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Major league baseball’s unwritten rules are brewing up trouble again

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This particular brew consists of pine tar and rosin. A sticky situation, as it were.

Arizona Diamondbacks v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Only a year after the Houston Astros sign-stealing scheme damaged Major League Baseball and cast further aspersion on the league’s ability to police itself, the next self-inflicted wound may already in progress. And once again it’s going to be caused by the game’s unwritten codes.

Pitchers have always used a bit of the tacky stuff on their fingers. This has been common practice going back to the game’s origins. Trace amounts of pine tar under the hat or in the glove, patches of Bullfrog sunscreen on the arm to mix with rosin, these are long-accepted practices in baseball despite violating the letter of the rules. The unwritten rule is generally that you can’t embarrass the league with a big gob of pine tar, a spit ball, or any overt nonsense on the mound. Loading up the ball is against the unwritten rules. Getting a good grip on the ball is not, and even hitters generally appreciate the courtesy, lest a 100 mph heater that slips out of the pitcher’s hand comes screaming toward their head.

Mike Trout, Adam Jones, and Bryce Harper are all quoted as being in favor of the practice, and again, this is one of the things that most players have historically understood as sensible, if not a textbook application of the rules. As Jones states, “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.”

However, the strict rulebook interpretation says that you can’t use anything but the rosin bag. Rosin does little besides dry a pitcher’s hand, which can actually inhibit grip to a degree. Now the clash between these two rulesets, the rulebook versus accepted practice, is primed to get ugly.

Harkins v. Angels

Back in February of 2020, Chris Young, who at the time was MLB vice-president of on-field operations, issued a memo to teams strongly reiterating the rule against foreign substances. The memo was intended as a warning that after decades and decades of looking the other way, MLB intended to finally crack down on the practice.

As a result, Brian Harkins, for parts of four decades a clubhouse attendant for the Los Angeles Angels, was fired by the Angels back in March after MLB brought it to the Angels' attention that Harkins was supplying a mixture of pine tar and rosin to pitchers. Harkins claims that he was never informed of the memo or told to alter his practice by the Angels.

On January 7th, Harkins legal representatives released a January 2019 text message from star pitcher Gerrit Cole as part of their suit against the league for wrongful termination. The message is plainly a request for Harkins particular blend of rosin and pine tar. Harkins also revealed numerous well-known pitchers who he claims have used his mixture through the years. The list includes Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, and Corey Kluber, among many others.

According to Harkins, he was taught a specific method to make the sticky stuff by former Angels closer, Troy Percival. He would melt rosin and two types of pine tar together in the bottom of a soda can to create the mixture. And apparently his product was favored by many pitchers and word of mouth spread. The mix was available to both home and away teams in Angel Stadium, and custom orders were placed by pitchers around the league, presumably going back years if you buy his testimony.

Enforcing the rulebook as market manipulation

Now, whatever comes of Harkins case, the league is about to shoot itself in the foot here, and possibly implicate most of its pitchers, particularly the best ones, in a self-created cheating scandal. They’ve always known this was going on, and as long as pitchers were judicious in their usage of the sticky stuff, weren’t loading up the ball, and kept things generally out of view, few had an issue with it.

For several years now, the league has explored ways to end the practice. The proposed solution was to develop a tackier cover for the baseball to avoid any loss of grip to pitchers. Back in 2017, baseball manufacturer Rawlings was asked to develop a cover that was easier to grip. At last word, that project has yet to come to any fruition.

The goal should be uniformity. All pitchers should be working under the same conditions. If they can ultimately develop a ball that is grippier, that would be an ideal solution. The problem is that if the league suddenly decides to really crack down on everything but the rosin bag, some pitchers are likely going to struggle, perhaps flipping the league on its head in terms of who is good and who isn’t. And for fans, the story of those guys who can’t adapt to the sudden enforcement is going to be that they have just been cheaters all along.

By punishing Harkins, without actually enforcing the new standard as of yet, nor finding another way to maintain pitchers’ grip, the Angels and the league have opened up a whole can of trouble. A lot of fans aren’t going to buy that this is just yet another weird understanding major league baseball has with itself that the rulebook and the unwritten standards don’t have to match up.

