LOS ANGELES -- Michael Pineda will go down in baseball history as one of its most notorious rule breakers because of the recklessness of his crime. On a cold night in Fenway Park in April 2014, Pineda had no feel for the baseball. After careening all around the strike zone in the first inning, he was desperate for a solution -- and a teammate slapped pine tar on his neck.
The gob of foreign substance was so prominent that even before Pineda completed his warm-up pitches for the second inning, old friend and teammate John Kruk alerted the producers in our truck to the spot. Within a few minutes, Pineda was ejected and his peers around the globe wondered: How could he have been so brazen?
With the benefit of the perspective that comes with time, a different question would have been more appropriate: Why doesn't every pitcher use pine tar?
The potential value of pine tar was raised in a recent social media conversation about the early-season performance of Gerrit Cole. After it was suggested in a thread of tweets that the spin rate on Cole's four-seam fastball has jumped significantly, and there was speculation about the use of pine tar, the Indians' Trevor Bauer jumped into the conversation April 11:
My fastball is about 2250 rpm on average. I know for a fact I can add 400 rpm to it by using pine tar. Look how much better I would be if I didn't have morals... pic.twitter.com/o62kWkxWAy— Trevor Bauer (@BauerOutage) April 11, 2018
The rules, as written, are certainly not enforced. In any given game, you will see pitchers with a shiny, shaved area on the forearm of their glove hand covered with some kind of foreign substance. Maybe it's sunscreen, maybe it's a combination of sunscreen and resin, maybe it's something else. But it's apparent to everybody, from the umpires to the managers to the hitters, and often you'll see pitchers quickly wrap their pitching hand around that area just before or just after they get a new baseball. Then they'll use whatever substance is gleaned to help rub up the ball.
Again: Everybody on the field knows this is happening. Everybody sees it. Almost everybody seems to accept it, and some hitters will tell you that especially on cold nights, they'd prefer that pitchers use a foreign substance to improve their grip and command. The last thing that any hitter wants is a guy hurling a 98 mph fastball at him without having a feel for the ball.
But Bauer's tweets drew the attention of folks with other teams, who wonder: Is pine tar that much more effective than other substances, like sunscreen? Does a pitcher using pine tar have a competitive advantage over a pitcher using some other substance by improving the quality of the pitches?
A former pitcher quickly endorsed this theory. "Pine tar will give you more spin rate," he texted. "I never took a start without it. I tried many things, but I never had the same success I had with pine tar.
"It's really good in cold weather. The only drawback is that some guys blister up with it. Those are the guys who would use something more lotion-based."
Pine tar is broadly viewed as a pitch enhancer, increasing spin rate in an era in which additional spin rate is measured and valued.
A lot of pitchers are using foreign substances out in the open, ignoring the written rules that Bauer referenced.
Opposing managers do not ask umpires to check for foreign substances because they know that some of their own pitchers are using them. Major League Baseball is certainly aware of the shiny forearms and dabs of stuff stuck in gloves -- anybody can see them -- and hasn't moved to enforce or rewrite the rules.
The enforcers of those rules, the umpires, don't check on their own volition. Heck, last April, a baseball stuck to the chest protector of Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, and it was widely assumed that Molina -- like other catchers -- wore a layer of pine tar to apply to the baseball in an effort to aid the pitcher. There wasn't any serious follow-up that we know of.
If this is the context -- if pine tar is more helpful than Bullfrog or resin or anything else -- then maybe Pineda had it right and his pitching brethren should follow his lead, with just a bit more subtlety.
• Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information sent along Cole's spin rate on his four-seamer from recent seasons. So far this season, his spin rate on his fastball has jumped up to 2,332 from last year's 2,163, which had been consistent with 2016 (2,178) and 2015 (2,157). The spin rates on his curveball and changeup have remained almost identical from year to year, but his slider has dropped significantly, from 974 to 669.
News from around the major leagues
Two-way star Shohei Ohtani is the talk of baseball with his power stuff on the mound and his power at the plate. But his abbreviated outing against the Red Sox on April 17 illuminated a concern that some scouts had about him on the mound -- when he struggles for command of his fastball and splitter, he has trouble making in-game corrections. Said one evaluator: "When it's ugly, it can get really ugly."
• Kenley Jansen’s outing against the Nationals Saturday night must have served as great relief for the Dodgers, because his first outings had raised significant concern. Instead of the diminished 90-91 mph velocity that he had shown, he instead threw 94-96 mph, and more importantly the late horizontal movement on his cut fastball was restored. In his previous outing, in San Diego, Jansen blew a two-run lead, giving up a home run along the way on a 90 mph fastball to Eric Hosmer. Jansen had focused on some mechanical adjustments, the consistency of his landing spot on the mound and the question of whether he was maximizing the extension in his delivery. Whatever Jansen rediscovered, it worked.
• Bryce Harper will reach free agency in the fall, and it's possible he'll draw 10-year offers like that signed by Alex Rodriguez -- and the Dodgers could have interest. But since Andrew Friedman assumed control of L.A.'s baseball operations, his best offers have been four- and five-year deals -- so rival execs speculate that if the Dodgers get involved in the Harper bidding, they could aim for a shorter-term deal for a record-setting salary upward of $40 million per year. Harper and the Nationals face the Dodgers on Sunday Night Baseball.
• The Orioles' deficit in the AL East standings has already reached double digits, meaning that Baltimore's front office can consider its trade options conscience-free: It could dangle shortstop Manny Machado early in the season, rather than waiting until the July 31 trade deadline. The same could be true for the Royals and third baseman Mike Moustakas, and the Rangers with future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre and left-hander Mike Minor.
When a team starts terribly in the way that the Orioles have and possesses a marketable player like Machado, most general managers will wait for executives of struggling teams to call them, rather than initiating contact themselves.
"You don't want to seem like a vulture," said one GM.
But rest assured, other teams are watching closely.
• New Red Sox manager Alex Cora met with Mookie Betts Jan. 4 and raised the idea that Betts could be more aggressive at the plate and look to attack pitches early in the count. Betts initially looked very uncomfortable with the concept early in spring training, rival evaluators reported at the time. But he has adapted, and this season he's batting about .500 when he hits the first or second pitch of his at-bat.
Armed with this new approach of hunting pitches early in the count, the Red Sox's lineup has greatly reduced its rate of strikeouts and has the fewest of any team, by far.
The team that had the fewest strikeouts in 2017? The Houston Astros.
• Through Friday's games, Didi Gregorius was the AL leader in walk/strikeout ratio at 2.80 -- a small sample from this season for sure, but a dramatic departure from his first five seasons in the big leagues, when his ratio ranged from a low of 0.23 in 2016 to a high of 0.57 in 2013. Gregorius drew a walk in his first plate appearance Saturday against the Blue Jays, his 14th base on balls this season; his career high is 37.
Baseball Tonight Podcast
Friday: Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins talks about the choices Toronto made in this offseason, the impact of Curtis Granderson, and superstition; Tim Kurkjian about the Matt Harvey situation and the Red Sox; Jessica Mendoza on the concern over Kenley Jansen.
Thursday: Keith Law assesses the Reds' decision to fire manager Bryan Price and grades the rebuilds for the Phillies, Padres, Braves and Reds; Jesse Rogers talks about Anthony Rizzo's comments about a shortened season and the future of Joe Maddon; Sarah Langs plays The Numbers Game.
And today will be better than yesterday.