Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Peralta’s Pine Tar Problem and the Gripe of Grip

I wasn’t going to comment on the current suspension of Rays pitcher Joel Peralta. My initial thought was that he did something wrong, got caught, and had to face the reaper. It happens. But then I started unraveling the sweater and peeling back the layers. The situation is far stickier than I thought (pun intended).

First of all, why now? Peralta has pitched for the Rays since 2011. No one before the Nationals brought up the fact that Peralta utilizes pine tar on the pitching mound. Why did it take Nationals manager Davey Johnson to play that card? Why didn’t one of Peralta’s former teammates, perhaps from an American League team the Rays play more often and in more meaningful contests, drop the hint to their respective managers? Or did those players say something and their manager not execute?

Looking at the 2010 Nationals pitching staff, there aren’t many candidates who now pitch in the AL, as many of the National staff have remained with the team or are out of baseball. But there are a few. There is former Nats closer Matt Capps, currently pitching for the Twins; current Tigers pitcher Collin Balester; and Brian Bruney, who pitched for the White Sox in 2011. Of the three, I would think former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen would be the best candidate to try to get an upper hand on Joe Maddon. But in 2011, Guillen’s last in the AL before heading to Miami, Peralta pitched scot-free. Perhaps Bruney never saw Peralta’s proclivity for pine tar during his time with the Nationals.

But the problem isn’t “who dun it?”, but rather “why now?”. Was it, as JoeRaysFan pointed out, a continuation of the Davey Johnson – Whitey Herzog feud from 20 years ago? If so, that is not only awesome, but very pro wrestling-esque of Johnson. Has anyone contacted Herzog for a quote?

This whole mess has brought up a lot of huffing and hawing from both those who say Peralta is an old-school cheater and those who say it is not a big deal. According to Jason Turbow, Sports Illustrated writer and author of a book on baseball cheating, pine tar is part of “baseball’s competitive process” and Johnson should only have requested Peralta remove the sticky substance from his person and return to the pitcher’s mound. Johnson, as Turnbow points out, even used the tactic before, asking umpires to check Dodgers reliever Jay Howell during the 1988 playoffs. Like Peralta, Howell was ejected.

What Turnbow fails to mention, however, is perhaps Johnson’s move was psychological. Perhaps it was simply a way for one elder grandmaster to take a chess piece away from a younger master. In a sport where managerial decisions play a key role, removing an option, especially from someone as calculating as Maddon, could potentially swing a game.

Is Johnson opening up the can of worms Turnbow insists he is? Possibly. Is it malarkey that a pitcher can be ejected for using something that aids his grip on the ball? Again, possibly. But the bottom line is that although pine tar does not give the illegal aerodynamic advantage of sandpaper or vasoline, it is still illegal by the rule book.

Of course, the most effective way a pitcher can avoid the possibility of an opposing manager signaling the umpires to check him is to not use pine tar.

If only it was that simple.

In the LA Times, former Major League relief pitcher Brandon Donnelly came to the defense of Joel Peralta (h/t DRaysBay). According to Donnelly, pitchers frequently use pine tar to ensure the ball does not slip out of their hands and possibly lead to an injury. Turnbow also uses a Chris Carpenter quote to the St Louis Post-Dispatch that echoes Donnelly. It is a valid point, as no one wants to see anyone hurt, especially from a 90+ mile an hour fastball.

However, there is already a rule and action taken by umpires in a regulated setting to ensures slippage does not happen. Inacted in the 1920s after a Carl Mays pitch slipped and killed Ray Chapman, MLB Rule 3.01c states:

The umpire shall inspect the baseballs and ensure they are regulation baseballs and that they are properly rubbed so that the gloss is removed.”

Before every game, baseballs are rubbed in a special goop made from mud originating in a top secret locale the Delaware River. This special goop has been made by Lena Blackburne and his clan of special mud masters for years, and is approved and sanctioned by Major League Baseball.

Hence the illegality of pine tar.

But the monopoly of mud from a top secret location given to umpires and used in a secret room before a game leaves several questions that need to be asked.

Who watches the umpires rub the balls? Is there a proper way to rub the balls? Is there a ball-rubbing regulator? (Sorry, but these questions need to be asked!)

Who ensures the process is followed? Has anyone researched the mud? Is there an independent body that regulates the mud? According to the mud people, the composition of the mud is a secret. So could it be less thick in some years? Who represents the pitchers in the preparation of the mud?

Besides former Tigers hurler Kenny Rogers, we don’t often see starting pitchers using pine tar. Maybe the baseballs used in the early innings have a better grip than those used later in a game. Umpires have so much to do before a game, it seems difficult to believe that one of them spends time to rub down enough baseballs for an entire game’s use. Maybe they run out by the later innings. How many baseballs are prepared per game? What about the next game? Are they re-rubbed before the next game if they are not used? I would be curious to see if there is any grip resistance difference between new baseballs put in play in the first inning and baseballs put in play by the later innings.

What about rosin? Pitchers have the rosin bag to dry their hands in case of sweat. The powder from the rosin bag is supposed to help grip. Is Peralta a frequent rosin user? I don’t think I have ever seen the rosin bag replaced in a game. Could it be empty by the time set-up men come into the game?

We know MLB regulators have their flaws, as evident in the Ryan Braun steroid debacle, so why not make the pre-game baseball-rubbing process open and transparent, especially if the actions of the players on the field are dependent on it?  We could have a situation, perhaps even this year if the Nationals advance to the playoffs, where a manager uses the pine tar tactic to have an ace reliever tossed from a key postseason match-up. Imagine if it swung the outcome of a World Series.

If Peralta and Donnelly are to be believed, what we have here is not pitchers trying to get an unfair advantage in regards to ball movement. They are not trying to alter the normal flight of the ball. If we take them at their most honest, they are just trying to get a grip. And perhaps getting a grip is a legitimate gripe.