The effect could also be far-reaching in terms of future performance, as some pitchers will presumably be fine without it, while others may find themselves with diminished stuff relative to other guys. Further, since the advent of spin data, the league has commodified spin at every level of the game. Differences in spin rates have become a deciding factor in selecting one pitcher over another in the draft, between signing pitchers with high spin rates to higher salary deals than lower spin guys. The effect may subtlety re-shape everything we know about who has great raw stuff and who doesn’t.

Trevor Bauer v. Gerrit Cole

Of course, we can’t discuss a baseball controversy without Trevor Bauer’s name coming up. Back in 2018, Bauer called out Cole and a few other Houston Astros pitchers, noting that Cole’s four-seam spin rate had suddenly jumped upon his acquisition from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bauer intimated that Cole had either started using pine tar or something similar for grip, or at least had found a better product, in Houston. For many around the game, the accusations were presumably somewhat baffling, as it was hard to imagine that Bauer wasn’t using something himself, or at least aware that most pitchers were doing so.

Bauer appeared to provide confirmation of the pine tar effect when, for a single game in April 2018, his four-seam spin rate suddenly jumped by about 300 rpm, and then returned to his usual range around 2400-2450 rpm for the rest of the season. While he didn’t acknowledge anything at the time, most took it as proof that Bauer hadn’t previously been using anything on his fingers. As his own research had indicated that using a sticky substance was the only way to substantially boost spin rate, the inescapable conclusion was that he’d tried it out for a single game to make the point clear.

Fast forward to 2020, when Bauer won the National League Cy Young award with his best season ever. His four-seam spin rate averaged 2776 rpm according to Statcast. In 2019, it was 2416 rpm. As a result of this dominant campaign, Bauer is fielding huge offers in free agency. You can draw your own conclusions about that.

As it happens, baseball did not see widespread declines in spin rates in 2020. Presumably, and despite the league memo which bit Mr. Harkins, pitchers went about their business the same way. But if things change and a letter of the law approach is actually enforced, without another alternative to maintain grip presented, we’re liable to see real chaos as the result. In the meantime, the lawsuit stands to give major league baseball another black eye.

Two rulesets don’t work for gamblers either

Beyond even the game’s credibility with fans, there also conflicts and further entanglements possible from major league baseball’s recent partnerships in the gambling business. If people start the 2021 season betting on certain outcomes based on past performance, and strict enforcement of the no foreign substances rules suddenly has a marked effect on them, how are you going to react when you’re suddenly losing money to the league’s gambling partners as a result? How is that not the house rigging the game? The more you get people literally invested in specific outcomes, the more fallout is possible when you quietly change the conditions the game is being played under.

Other issues with the gambling partnerships are going to rear their ugly head with other elements of the unwritten rules as well. Witness the kerfuffle over San Diego Padres superstar Fernando Tatis Jr.’s decision to swing 3-0 in a game against the Texas Rangers back in August. With the Padres already holding a big lead and the bases loaded, Tatis hammered a 3-0 fastball to right field for a grand slam, and found himself shamed for it. The vague unwritten rule says that a hitter should take such a pitch with a big lead, and his own manager and veteran teammates like Eric Hosmer ended up apologizing for their own superstar player hitting a grand slam.

Obviously, this is somewhat ridiculous on its own, but think of the thousands, perhaps millions, in daily fantasy baseball dollars that may have changed hands as a result of that home run and the fantasy points involved. Profiting from gambling on baseball, while at the same time accepting that a star player should lay down on a 3-0 pitch is a weird grey area. It’s unlikely to be appreciated by fans who bet on players legitimately competing hard at all times. Just another example of the ways in which the gambling interests are going to focus attention on these “nod and a wink” understandings between the rulebook and common practices.

Thus far, the only victim of the league’s memo on foreign substances appears to be Mr. Harkins. But the publicity his case is getting has the potential to cause major headaches for the league, and incur another round of distrust from baseball fans. Whether the letter of the rulebook, or the unwritten rules, the league has to stop having two sets of rules. How they’re going to manage to do that in this case without fundamentally altering the game in an instant remains unknown.