As Twitter suspends a pitching guru, MLB considers loosening its social-media restrictions

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

At 10:32 p.m. Monday night, Twitter suspended the purveyor of perhaps the largest repository of disgusting, filthy, obscene GIFs on the Internet.

Nearly every Rob Friedman tweet arrives offering four things: a baseball player’s name, a pitch he has thrown, an adjective to describe that pitch and a short video clip to illustrate it. Changeups are “ridiculous,” and fastballs are “absurd,” and sliders are “nasty,” and sometimes they’re “disgusting” and “filthy” and “obscene” and every other sort of visceral descriptor, too. Friedman is best known as @PitchingNinja, and his nearly 50,000 followers relish his ability to curate baseball’s deep cuts – the sort of physics-bending pitches average fans may not notice but ones in which pitching nerds luxuriate.

So when Friedman received an email from Twitter temporarily locking his account because of multiple violations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a perfectly reasonable question burbled to the surface: Why would Major League Baseball, which filed the DMCA complaints, seek to get rid of such a well-regarded evangelist for its game?

The answer is complicated. Though before explaining how Friedman and MLB, with the help of an angry army of Barstool Sports fans, ended up in this most 2018 of tiffs, there is some good news for those in need of a @PitchingNinja fix.

He should be back. Soon.

League sources told Yahoo Sports that they expect to “quickly and easily” reach a resolution with Friedman that would allow him to continue posting pitching GIFs. In a letter to the league official who filed the DMCA complaint, Friedman, a lawyer by trade, outlined his argument on how what he does benefits the league.

“I also understand that MLB has every right to protect its product,” he wrote in the email, which he shared with Yahoo Sports. “I’m most certainly not trying to deprive MLB of any value, instead I’m trying to create value by helping pitchers have a sense of community, learn, and appreciate the game. Rather than debate the legal matter, I am more than happy to give MLB all of my gifs for free or work out some other content deal that just allows me to use MLB content, as permitted, for fair use, to help pitchers, coaches, and fans understand the game. I would be happy to donate any content for free and execute a copyright license ensuring that MLB owns any gifs I create.”

It was a Noah Syndergaard pitch that ultimately led to the @PitchingNinja account being suspended. (AP)
It was a Noah Syndergaard pitch that ultimately led to the @PitchingNinja account being suspended. (AP)

MLB plans to contact Friedman in the coming days, if not sooner, at which point they are likely to agree on what constitutes fair use. The furor over the suspension of Friedman was exacerbated by fear that MLB is continuing a social-media policy long seen as Draconian, particularly when compared to the social-friendly NBA, which adopts the any-publicity-is-good-publicity approach to Twitter and other hubs that share content.

That Friedman spent nearly four years without @PitchingNinja getting dinged is perhaps most surprising of all. MLB’s tack with content rarely wavered: any infringement upon it was a threat to MLB Advanced Media, the league’s Internet arm that started with a paltry investment from teams and grew into a multi-billion-dollar juggernaut. MLB protected its copyrighted content with far greater fervor than the NBA because the league felt as though it had more to protect with MLBAM.

In recent months, according to sources, that intransigence has loosened MLB, recognizing the power of social media, has started to give its content partners more rights in those channels. At the same time, the league is wary that if it rubber stamps accounts such as Friedman’s, it would run the risk of opening a Pandora’s box with other fans – and potentially alienating content partners who still pay large sums for highlights.

The democratization of highlights helped make Friedman as invaluable as he is. His feed combines the knowledge of someone who studied pitching to help his young son improve with the wonderment of a fan who can’t help but plotz at how major leaguers are capable of manipulating a baseball.

Friedman’s son, Jack, isn’t young anymore. He tops out at 95 mph these days and will be pitching at Georgia Tech in the fall. Friedman’s admiration of great pitching, on the other hand, has only grown, and his greatest desire is to share that. In fact, it’s almost assuredly what got him in trouble after all these years.

During Noah Syndergaard’s last start for the New York Mets, he threw a 97-mph fastball that moved with such ferocity Friedman deemed it the “Black Magic Sinker.” It drew thousands of retweets, including one from Kevin Clancy, a Barstool podcaster. When Clancy took the GIF and posted it himself without attribution, Friedman called him out. Clancy clapped back, calling Friedman a “Big Fat crybaby” who was hypocritical because he himself had taken the material in the same manner. The army of Barstool fans drew attention to Friedman, and his fans sniped at Clancy in return, and within seven hours, @PitchingNinja was down.

The outcry continued Tuesday. A deluge of messages hit Clancy, who tweeted: “I have never in my life seen more grown men cry about not being able to see pitching GIFs anymore.” The grown men – and women – included Kansas City Royals pitcher Kelvin Herrera and Boston Red Sox vice president of pitching development Brian Bannister, who tweeted:

Though his plea to Twitter to reinstate his account Tuesday was rejected, according to an email the company sent him, MLB should be able to remedy that. Which means more disgusting stuff from Max Scherzer, more filthiness from Marcus Stroman, more obscenity from Lance McCullers Jr. – more of the things that make baseball seem cool and interesting.

All Friedman needed to understand the love was to check the tweets that included @PitchingNinja, which were still available, even if his ability to send out new GIFs wasn’t.

“I really feel, after looking at my notifications, like George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ where you see what it would be like if you weren’t around,” Friedman said. “It’s amazing how many people are touched by this stuff.”

For now, Friedman will take a break from the hours a night he spends on a hobby from which he makes no money and has no desire to, either. And when he does return, hopefully it will represent the first step to a more laissez-faire policy that offers free, overwhelmingly positive publicity to a league that needs every bit of marketing help it can get.

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