Wednesday night, Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda gave up two runs and a number of hard hit balls in the first inning. It was a cold evening in Boston, so he decided to enlist the help of some pine tar to improve his grip on the ball. The second inning was moving along more smoothly, two quick outs and a 1-2 count on third hitter, when Red Sox manager John Farrell came out of the dugout and asked to have Pineda checked. The home plate umpire found what had been consuming Twitter and the Red Sox TV broadcast: Pineda had pine tar smeared on his neck. Pineda was ejected, and will now serve a 10-game suspension.
The rulebook (section 8.02) states pitchers are not allowed to put foreign substances on the ball. The intent is to prevent a pitcher from gaining an undue advantage by making the ball move more than it would naturally.
But here’s the thing: Everyone is using pine tar. (“Everyone is using pine tar,” said David Ortiz). Using it to get a better grip on a baseball, while technically illegal, is in practice allowed … provided the pitcher is discreet about it. This is one of those infamous unwritten rules. On cold days, gripping a baseball is difficult and pine tar helps a pitcher do his job better. It might even help a batter do his — Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli remarked, “I’d rather have a guy have control over the ball when it’s cold.” So maybe MLB should want that as well.
The problem is that allowing a pitcher better grip on the ball helps him improve the location of his fastball, but many argue that it also allows him to throw better breaking pitches. To throw a good curveball (or slider, etc.) you need a good grip on the ball. As former pitcher Doc Gooden wrote on Twitter:
Pine tar is used 2 make ur breaking pitches sharper& help ur sinker 4 more movement!
— Dwight Gooden (@DocGooden16) April 24, 2014
So using pine tar can improve a pitcher’s entire arsenal of pitches, giving him an advantage by making the ball move more than it would naturally. This, presumably, is why it’s illegal.
But, as Napoli notes, there is a safety issue. Just as batters don’t want fastballs slipping out of a pitcher’s hand, they don’t want breaking pitches flying out mid-pitch either. If you can’t grip it well enough, a curveball can slip and sail, and a pitch that might induce a swing and miss instead flies over the batter’s head or moves up and in on them.
If there is a legitimate safety issue in asking pitchers to pitch in cold weather without something to provide them extra grip, then MLB should legalize something to help pitchers keep batters safe. If there’s not a safety issue, then pine tar should be treated as illegal, the way doctoring a ball with sandpaper, Vaseline, or any other substance is treated, and respond with ejection, fines, and suspensions when appropriate.
Beyond safety, the legitimacy of this unwritten rule needs to be established or debunked. Either pitchers should be allowed to openly apply pine tar to their hands within certain constraints (the temperature drops below a certain threshold, perhaps), because it presumably does not provide enough of an advantage to matter, or it should not be allowed. Why allow pitchers to use it but only as long as they’re coy enough about it? That seems a silly threshold to set. Hopefully Pineda’s transparency becomes the flashpoint that pushes MLB into taking a stand on the use of pine tar, one way or the other.