s box. Pitchers believe it would level the playing field. And hitters, though angry that MLB would be legislating in an advantage to pitchers, would understand that the uniformity of the rule, combined with the time it could save each game, is both competitively fair and even a chip to be used by players in future collective-bargaining sessions.
Baseball players shouldn’t have to cook some backwoods concoction like they’re moonshiners. It should be right there for them – the right to show up with a splotch of pine tar on a hand. Substance checks aren’t happening. Threat of suspension isn’t stopping them. The time is right to fix a rule whose expiration date passed decades ago.
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