John Farrell looked queasy, like he just ate rotten seafood. Or maybe some arsenic.
It was a cool Wednesday night early in the 2014 season, and the manager of the Boston Red Sox at the time asked home-plate umpire Gerry Davis to check New York Yankees starter Michael Pineda for a sticky substance. Farrell knew it may expose his pitchers to similar scrutiny, but the splotch of pine tar on Pineda’s neck was so blatant that he felt it couldn’t be ignored. Guilty as charged, Pineda was ejected and swiftly suspended, with pay, for 10 games.
The Yankees’ manager then: Joe Girardi.
So, yes, Girardi has experience with at least one pitcher who tried to gain a competitive edge, even though he said then that he had no knowledge of Pineda’s subterfuge and maintains now that he wouldn’t know where to find Pelican Grip, Spider Tack, or whatever else so many pitchers are abusing this season. And the Phillies manager said he’s “all for” Major League Baseball’s crackdown on cheating pitchers, the details of which were unveiled Tuesday, especially because uncovering what’s on a pitcher’s hands is no longer in the hands of managers.
If anything, Girardi is irritated that MLB is waiting until Monday to begin taking action.
“It’s frustrating to me that we’re giving another six days,” Girardi told reporters before the Phillies continued their three-game series at Dodger Stadium. “I’ve thought, ‘Well, what do I do [if he suspects an opposing pitcher is cheating]? All the managers know that we have the option [to check], but we’ve always known that. I just wish it would’ve started today.”
Instead, the commissioner’s office issued a memo to teams in which it authorized umpires beginning Monday to conduct “regular checks of all pitchers regardless of whether an opposing club’s manager makes a request.” Pitchers who are caught using foreign substances may be ejected and suspended with pay for 10 games -- call it the Pineda standard -- with penalties increasing for repeat offenders.
The umpires’ checks, designed to “level the playing field,” as commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement, will occur randomly and when a pitcher walks off the mound after an inning.
Pitchers across the league are crying foul. Tampa Bay Rays starter Tyler Glasnow believes the new policy shouldn’t take effect until next season. He said he stopped using sunscreen to help grip his fastball and curveball in his most recent start and cited it as the reason he injured his elbow.
“Do it in the offseason. Give us a chance to adjust to it,” Glasnow told reporters. “I just threw 80-something, 70-whatever innings, and then you just told me I can’t use anything in the middle of the year? I had to change everything I’d been doing the entire season. Everything, out the window. I had to start doing something completely new.”
But Girardi pointed out that MLB warned teams in February that the crackdown on foreign substances was coming. If they haven’t adjusted by now, well, shame on them, according to Girardi.
“Our pitchers were made aware in spring training, and we continued to say, ‘It’s coming, guys. You’ve got to figure this out,’” Girardi said. “This has been a rule in baseball forever, and you took it upon yourself to start using it. Now they’re saying you can’t, but you weren’t supposed to use it before. It’s an admission of guilt to me.”
It’s worth wondering, then, if MLB is providing enough of deterrent for pitchers to stop cold turkey. Baseballs have been doctored with everything from spit to suntan lotion for more than a century to enhance a pitch’s movement and spin. Rules 3.01 and 6.02(c) weren’t written yesterday. MLB simply didn’t enforce them.
Even the Pineda affair came to light more as a result of the obviousness of his cheating than because he actually cheated. And it didn’t spur MLB to be any more watchful. It was always up to a manager to point out suspicious behavior, and as Girardi said, “You don’t want to see the gamesmanship.” Because most managers knew their pitchers were likely doing it, too.
Seven years after Pineda, the cheating has become so pervasive, the substances so much stickier (pine tar is innocent compared to Spider Tack, which is common in strongman competitions) that MLB apparently could no longer abide it, especially given its impact on the game. Batting averages are down (.238 across MLB, entering play Tuesday), and strikeout rates are up (24%).
And while pitchers aren’t out on the mound flaunting their sticky hands, the unusual spikes in four-seam fastball spin rates is a tell that something is amiss.
“I’ve never put it on my fingers,” Girardi said last week of Spider Tack. “I often wanted to see what it’s like, but they said sometimes it doesn’t come off for a while and I don’t like that feel, like when you get Super Glue on your hands and you can’t get it off. So I haven’t done it yet, and I don’t know where to get it. That’s the other problem. But I know what it does.”
What Spider Tack does is more than merely help a pitcher grip the ball better on a cold April night. Some pitchers have objected to the crackdown by saying it will put hitters at higher risk of getting hit by pitches.
“What would be interesting is if Major League Baseball came out with a ball that was more tacky and had some friction to it,” Girardi said. “I think part of it started because players wanted to have grip. It’s become more than that now, and that’s the issue.”
Late is better than never, then, for MLB to act. In some cases, spin rates have already begun to normalize since MLB warned pitchers to clean up their act.
“This all came out two weeks ago that it was coming soon,” Girardi said. “So it’s not like they haven’t had time.”