It wouldn’t be baseball in October without one of the game’s annual rituals: Social-media sleuths deciding that a Major League Baseball player is cheating in the postseason.
This time it’s Boston Red Sox pitcher Matt Barnes, who was one of the relievers the Red Sox called on to secure their win Sunday night in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros.
Videos have been circulating that allege there’s a foreign substance on Barnes’ arm that many believe to be pine tar. A pitcher cheating in the postseason? It’s type of sexy headline that the sites like Breitbart will pick up and will have someone at Barstool Sports screaming that Barnes needs to be punished.
Here’s the video:
— cody (@CodyDaeschner) October 15, 2018
Does it look like pine tar? Yeah, could be. Pine tar or otherwise, is there a good chance that Barnes is putting a foreign substance on the ball? Sure.
Here’s the big question: Is that “cheating” and should Barnes be punished?
That’s far more complex and calls into question how the game governs itself and how closely baseball follows its own rules in 2018. And before we dig into it, we all need to understand a few things:
1. This is MLB’s rule as it pertains to doctoring the ball: “No player is permitted to intentionally damage, deface or discolor the baseball by rubbing it with any type of foreign item or substance, including dirt or saliva. Failure to follow this rule will result in an ejection and an automatic 10-game suspension.”
Seems pretty straightforward. What we’ve long considered the spitball or putting Vaseline on a ball like Gaylord Perry, that’s against the rules and cause for ejection and suspension.
Which brings us to the next thing you need to know. And hold on to your retweet button, Twitter detectives.
2. Pitchers doctoring the ball happens all the time. Like every day. And nobody cares.
You can see how these two ideas might be at odds. The rules say one thing, but in the actual baseball games that happen 162 times per year, something very different occurs.
Here’s the truth: Baseball is long past the spitball and Vaseline era. The modern game accepts that pitchers use foreign substances to get a better grip on the ball. (Most of the time, they use a sticky substance made from sunscreen and rosin).
Hitters accept it because it means there’s less chance of an errant 95 mph fastball flying at their face. Managers don’t complain because — guess what — their pitchers are doing it too.
In fact, the only way this becomes an issue anymore is if a manager complains to an umpire, who then has to go check whether a pitcher is using a foreign substance, which they probably are. Umpires don’t look for this unless a manager asks. This is how Michael Pineda got caught a few years ago and was suspended. Even though, again, it happens all the time.
Baseball governs itself on this matter. If you’re doing it and not causing too much attention, nobody cares. If someone like Pineda goes too far, the occasional opposing manager has to check him. One thing that doesn’t happen is a Twitter mob causing such a commotion that baseball changes its norms.
When asked about the video making the rounds Monday, Astros manager A.J. Hinch — whose team, remember, is the supposed victim in this — took a hardline stance. Just in the opposite direction you might be expecting.
“Honestly it’s not even something that’s crossed my mind,” Hinch told reporters. “There’s so much difference between doctoring a ball versus kind of what goes on nowadays. And we’re living by the rules in which we live by.”
There’s another good reason the Astros might not want to crow about this too much. Because they’ve also been accused of doctoring baseballs to get more spin on them.
Those accusations came earlier this year from Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer, one of the few people in baseball who is adamantly against pitchers using foreign substances to get a better grip. He started a Twitter fight with the Astros this spring about the idea, and often tweets about it, including in the aftermath of the Barnes video circulating.
Because we have hard data now showing that it’s a massive performance enhancer. And it’s technically illegal. Meaning the players who choose to play by the rules are at a massive competitive disadvantage and could be suspended if they choose to use it.
— Trevor Bauer (@BauerOutage) October 15, 2018
Take away Bauer and you’ll find plenty of baseball players, hitters included, who aren’t upset about this entire idea. Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller talked to a number of MLB stars about it earlier this year and they almost sounded like a broken record.
“I’m all in favor of it. If there’s a guy out there that needs it, I’m all for it. I don’t want to get hit in the head or the face. So whatever they need out there, I’ll let them have it.”
“Obviously, you want a pitcher to have control of the ball. You don’t want a ball up and in when everybody’s throwing 100 nowadays. There’s mixed feelings, obviously, throughout the clubhouse and throughout baseball with this. For me, it’s a different feeling when you’re in the box and you know the pitcher doesn’t know where [the ball] is going, as opposed to if a guy knows where it’s going.”
“I use pine tar on my bat so the bat doesn’t slip out of my hands. So a pitcher can use pine tar on the ball so it doesn’t hit me in the face.”
The reason this seems to become a bigger deal in the postseason is that there are more eyes on every game, since they’re all on national TV and eager fans are examining every single move.
If you recall, there was a controversy about this during the 2013 World Series and fans wondering last year about Dodgers pitchers having pine tar on their hats. So it’s nothing even close to new.
Let’s go back then to the original question: Is this “cheating” and should Matt Barnes be punished?
If we’re following the letter of the law, then yes, probably. But if we’re following baseball norms in 2018, the answer is much different.
1. Is Matt Barnes cheating? Not really, just breaking rules that are broken every day.
2. Should he be punished? No, not unless he decides to walk out in Game 3 of the ALCS and yells “Hey, everyone, I’m putting pine tar on the baseball” through a megaphone while he puts pine tar on the baseball.
For baseball in 2018, that might be too egregious.
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