Trevor Bauer‘s start on April 30th against Texas was more interesting than even his 10 strike outs in 6.1 innings. It’s possible he tested out a theory that has been documented off the baseball field during a game.
After the game, but before this information was known, this Bauer tweet started off a controversy involving the Houston Astros, particularly their new pitchers all improving their spin rates compared to their previous teams.
I don’t want to talk about spin rates, however, and whether or not pine tar (which is illegal) or sun screen (which is legal) increase them. Rather, the focus here should be on the morality of using such a product during a game.
To do this, we really need to get into what cheating at a sport means. In order for the game to exist, there needs to be a set of rules and breaking these should have consequences. Tackling a wide receiver before he touches a pass is against the rules in football, so the defensive team is punished if this happens. Pretending to throw a pitch, only to turn and attempt a pick-off is against the rules in baseball, so a balk is called if this happens. These are the rules integral to the integrity of the game.
Rules against foreign objects like pine tar, however, don’t fit into this category. They aren’t a direct violation of the rules of the game, but a player attempting to get a slight advantage. In this way, they should be compared more to the use of performance enhancing drugs than actual in game rule breaking.
Attempting to get an advantage isn’t illegal, however. There was a time when players used to take the off-season off. A few decades ago, some players started working out year round and more players started lifting to improve their on-field performance. This extra work gave them an advantage others didn’t have, but didn’t actually harm anyone, so there was never controversy.
Cortisone is a steroid that was developed in the 1940’s and has been used greatly in Major League Baseball since then, but isn’t dangerous if used as directed and thus has never been banned or considered controversial. Jake Lamb had one a few days ago and it was reported on MLB.com like any other injury or treatment. There’s no controversy here either.
Where the controversy in getting an advantage comes in is when it comes at a cost. With anabolic steroids and other performance enhancers, there can be serious costs, including death. For some, the increased chance of a moment in the sun or dominance at the highest level is worth the risk, but for most it isn’t. Because of that, many performance enhancers are illegal.
While it may not seem the same, this is also why it’s now illegal to block the plate without the ball. Most catchers were willing to risk extreme injury in the attempt to stall the runner momentarily, a move that has lead to torn ligaments in the knee more than a few times. Most notably, Buster Posey and the Indians own Yan Gomes missed significant time after blocking the plate with one leg and reaching towards the right side with the other. Just like with steroids, MLB baseball didn’t want any players to take the risk, so they banned them all.
With all that in mind, it’s clear to me that there are two reasons for rules in baseball. First, they preserve the game. For example, a baseball game is played with nine people on the field and using ten would be cheating. Second, they protect players’ safety. For example, you can’t intentionally hit a player with a pitch. This was not an original rule of baseball, but was added in 1887 so that the batter would automatically reach first base as a punishment to the pitcher.
I can see no argument here that adding any substance to the ball should then be considered cheating. It obviously falls in the first half of rules, and likely goes along with rule changes like the mound being pushed back to 60’6″ (1893) and being lowered to 10″ off the ground in 1968 which were integrated because pitchers were becoming too dominant. In fact, nearly all game preservation rule changes to the sport have been because pitchers have become too dominant.
In 1880, a pitcher had to throw 8 balls to walk a batter, in 1884 that dropped to six and 1889 that changed to the modern four. Heading into the 1920 season, which was also the end of the deadball era, the spitball was banned with the exception of a few pitchers who were grandfathered in (including the Indians Jim Bagby, Sr.). This, the existence of Babe Ruth and the more consistent changing out of the game ball after the death of Ray Chapman helped change the deadball era into the greatest offensive decade in baseball history until the 1990’s, the 1930’s. When pitchers became too dominant again in the 1960’s MLB made two changes to bring them back down, first expanding the league in 1961, 1962 and 1969, which forced more bad pitchers to throw more innings and lead to more runs being scored overall throughout the game, then lowering the mound as previously mentioned. After scoring dropped again in the 1980’s, another double round of expansion in the 1990’s brought the pitchers back to earth.
Now, more pitchers throw harder than ever and strike out rates reflect that. At the same time, however, offense is not down. In 2014, there was a moment where it looked like the pitchers were taking over again as all of Major League Baseball posted a 3.74 ERA, but that number rose to 4.36 in 2017 and remains over 4.10 in 2018. Whether this is due to a juiced ball or random statistical static, Rob Manfred will never want you to know, but in any event, offense isn’t hurting.
Now to the argument for the use of pine tar. First, many pitchers are already using it, but none are being punished, making it much like doing steroids in the 1980’s or 1990’s. Those who obey the law, like the always honest Trevor Bauer (except maybe for that one inning), are essentially punished for their ethical commitment to the rule of law.
Even though it appears many pitchers are using it, offense is still high around the league. This could be, while outside substances have been shown to increase spin rate and thus increase movement on pitches and swings and misses, it also allows the pitcher to grip the ball better and have better control. This may seem to be a greater advantage to the pitcher, but it also means more strikes should be thrown in general, which means more balls will be put in play. While it’s impossible to calculate the overall effect this would have in baseball without trying it, it’s possible the increase in balls in play due to extra strikes could outweigh the extra swings and misses.
If the integrity of the game argument is still too strong, the player safety argument could fit as well. Pitchers are already throwing 100 regularly (there were more than 120 pitches above 100 MPH through the first week of May) and many hitters have responded by adding an extra face guard to their helmets. No one is intentionally hitting players in the jaw, however, and a little sticky stuff could go a longer way in preventing head injuries by avoiding them completely than helmet technology can by mitigating them. This is essentially the argument for a pitcher being able to go to his mouth on extremely cold days. Preserving the integrity of the baseball itself in not allowing spit balls is less important than the hitter’s safety.
There are solid arguments on both sides, but I see a firm advantage on the side of allowing pitchers to add foreign substances if they feel it necessary. If this does push the balance in favor of pitchers to the extreme, MLB could always resort to the one thing that has always increased offense to the extreme, expansion.