The Pine Tar Rules

Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda will be suspended 10 games for doing something that everyone else does -- but doing it too obviously. This seems silly. (Getty Images)

Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda will be suspended 10 games for doing something that everyone else does -- but doing it too obviously. This seems silly. (Getty Images)

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:

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.

3 thoughts on “The Pine Tar Rules

  1. Just as there are “approved” drugs that can be used in baseball, there should be approved “grip agents” that won’t result in suspensions.
    One issue is the constant replacement of the baseballs for MLB to sell. 20 years ago, you could dirty a baseball and not have it replaced every other pitch. Now, the balls are super slick (not enough Mississippi Mud) and perhaps need to be pre-treated with some pine tar along with the mud…

    That said, (and I’m a Yankee fan) Pineada was an idiot for putting the pine tar on his neck. He deserves the suspension just for his stupidity and blatent disregard for the Umps and the rulebook.

  2. It’s the exact same problem as speeding. “Everyone” does it, but Pineda was the equivalent of an 18-year-old doing 90 in a 55. Of course he’s gonna get booked for it, it was blatant, it was obvious, and it was in clear disregard for the rules. Whether raising the speed limit is a good idea or not is up for debate, much like allowing a pitcher a tacky substance for use.

    Liquid pine tar should absolutely not be allowed, because you can lather it onto the ball and alter its aerodynamic profile. However, there is an alternative:
    Pine tar also comes in a solid stick form. It’s much less useful for a hitter, because it doesn’t stick quite like the liquid stuff does, but it would be ideal for pitchers to apply to their forearms for when they need a little swipe of grip. The solid stuff doesn’t build up, wouldn’t really stick to the ball nearly as much, and would still allow pitchers to overcome perspiration and cold. Problem solved.

  3. Hell, under the “blatant and obvious” realm, I think Clay Buchholz should have gotten tossed from the playoffs last year, and I root for the Boston Red Sox. Pitchers hide that stuff everywhere, the bill of their cap, their hair, on their forearm. Its odd, even though Buchholz has done well the last two years, I still don’t think much of him as a pitcher and I definitely believe he deserved to be tossed.