Michael Pineda's ejection from Wednesday night's Yankees-Red Sox game for having pine tar on his neck has presented Major League Baseball with an opportunity. It has become clear that the official rules concerning exactly what a pitcher is legally allowed to apply to his fingers in order to improve his grip on the ball are out of step with commonly accepted practices within the game. Given the volume of debate about those rules in the wake of Pineda's use of pine tar in his last two starts against Boston, this could be a flashpoint for those rules to finally be brought up to date.
After Pineda's April 10 start against the Red Sox, the one in which he had an obvious glob of pine tar on the heel of his pitching hand but was not ejected for it, I wrote in this space about the degree to which the use of a sticky foreign substance to help pitchers get a grip on the ball in cold weather has become an accepted part of the game. Indeed, Boston's primary complaint after that start, in which Pineda dominated for six innings, wasn't that he had used pine tar, it was that he was so obvious about it.
"Everybody uses pine tar," said David Ortiz, one of the hitters who had to face Pineda that night. "It's not a big deal."
"I have pine tar on my bat," said Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "That's a non-issue."
"Typically, you're not trying to be as blatant," said Red Sox manager John Farrell, a former major league pitcher and pitching coach, after that game. Before Wednesday night's contest he added, "I would expect that if it's used it's more discreet than the last time."
"I just think you don't want to flaunt it," said Boston reliever Chris Capuano.
Broadcasting Wednesday night's game for the YES Network, retired pitchers Al Leiter and David Cone, the latter of whom pitched for both the Yankees and Red Sox, both admitted keeping a sticky substance on their belt to improve their grip in cold-weather games.
SI's own Tom Verducci said it plainly in his column about Pineda in the wake of the Yankee righthander's ejection for using pine tar Wednesday night:
Wake up, people. It's already allowed. Nobody enforces the actual rule that is on the books against any and all foreign substances. A small amount of pine tar, shaving lotion and/or sunscreen has always been allowed by the established etiquette of the game. Pitchers are using substances as grip aids and nobody -- not even the hitters -- has a problem with it.
Again, Verducci's criticism of Pineda wasn't that he broke the rule, but that he wasn't shy about doing so.
This seems like a highly problematic and generally unfair position in which to put pitchers, telling them that this practice is allowed but not legal. We'll all look the other way, even if we know you're doing it, but if you're too obvious, you'll get ejected and suspended for more than a week (the Rays' Joel Peralta was suspended eight days for using pine tar in 2012 and the standard minor league suspension is 10 days).
Verducci doesn't think this necessitates a rule change, but I disagree. As glacially as baseball moves with regard to rule changes, it has shown in recent years that it is not immovable and it is not above codifying common practices that are technically against the rules.
The most recent example is the neighborhood play at second base. It has long been an accepted practice for middle infielders to take their foot off of second base on the double play pivot before actually catching the feed from their double-play partner so as to avoid injury caused by the runner sliding into the bag trying to break up the play. With the advent of instant replay, however, there was concern that such plays would be reviewed resulting in the runner being safe, which would in turn force pivot men to stay on the bag and lead to an increased number of injuries on such plays. Baseball's solution: "the fielder's touching of second base on a double play" is not a reviewable play.
Moving closer to the subject at hand, baseball changed the rule concerning a pitcher going to his mouth on the mound prior to the 2010 season. Before the rule change, pitchers could only to go their mouth, typically to lick their fingers for grip in cold weather, if they walked completely off the mound and onto the infield grass. In 2010, however, that changed, allowing pitchers to go to their mouth on the mound provided they were not in contact with the pitching rubber and wiped their hand on their uniform before touching the ball.
What's more, even prior to 2010 this exception to Rule 8.02(a)(1) was in place:
EXCEPTION: Provided it is agreed to by both managers, the umpire prior to the start of a game played in cold weather, may permit the pitcher to blow on his hand.
Then there's this other bit of language from Rule 8.02(a) that I cited after Pineda's last pine-tar-stained start:
Rules 8.02(a)(2) through 8.02(a)(6) Comment: If a pitcher violates either Rule 8.02(a)(2) [expetorate on the ball, either hand or his glove] or Rule 8.02(a)(3) [rub the ball on his glove, person or clothing] and, in the judgement of the umpire, the pitcher did not intend, by his act, to alter the characteristics of a pitched ball, then the umpire may, in his discretion, warn the pitcher in lieu of applying the penalty set for violations of Rules 8.02(a)(2) through 8.02(a)(6). If the pitcher persists in violating either of those Rules, however, the umpire should then apply the penalty.
The "foreign substance" portion of Rule 8.02(a) is subsection 4, so that is not covered in the above, but the easiest fix here would be to add subsection 4 to the above comment so that, in a situation such as Pineda's Wednesday night, the umpire has the option to warn the pitcher, giving that pitcher an opportunity to wash off the offending substance (or hide it better) and remain in the game.
More aggressive fixes would be to follow the paths laid out by those other recent rule changes. In order of leniency:
- Allow substances to be used if "agreed to by both managers prior to the start of a game played in cold weather."
- Allow pitchers access to a substance kept on the bib of the mound near the rosin bag (a foreign substance pitchers are already allowed access to during games but that only benefits them in hot weather when the rosin can be mixed with sweat) provided they don't load up either on the dirt or on the rubber.
- Change the rule so that the use of a sticky substance (as opposed to a slick one, which can be used to throw a spitball, or a rough or sharp object, which can be used to scuff the ball) is not an offense that can result in an ejection, laying out either some lesser penalty for detection, or none.
If pitchers are going to use this stuff anyway, and almost every one within the game is okay with it, and it is an ongoing practice that dates back decades, then baseball should adjust the rule book to reflect that fact. That way pitchers like Pineda, whose worst crime is getting caught, aren't forced to pay a significant penalty for doing something everyone else is also doing.