Many if not most of the pitchers in baseball use foreign substances, whether it’s pine tar or sunscreen or something else entirely. It’s widely known and widely tolerated and Major League Baseball has turned a blind eye to most foreign substance use. If anything, the only time anyone gets in trouble for it is if someone is too obvious about it, such as Michael Pineda having a bunch of it visibly smeared on his neck a few years ago.
To the extent there is controversy about it it’s that gray area quality to things which can lead to weird “gotcha” enforcement when someone is not going through the motions of trying to hide it when a team engages in a little gamesmanship by making a complaint about what, in large part is an open secret.
Those days may be over soon, however. Joel Sherman of the New York Post reports:
Chris Young, recently elevated by MLB to a senior VP to oversee on-field operations and umpire development, has been touring camps in Arizona and Florida to deliver the message that Rule 8.02 is going to be enforced this year, The Post has learned. That is the edict that deals with pitchers taking foreign substances to the mound and applying them to the ball.
The likely reason for this is that, for all the talk about how both pitchers and hitters are OK with foreign substance use because it helps pitchers better grip the ball, thereby providing a greater measure of batter safety, there is a clear competitive component to it as well. Better grip means better spin and spin rates, it has been increasingly shown, enhance a pitcher’s effectiveness. Lately Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer has been particularly vocal about this. He recently appeared on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” and claimed that 70% of pitchers use foreign substances and claimed that doctoring baseballs creates “a bigger advantage than steroids ever were.”
It’s worth noting that, a couple of years ago, Bauer got into a public spat with Astros pitcher Lance McCullers after Bauer claimed that the Astros had refined the use of foreign substances in a way that gives their pitchers greater advantages than others. At the time it was viewed as a spat between a controversial figure in Bauer and a player, in McCullers, on a successful team which had a reputation for applying advanced analytical solutions more effectively than other teams. In light of the sign-stealing scandal, obviously, the Astros’ habits are all fair game.
Which makes me wonder if this crackdown on foreign substances is related to the sign-stealing scandal in at least one way: Major League Baseball ignored complaints about the Astros stealing signs in the past and now it looks foolish for having done so. Is there something going on with their pitching that they’re worried about being caught flat-footed on now?